Monday, February 3, 2014

Review: "Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany"

Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J Massaquoi
3 out of 5 stars

I added this book to my to-buy list almost exactly a year ago which happens to be when Massaquoi died. Maybe I saw an article about him and that sparked my interest in his memoir (what's the difference between a memoir and a biography?) but after searching in tons of bookstores for it, I finally just gave up and ordered it on Amazon over the summer. Then it sat on my shelf for months (I'm so bad about that!) and I finally decided I needed some serious reading for the new year. I read this for the whole month of January at work (minus the week I was on vacation) and while it was a long read, I never really lost interest in it.

As much as I hated history throughout school (I have a horrible memory for dates and places), I've always been interested in reading about Nazi Germany. How do you say you're interested in something that destroyed so many people? I don't know. Anyway, Hans Massaquoi's story was such a different perspective, one that I had never even considered, and I highly recommend it. And I'm sorry, Dad, but I still don't want to read Rise & Fall of the Third Reich. ;)

Hans Massaquoi was born in 1926 in Hamburg, Germany. He was the son of a white, German woman and black, Liberian man. After his father returned to Liberia to help Hans' political-minded grandfather gain the throne back, Hans was raised exclusively by his mother in a tiny one-room apartment. This stark change of scenery, from riches to rags essentially, made life difficult for Hans at first. "If...I believed that the universe revolved around me and that I was something quite rare and extraordinarily precious, I came by my belief honestly enough." He had spent the first 4 years of his life believing that his dark skin and curly hair were enviable assets and now he was learning a harsh new lesson in his predominately white neighborhood and school. After a few skirmishes with classmates and quickly learning to keep his mouth shut against racist teachers, Hans began to fit into his new life. And fitting in meant becoming a Hitler supporter.

Barely seven, I, of all people, became an unabashed proponent of the Nazis simply because they put on the best shows with the best-looking uniforms, best-sounding marching bands, and best-drilled marching columns, all of which appealed to my budding sense of masculinity.

It was so interesting and heart-breaking to read how Hans came to realize that he was classified as non-Aryan and therefore unable to join his friends in the Hitler Youth Movement. His struggles as a black child in white Germany continued thru his teen years and into adult-hood. Although he managed to escape serious harm or capture, he definitely did not have an easy time. I don't want to go into a lot of detail, because I think it's better if you read it yourself, but he got into plenty of trouble in school, work, and beyond. Hans also had good times though and worked to make something of himself, in honor of all his mother's hard work. His ultimate goal, like many Europeans at that time, was to move to America and have all the freedom it offered. Or so he thought.

During his time exploring a US Military base after the war with a black friend, he discovered "...racial discrimination was not only condoned but openly practiced by the United States government. As much as [he] hated the Nazis for it, somehow, their overt racism and refusal to accept [him] in their military ranks seemed more honest to [him] than the United States' lip service to democracy and eagerness to recruit blacks while keeping them at arm's length in segregated, low-status service units commanded primarily by whites. [His] newly created ideal of an America that had mounted and won a crusade to free the oppressed had received a severe, perhaps fatal blow."

This book has a good balance of serious and humor. " most self-respecting German men of his era, [he] wore the symbol of manhood, a heavy handlebar mustache." It did slow down a bit after adulthood, but Hans wisely kept that part of his story brief and succinct. I think it's an important lesson to realize that the Nazis' persecution did not just end with the Jewish people and I'm sure it is probably still not mentioned in schools.

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