The title of this entry may sound as the one of a tragic story, but it is my duty to inform you that this is not the case. Sad, clearly, specially when it reminds us of a dark period in the short existence of the human being, but at least the biography of this man had what we may call a happy ending. Being born and raised black in 1930’s Germany, more than a problem was an oddity and it was his condition which may have saved the life of today’s character.
Bertha Beatz was a young nurse when she arrived to Hamburg from a nearby town, where her mother had raised her and her nine siblings after being widowed at a young age. Not knowing anybody in the city, she soon found a job in a local public hospital, and she was happy. Happier she became in 1920 when she met Al-Haj, the oldest son of Momulu Massaquoi, Liberia’s general Consul in Hamburg. Al-Haj was a young student, handsome and sophisticated. The color of his skin was not an impediment for Bertha to fall in his arms. Nevertheless, he was studying Law in Dublin and the relationship seems that it was for him little more than an occasional entertainment when he went to Germany. Even though Bertha spoke with him about a possible marriage, he excused himself saying that his studies didn’t allow him the time to organize the great wedding expected for somebody with his lineage. In any case, on the 19 January 1926 the little Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi was born in Hamburg. Since the father was absent, it was Grandfather Momolu who invited Bertha and the baby to live in his mansion.
The first three years in the life of Hans-Jürgen went by within an affluent atmosphere surrounded by all the love lavished by the Massaquoi family. In a setting where his mother was the only white person, the boy barely realized his condition in an European country. As he grew up, however, he observed that in the streets people did set him out, specially women, who often came to him amazed, although always gushing over with expressions such as Wie niedlich! (how cute!) and caressed his skin and hair. Hans Jürgen thought that his features were an asset. The comfortable and pampered life in the Massaquoi residence came to an end when Momulu had to go back to Liberia due to political reasons. The old man, overfond with his grandson and with Bertha, invited her to move with them to Africa, but the boy’s doctors recommended not to take him to a country full of tropical diseases. Bertha kindly turned the invitation down.
A somewhat normal life.
They found a small room in the attic of a building, with no electricity or hot water. Bertha started working at a hospital while a retired neighbor from a flat below looked after the boy. Tante (aunt) Möller used to stroll with Hans-Jürgen through the city and it was with her that he discovered the world and that he was different from the rest. He was still the center of the attention, but the flattering was becoming ever more scarce. Hitler had not yet assumed power and the racial question was still absent from the German psique, but the boy remained an exotic character.
It was in 1922, in his first day at school, when HJ understood that his features could be a source of problem. During the break,a group of boys began making fun of him singing the chorus of an old song: “Neger, Neger, Shornsteinfeger” (nigger, nigger, chimney sweep). Suddenly, one of the boys got closer to him and caressed his hair while asking, why blacks grow wool instead of hair? Our friend responded with a kick to the offender’s chin and only the intervention of a teacher averted a major fight. In any case, HJ’s reaction sufficed to show the rest of kids the potential consequences of messing with their odd classmate and it never happened again.
Hans-Jürgen had a somewhat normal childhood. His friends, all white, did not give much value to the difference in the color of their skins. But the arrival of the nazis to power in 1933 would change everything in Germany and HJ would notice, with time, that the event would have consequences for him. At first, even the young Afro-German was impressed by nazi parafernalia, specially their elegant uniforms, their martial behavior and the large parades they often organized in the streets of Hamburg. For the boys it was little more than a game and Hans-Jürgen even asked Tante Möller to sew a swastika patch on his vest. However, he would soon open his eyes to reality when, at the age of 10 and like most of his friends, HJ tried to join the Jungvolk, the children’s branch of the Hitler Youth movement, but was not accepted. Two years later, his dreams of becoming an engineer were cut short when the school director falsified his student report, which was originally fairly good, so that he could not enter the Gymnasium, the secondary school which back then was the only path to university. All Hans-Jürgen could find was an apprenticeship in the metal shop of a neighbor, where he would remain for several years.
The atmosphere in the streets changed as the nazis strangled the German’s liberties. Hans-Jürgen still received furtive looks, but no more filled with curiosity or gentleness, but with scorn. By then, he had already realized that Hitler and his cronies were a threat and that he had to tread lightly. Once, after a massive rally in Hamburg, a member of the SA found Hans outside a bar in which the brown shirts were celebrating. The tug drag him into the local and his colleagues began mocking the young man. He was lucky that one of his neighbors saw what was happening and was able to warn Bertha, who came in “like a tiger” to face the large nazi and grab her child out of his hands. It was a close call.
Ironically, being Mischling, of mixed race, was a blessing for Massaquoi, for the army not only did not recruit him, but even rejected him when the young man tried to join the fight and die for his country.
As we know, WWII began well for the Germans, but soon things went wrong. In 1943 the winds of war arrived to Hamburg with a bombing raid on the 24 of July. Hans-Jürgen and Bertha survived the first days hiding in the basement of the building, but on the sixth day of the attack the bombs hit their target and the building collapsed. Mother and son survived again but until the end of the war they had to live in the ruins of their old home, scavenging to make a living. But again, they lived.
At the end of the war, Hans-Jürgen began playing the saxophone in the bars opened for allied soldiers and Bertha was able to go back to the hospital. In 1948, then 22 years old, HJ traveled for the first time to Liberia to meet his father and grandfather, whose family had fallen in disgrace. Still, they managed to get him a visa to study in the United States for one year, period which was extended due to his good grades. Then, due to an administrative error, Hans-Jürgen received a recruitment notice and ended up fighting in Korea, after which he went back to finish his journalism studies. Eventually he found employment with JET Magazine, a publication aimed to black people. He joined the Civil Rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King, got married and had two children, Steve and Hans-Jürgen. He capped his career as Editor in Chief of Ebony Magazine, also centered in African-American readers.
He went back to Germany in numerous occasions, the country he still called his Fatherland. he published his memories in 1999 with the title Destined to Witness, a story which was taken to the screens in Germany in 2006. Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi passed away on the 19 january 2013, on his 87th birthday.
P.S. I could write at least one more entry about the life of Jürgen Massaquoi, but you will understand that for the blog format this text is long enough. In any case, I have found a file with his book in PDF and the film in German. I leave you here with the links: