If you ask, most authors will tell you why they wrote their books. Hans J. Massaquoi's reason has more to do with others. "My friends knew about my life, and they kept asking me if I was going to write a book," says Massaquoi, retired managing editor of Ebony magazine. "I wrote it partly so they would stop asking."
Massaquoi's memoir, Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany , has been a best-seller in Germany. No doubt Massaquoi's former countrymen are fascinated by the unusual circumstances of his upbringing and his unique perspective of the Nazi era. He was born in Hamburg in 1926 to a German mother and a Liberian father. Massaquoi's father, Al-Haj Massaquoi, a student at Trinity College in Dublin, was visiting his father, Africa's first consul general to Germany, when he met Bertha Baetz, a nurse's aide. The couple never married, and Massaquoi's father returned to Liberia shortly after he was born.
Like many German schoolboys, Massaquoi initially embraced the Nazis, who had come to power in 1932. It was part of being a good German, and more than anything else Massaquoi wanted to fit in. He and his classmates "were attracted to marches, the military bands," he says. "Those things really attract young boys. We were really gung-ho. None of us, however, had the slightest idea what National Socialism meant. We were slowly and imperceptibly seduced."
Massaquoi got his first glimpse of Hitler in 1934, when he was eight. "I arrived at school to hear our third-grade teacher, Herr Grimmelshauser, inform the class that Herr Wriede, our Schulleiter [principal], had ordered the entire student body and faculty to assemble in the schoolyard." There, dressed in his brown Nazi uniform, Wriede announced that "the biggest moment of [our] young lives" was imminent, the privilege of beholding "our beloved Fuhrer Adolf Hitler with our own eyes." Massaquoi and his classmates lined the Alsterkrugchausse, one of Hamburg's main thoroughfares, where they cheered wildly as Hitler rode by in a black Mercedes-Benz convertible.
Despite his attempts to blend in, Massaquoi couldn't change his skin color in a land promoting the idea of Aryan superiority, and he was subjected to regular taunts from his classmates. His applications to join the Hitler Youth and later the army were rejected. The worst harassment came from Wriede. The principal, who grew a Hitler-style mustache and always wore his Nazi uniform to school on special days, constantly reminded Massaquoi that he didn't belong and relegated him to the sidelines of school activities.
But the Nazis were generally more concerned about "the Jewish problem" than they were about one black child. Massaquoi was close friends with one of the sons of a block warden, a quiet, unassuming man named Wilhelm Morell, whose unpaid position required him to report anti-Nazi utterances, collect money for Nazi charities, and pass out anti-Semitic literature. Yet, says Massaquoi, "I was included in most of the Morell's activities and treated almost like a member of the family....I had become a fixture in the home of the biggest Nazi on the block--in the lion's den, so to speak."
How could Morell act that way?
"Not all Germans were monsters," he says. "I wouldn't have survived if they were."
Many were critical of Hitler's regime. Massaquoi once overheard his mother complain to a friend about officials firing one of the best doctors at the hospital where she worked because he was Jewish. Later she was fired for not supporting the Nazis. At the machinist job Massaquoi was shunted into because he wasn't Aryan, his fellow workers often joked about the fuhrer and his crew's "family values," which included using illegal drugs and keeping mistresses.
The bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun were found in a bunker on April 30, 1945. "When the news flashed repeatedly over the radio at our shelter, it was met with neither jubilation nor sorrow, just monumental, yawning indifference," Massaquoi writes. "I was surprised by the reaction," he says now. "Here was a man who was regarded as a demigod. Most people said 'good riddance' when he died. At that point, however, jobs were scarce, young men were coming home in caskets, and there wasn't much food."
After the war, Massaquoi was reunited with his father in Liberia and stayed there until his father's death in a car accident three years later. In 1948 Massaquoi came to the United States on a Liberian passport and moved to Bartlett, Illinois, to live with his mother's sister. Massaquoi's mother joined them four years later. He was drafted into the army in 1951, and at the end of his two-year tour took advantage of the GI Bill to attend Elgin Community College and the University of Illinois, where he earned a degree in journalism.
Not long after his graduation, Massaquoi moved to Chicago, where John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publications, hired him to work for Jet. A year later, he transferred to Ebony, Johnson's flagship publication, and worked as a writer and editor, getting to speak with such leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. He retired from Ebony in 1997 after 39 years at the magazine and moved to New Orleans.
Massaquoi says the book was written in fits and starts. "I would write a few sentences or paragraphs and stick them into an envelope." Since the book's publication he has appeared in documentaries about the era and returned to Germany to make the rounds of radio and talk shows. Several of his old friends there called on his 74th birthday this past January to wish him well--and to thank him for the book.
--Frederick H. Lowe