Story of Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany Comes to TV | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 30.09.2006
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Culture

Story of Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany Comes to TV

The remarkable life of Hans J Massaquoi, a black boy who grew up in Nazi Germany, is being brought to German television in a precedent-setting two-part docu-drama to be aired on Sunday and Monday.

Close-up picture of Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi

Hans Jürgen Massaquoi is proud that his story is being told in a documentary

Massaquoi, now 79 and living in the United States, has become a celebrity late in life in his native country. His memoirs, entitled 'Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany,' became a best-seller nationwide when they were published five years ago.

Book cover by Massaquoi, a young black boy stands wearing a swastika among his Aryan classmates

Massaquoi's book

Massaquoi was one of the few blacks that lived in Nazi Germany. Unsurprisingly given the Nazis' intolerance of minorities, he experienced rejection from the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth Movement) as well as the local playground after learning they were not open to 'non-Aryans'.

"The Nazis put on the best show of all the political parties. There were parades, fireworks and uniforms - these were the devices by which Hitler won over young people to his ideas. Hitler always boasted that despite parents' political persuasion, Germany's youth belonged to him."

After the bombs started falling on Hamburg in 1943, Massaquoi and his mother were rejected entry to a bomb shelter after they tried to seek refuge. It was this particular moment more than any other which stayed with him as his life took him away from the country of his birth.

After the war, he emigrated to the United States, serving two years in the army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. He studied journalism at the University of Illinois, followed by a career at Jet magazine and then Ebony magazine, where he became managing editor.

Grandson of the Liberian consul general to Hamburg, Massaquoi was born in 1926 to a well-to-do African father and a German mother. His early life was one of privilege, befitting the grandson of a diplomat.

His circumstances changed dramatically when his father and grandfather returned to Liberia in 1929. Refusing to expose her sickly son to a tropical climate, his mother chose instead to raise her son in Germany as best she could on her meager wages as a nurse's aide. Suddenly he was not something special, he was something strange.

Re-living the past

Now that life as an anomoly in his home nation is being shown for the first time on German television.

Massaquoi said it was a shock to visit the set where his story was being produced and the memories that flooded back were "incredibly sad."

"My whole life I have tried to put my dark past behind me," he said. "But this television production has confronted me with unsettling memories of my childhood in Nazi Germany in 1935 that I had thought I had come to terms with."

Brutal treatment of blacks in Nazi Germany

Black and white image of Nazi soldiers marching at a parade for Hitler

Blacks had few rights and were excluded from the military

In contrast to German Jews or German Roma, Massaquoi was not persecuted. He was 'just' a second-class citizen, which was actually a blessing in disguise. During World War II, his 'impurity' spared him from being drafted into the German army.

Historically, the separation of whites and blacks was mandated by the Reichstag (German parliament), which in turn, enacted the outlawing of mixed marriages in the African colonies, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

African German mulatto children were marginalized in German society and completely isolated from university education, jobs including military service, social activities and economic support.

"With the Nazi rise to power they became a target of racial and population policy. By 1937, the Gestapo (German secret state police) had secretly rounded up and forcibly sterilized many of them. Some were subjected to medical experiments; others mysteriously 'disappeared'," the website further explains.

However, Massaquoi, who now lives in New Orleans, is still positive about returning to Germany: "It's always a home-coming for me. You can't believe how happy and proud I am that my story is being done for television.''

He added: ''It is so very important for young Germans to understand how precious freedom is."

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