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Making Afro-German history visible

Nadine Wojcik
August 10, 2023

The Afro-German Diek family has lived in Germany since the end of the 19th century, yet still experiences discrimination. Descendant Abenaa Adomako is adding a new chapter to the culture of remembrance.

Mandenga and Emilie Diek sit with their daughters Erika and Doris
In the 1920s, Erika and Doris Diek (left and right) attended a private elite schoolImage: Privatbesitz Reiprich

At an event hall filled to capacity, people were eager to hear Abenaa Adomako share her family history at a talk held as part of a new Berlin exhibition "In the Footsteps of the Diek Family. Stories of Black People in Tempelhof-Schöneberg."

Members of the Diek family have lived in Germany over the past 132 years. Their family history is a reminder of how Black Germans were already fighting for their rights during the colonialist era in the 19th century, later persecuted by the In the Footsteps of the Diek Family. Stories of Black People in Tempelhof-Schöneberg and then made invisible in postwar Germany. But in today's Berlin, they've begun developing a new self-confidence.

Three people on a stage at a panel discussion with first rows of audience listening.
Abenaa Adomako spoke at a packed hall about her family historyImage: Nadine Wojcik/DW

Digging into Black history is a way to fill a void and create connections, said Adomako. Together with her brother Roy and in close cooperation with the curatorial team of the Schöneberg Museum, she has created a personal family exhibition.

"My grandmother cooked us Königsberger Klopsen and eggs in mustard sauce [two traditional German dishes]," she pointed out at the talk, illustrating unexpected cultural contrasts and how the migrant family adopted local practices.

1st generation: Migrants from German colonies

The family has been in Germany for five generations, beginning with a young man called Mandenga Diek, who came to the country from Cameroon in 1891 and completed an apprenticeship as a shoemaker.

Black people were considered "exotic" in colonial times; his teacher had him work in the shop window. Mandenga then resigned, but established his own business.

In Gdansk, he married for the second time, to an East Prussian woman called Emilie.

He opened a "colonial goods store" and even supplied the German imperial court. He was a respected and well-known man, and his daughters Erika and Doris attended a private elite school.

Then, the Nazis seized power in 1933.

2nd generation: Afro-Germans under the Nazis

According to the Nazis' racial doctrine, the girls were no longer allowed to pursue their studies. Neighbors started insulting the family; the children could no longer spend time with their friends.

The Nazis then confiscated their passports. The Dieks continued to live in Germany, but were officially stateless. "The daughters suffered a lot from that. My grandmother wanted to become a doctor, but that dream was shattered," said Abenaa Adomako.

Mandenga Diek's property was expropriated and he lost his flourishing business. The Dieks survived, but the father died prematurely of a heart attack.

The oldest daughter, Erika, worked as an accountant and was tolerated as long as she remained hidden in back rooms.

Her younger sister, Doris, faced a harder fate: She was abducted for a few weeks to work at the Gdansk shipyard docks. Later, she narrowly escaped forced sterilization due to the help of a benevolent police officer.

Black-and-white photo, three women smile as they sit on a fence in an urban setting.
Luckily, easier times returned after the war. Here, Doris Diek is seen smiling with colleaguesImage: Privatbesitz Reiprich

Show business as a survival strategy

The spirited Erika fell in love with the actor Louis Brody. They married, had a daughter and moved to Berlin.

Brody, who also came from Cameroon, was one of the few Black actors to have an uninterrupted career in show business. He acted in around 60 films, but mostly as an extra; he had leading and speaking roles in only three works. Abenaa Adomako only knows her grandfather from his screen work.

The film world was a safe place for the Black actor; the entertainment industry offered one of the last income opportunities under the Nazi regime.

Women act as family anchors

But the roles assigned to Brody between 1933 and 1945 were mainly in colonial propaganda films, in which he had to portray "savages," degraded to the racist image of the "primitive" African. If he refused, he would have been banned from his profession or imprisoned in a concentration camp.

Women served as the real backbone of the family, starting with Emilie Diek, the East Prussian who staunchly stood by her Cameroonian husband and proudly raised her daughters.

The girls survived the persecution of the Nazis and, after the war, they kept the entire family together with an unbroken spirit.

For Abenaa Adomako, her grandmother Erika was an important anchor. "She often had visitors and her apartment was very lively," she said.

Black-and-white photo of women of different generations and ethnic backgrounds posing in front of a Christmas tree.
Woman power: Emilie Diek (left) with her daughters Erika (second from left) and Doris (second from right) and granddaughter Beryl (center)Image: Privatbesitz Adomako

3rd generation: A vacuum in postwar Germany

Erika and Louis had a girl, Beryl — Abenaa Adomako's mother.

In the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), Erika had experienced a more diverse and tolerant society. But Beryl, on the other hand, grew up in a postwar vacuum without a community. "Black life had been categorically wiped out. People had been killed or emigrated. That's why there was suddenly a painful gap," said Adomako.

Unlike Erika, Beryl was a rather reserved woman who fit in by basically making herself invisible. She fell in love with a man from Ghana, and together they had two children, Abenaa and Roy. "My mother always made sure that we behaved as inconspicuously as possible," said the Berliner, remembering her childhood.

4th generation: Taking over the fight

It took decades of work to free themselves from this self-effacement.

But Abenaa Adomako is all the louder today. In her early 30s, she became a co-founder of the Initiative of Black People in Germany. "We have found a place where we can strengthen ourselves and demand recognition. Nobody can get past us anymore," she said.

Abenaa Adomako, a Black woman smiling.
Abenaa Adomako is the founder of the Initiative of Black People in GermanyImage: Nadine Wojcik/DW

The community had to write the history of Black Germans themselves, as it had never been adequately documented. Compared to the United States or United Kingdom, for example, this process is still in its infancy in Germany, said Adomako.

Many African Americans, as descendants of slaves, can trace their family history in archives. Their stories are already well-established in the collective memory in the US, with Oscar-winning films such as Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple" or Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave." But that isn't the case in Germany.

5th generation: Modern Afro-German life

This past spring, two "Stolpersteine," or stumbling blocks, were installed at the last place of residence of Erika Diek and Louis Brody (whose real name is Ludwig M'bebe Mpessa) in Berlin, ensuring a greater visibility.

There are some 100,000 Stolpersteine commemorating those who suffered Nazi persecution throughout Germany, but these two are among the first six ever to be laid for Black victims.

Stumbling stones for Ludwig M'Bebe Mpessa and Erika Emilie Mpessa describing their fate under the Nazis.
These stumbling stones for Ludwig M'Bebe Mpessa and Erika Emilie Mpessa were installed in early 2023Image: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

Adomako's grandmother Erika, who died in 1999, did not live to see the commemoration. But her mother Beryl is very touched, she said. "She always cries a lot when I take her to our meetings," she said, adding that hearing Black people tell their stories was something she lacked throughout her life.

Adomako's daughter, Antonia Adomako, represents the fifth generation of the Afro-German family.

Antonia is now 24 years old and works as an artist in London. Her photographic works also deal with their family history.

While she was in school, a teacher placed Antonia in a "German as a foreign language" class, Adomako recalled. The decisive factor for the teacher's move was obviously the color of the child's skin.

Abenaa Adomako started taking her daughter to Afro-diasporic meetings and events as a young child, and has noticed how Antonia appears to be more relaxed about her identity than people of her own generation. "I'm more in combat mode, but her experience of diversity means that some discussions no longer arise," she said.

Unlike Abenaa Adomako's grandmother Erika, who was born in Gdansk, died in Berlin and never visited her ancestral homeland, Adomako regularly travels to Ghana, her father's birth country, to visit family.

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This article was originally written in German.