The forgotten Black victims of the Nazi era | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 07.09.2021

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The forgotten Black victims of the Nazi era

Of the 75,000 commemorative stones dedicated to victims of the Nazis, only four of them remember Black people. Their experience of persecution was largely erased.

A Stolpersteine with fresh flowers, commemorating the fate of Ferdinand James Allen.

A new Stolpersteine now commemorates the fate of Ferdinand James Allen

Africans are the forgotten victims of Nazi Germany, says Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst, professor of African Studies at the University of Cologne. Their persecution under the Nazis is definitely "not emphasized enough," she adds.

It is difficult to estimate how many Black people were living in Germany when the Nazis took power in 1933. While many of them originally came from Germany's short-lived colonial empire in Africa (1884–1920), it was actually "a diverse and still quite a mobile population," says Robbie Aitken, a Sheffield Hallam University professor who is specialized in Black German history. "And already around 1933, some Black men and their families had left Germany because of the rise of the Nazis." 

Another important group of Afro-Germans became known as the "Rhineland Bastards," which was the Nazis' racist and derogatory label for children who were assumed to have been fathered by French Army personnel of African descent while they were stationed in the Rhineland after World War I. 

"If we include the 600-900 Rhineland children, there were at most 1,500-2,000 people who we can call residents," says Aitken, adding that many more Black men and women were also temporarily based in Germany at the time, working as performers, athletes or diplomats. 

Watch video 42:36

They called them "The children of shame"

'Stolperstein' memorials for four individuals

In Germany and some other European countries, there are more than 75,000 commemorative Stolpersteine, or "stumbling stones," which are small brass plates installed in the pavement to mark the names and fates of victims of Nazi persecution.

But so far, Germany only has four of those plaques dedicated to the Black victims of the National Socialist regime.

That small number of Black people commemorated with a Stolperstein actually just recently doubled: Two cobblestone-sized memorials were added at the end of August in Berlin, in remembrance of Martha Ndumbe and Ferdinand James Allen.

The ceremonial event brought together people from different Black initiatives and decolonization movements.

Gunter Demnig, the artist who came up with the idea of those commemorative stones, also took part in the ceremony, and he carefully inserted the stones in front of the last houses where the victims lived before they were arrested by the Nazis.

Martha Ndumbe died at the Ravensbrück concentration camp

The ceremonial event first started at Max-Beer Strasse 24, in front of the house where Martha Ndumbe lived before being imprisoned.

Martha Ndumbe was born in 1902 in Berlin. Her father, Jacob Ndumbe, came from Cameroon, whereas her mother, Dorothea Grunwaldt, was a German from Hamburg.

Martha's father came to Germany as a participant in the First German Colonial Exhibition in Berlin. After the end of the exhibition, he stayed in Berlin, where Martha was born.

A Stolpersteine with fresh flowers commemorating the fate of Martha Ndumbe.

Martha Ndumbe was born in Berlin in 1902 and died at the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1945

When Martha was growing up in Berlin, discrimination made the social and economic situation for most Black people in Germany precarious, and it was impossible for her to find a decent job. "She turned to prostitution and petty crimes for her survival," says Robbie Aitken, who also documented the case of these two individuals.

The Nazis imprisoned her for being an "asocial professional criminal." On June 9, 1944, she was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she died on February 5, 1945.

Ferdinand James Allen was euthanized

The second stone inserted on that day was at Torstrasse 174, the final address of Ferdinand James Allen, who was born in 1898.

His father, James Cornelius Allen, was a Black British musician from the Caribbean and lived in Berlin. His German mother, Lina Panzer, also came from Berlin.

Ferdinand was also struggling for survival as a Black person; he additionally suffered from epilepsy.

He was sterilized under the Nazis' 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. According to Aitken, it was also due to his health and biological condition that he was killed at the Bernburg psychiatric hospital on May 14, 1941, as part of the Nazis' campaign of mass murder through involuntary euthanasia, known as Aktion T4.

Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed died at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp

With these two new Stolpersteine installed on August 29, Berlin now has three such memorials for Black victims of Nazi Germany.

The first one was installed in 2007, for Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed.

Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed was born in 1904 in Dar es Salaam, the current financial capital of Tanzania. At the time, the city was part of German East Africa, which included present-day Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. He worked there as a child soldier for the German colonial army and later on moved to Berlin in 1929, shortly before the Nazis took power in 1933.

Two photos and details about a man called B. Mohamed Husen, one of him dressed as a colonial soldier and the other, wearing a suit.

The case of Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed, also known as Bayume Mohamed Husen, was investigated by historian Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst

Struggling economically as he faced discrimination, Mahjub had to take on several jobs, including working as a Swahili teacher, a waiter in hotels and an actor in various colonial films.

The Nazis accused him of "transgression of racial barriers" for having affairs with German women and sent him to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1941. He died there on November 24, 1944.

His commemorative stumbling stone can be found in front of his last home, Brunnenstrasse 193 in Berlin, where he was arrested.

Commemorative stones for Black victims

These three commemorative stones are not far away from each other, in Berlin's district of Mitte, where most Black Berliners were living in the time, according to Robbie Aitken.

"It was mainly poor Black communities, and even when they had money, they were not invited to live in other places," points out Berlin-based Tanzanian activist Mnyaka Sururu Mboro.

In addition to Berlin's three stumbling stones for Black victims of Nazi persecution, there is a fourth one in Frankfurt at Marburgerstrasse 9.

It commemorates a South African, Hagar Martin Brown, who was born in 1889 and brought to Germany to be a servant in an aristocratic family. During the Third Reich, doctors used him to test medical chemicals, which led to his death in 1940.

An ongoing research process

Professor Robbie Aitken, who is the co-author of a book on the topic, titled Black Germany: The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community, is pursuing his research on the Black experience in Nazi Germany for a future work. 

Historian Robbie Aitken giving a speech during the installation of Martha Ndumbe's stolperstein on August 29, 2021

Robbie Aitken giving a speech at the commemorative ceremony

The historian still manages to uncover some forgotten cases by investigating reparations claims made by Black victims in the postwar period.

"I hope there are more Stolpersteine to come at some point," he says. "There were clearly more Black victims, but the difficulty is in finding concrete, document evidence to prove victimhood. This is difficult because of the Nazis' destruction of records." And, he adds, the rare remaining documents are also hard to locate.

Watch video 42:30