Falling Through The Cracks of the Holocaust How a black German kid of royal lineage survived in Nazi Germany and became a successful American journalist – By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Posted: June 22, 2014 in Shorts

Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi is unique. He is a former African king’s grandson, a German-American and an African-American, a skilled metal worker, a musician and an amateur boxer. He lived through the Nazi terror and Allied carpet bombings. In his childhood, some Germans taunted him while others protected him. Not being of “pure Aryan descent,” he was forbidden to attend high school, join the Hitler Youth or the Wehrmacht. But as an immigrant to the United States, he rose to a prominent position in the American press.

There was a time, two decades ago, when at virtually every reception at the German Consulate-General in Chicago, there was a fascinating character who looked “very Hamburg.” He was a slender, somewhat reserved and superbly attired gentleman with elegant gestures and what seemed to be a permanent tan.

He sounded “very Hamburg” too: “Ek wor mol wedder to Huus (I have been home again),” he would say in Plattdeutsch, the dialect of the German north.” His hometown, he insisted then as he does now at age 81, has always been and will always be Hamburg. “Home” these days is something else, though; “home” is the United States.

Meet Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, grandson of King Momolu IV, once hereditary ruler of the Vai people in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the 1920s, Momolu was Liberia’s consul-general in Hamburg, where his eldest son Al-Haj, a law student in Dublin, paid him frequent visits and met Bertha Baetz, a German quarry master’s daughter and a nurse’s aid.

Their love affair produced Hans-Jürgen, who would one day become managing editor of Ebony, the leading magazine for black Americans. Today Massaquoi says that he fully identifies with the culture and manner of speech of African Americans.

It might seem incongruous at first to see Massaquoi and his wife Katharine Massaquoi in their grand home at Ponte Vedra Beach, a gated community. Ponte Vedra Beach is in Florida, and Florida is in the South. Decades ago, after serving two years in the 82nd Airborne division at Fort Bragg, N.C., Massaquoi had sworn to never set foot in that part of the United States again.

But a lot has changed since his encounter with racism when, after crossing the Mason-Dixon Line on a southbound train, the conductor ordered him to move to a segregated “colored car,” screaming, “Go where you niggers belong,” he said. Now the Massaquois sense no hostility from neighbors and count an interracial couple among their best local friends.

He is German, she an African-American stewardess. Nobody seems scandalized by their union, which not long ago was a felony called “miscegenation.” From his childhood, Massaquoi still remembers the German word for this “offense” – “Rassenschande.” It was because of “Rassenschande” that his mother had lost her hospital position under the Hitler regime.

Their property borders a lake that is home to a stray alligator. That’s normal in these latitudes. What seems more extraordinary in this environment is Massaquoi’s study. A Hamburg flag and a poster showing Jungfernstieg, the city’s Fifth Avenue, decorate the walls. The bookshelves are filled with works in German, including a translation of W.E.B. du Bois’ classic, “The Souls of Black Folk” − Massaquoi’s copy is titled, “Die Seelen der Schwarzen.”

Though Massaquoi considers himself an African-American, he has not discarded his German heritage; indeed he has done less so than many white German immigrants. He saw to it that both his sons, Hans Jürgen Jr. and Steve, one a lawyer, the other a physician, became fluent in German.

And he taught his Louisiana-born wife to appreciate Hamburg culinary specialties, such as Bratkartoffeln (home-fried potatoes), “Labskaus,” a seafarer’s dish of corned beef, potatoes, herring, beetroot and onions fried in lard and topped with an egg done “sunny side up” and Rote Grütze, a fruit jelly made from blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and currants.

Have Massaquoi’s experiences as a black boy in Germany left no scars ? Well, that would be a stretch. “Unlike Jews, blacks were so few in numbers that they were relegated to low-priority status in the Nazis’ lineup for extermination,” he wrote in his memoirs, “Destined to Witness – Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany” published in 1999. “The allied military juggernaut… crushed the Gestapo executioners before they could put the finishing touches on their ethnic cleansing. Thus, I fell through the cracks of modern history’s most extensive, most systematic mass-murder scheme.”

“I witnessed the rise of one of the most oppressive governments ever devised by man…,” he added. “I observed first-hand how the Nazi poison transformed decent, caring, reasonable men and women into fanatical racists who approved the destruction of anyone and anything that did not conform to their vision of the world.” But Massaquoi says not all Germans were racists.

“That Germans as a people were more than willing to take their racist marching orders from a bunch of unscrupulous political opportunists headed by a bloodthirsty madman was often cited as proof that all Germans were tainted and thus culpable,” he continued. “I disagree. I know that a large number – unfortunately not enough to have made the crucial difference – remained decent human beings despite pressures exerted by the Nazi leadership… It is owing to some of these individuals who resisted the temptation to go with the prevailing flow of racial madness and who never regarded me as anything less than a worthwhile fellow human being that I survived largely unscathed.”

There was first and foremost his remarkable mother. In his book, Massaquoi tells the dramatic incident where Bertha stormed into a beer cellar filled with drunken storm troopers; “fighting like a tigress,” she rescued Massaquoi from the clutches of a brown-shirted kidnapper who was about to turn him into an exhibit of Rassenschande (miscegenation).

Massaquoi wonderfully contrasts the kindness he received from the sophisticated residents of Hamburg’s Rotherbaum section, where his grandfather resided, with the racist taunts from children shouting at him, “Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger” (Negro, Negro, chimney sweeper) in the working class district of Barmbek where he and his mother had to live in a gas-lighted flat with only cold water after Momolu and his entourage had returned to Liberia.

With humor he relates, though, that the kids from his neighborhood soon considered him, dark skin and all, as one of their own because at least he was Hamburg-born and not a “Quiddje,” as they derogatorily called out-of-towners. He enchantingly recounts his first romance with a high-ranking police officer’s daughter and then a lustful encounter with a woman who dismissed the Nazis’ racial policies with the unforgettable dictum, “They can kiss my backside.” Both took enormous personal risks getting involved with this non-Aryan.

There were teachers, such as his first elementary school principal, who never missed an opportunity to insult this black boy because of his ethnicity. But Massaquoi is quick to add, “Most were professional educators who treated me like everybody else.” One, Fräulein Beyle, assigned him a bodyguard so that he would not be attacked in the schoolyard.

Another told him at the height of the Nazi rampages in World War II, “Your skin color is of no concern to me.” Still another offered him free violin lessons, awakening in Massaquoi a musical talent, which in the post-war years, served him well as he earned a living as a successful saxophonist.

Hitler Youth leaders accosted Massaquoi with racist slurs while rejecting his application for membership but when a Hitler Youth commander tried to attack him at a dancing school, his instructor, a World War I lieutenant, stopped him with extraordinary civil courage, cooking up a glorious lie about Massaquoi. He claimed that this black teenager was the son of an officer in General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces in German East Africa, and therefore deserved respect.

Massaquoi came to the United States via Liberia, where his father had brought him after World War II. Massaquoi wanted to be an American ever since he had met black U.S. soldiers and sailors in Germany. He arrived on a student visa and was drafted by mistake. But he served his two years, and the one story he particularly loves to tell about his army days concerns white civilian barbers on the base in Fort Bragg.

They kept him waiting while cutting the hair of white soldiers, until the division commander showed up. “The general asked them, ‘Why don’t you take this guy?’ They replied they did not know how to handle a Negro’s hair. So the general dressed them down, ‘You will learn it right now, or you will be out of here,'” he snarled, according to Massaquoi, who is quick to add, “No German barber ever refused to cut my hair.”

Still, Massaquoi insists that he would not have stayed in America had he not always been confident even back then that things would turn for the better. And he witnessed improvements ever since covering the Civil Rights movement for black publications in the 1960s. Still one question lingers: What is left of Massaquoi’s German identity?

As a rule of the thumb, the best way to plumb ethnic identity is to find out in which language a person counts and prays. “I count in German,” he reveals. And how does he pray? “I am not a very religious man,” said Massaquoi who was baptized in a Hamburg Lutheran church. At this point, Katharine Massaquoi whispers with a smile: “Hans knows the Lord Prayer in German.”

– Uwe Siemon-Netto, a veteran foreign correspondent from Germany, is scholar-in-residence at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.

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