History should never be boring: if it is, you're doing it wrong. Whenever Black History Month rolls around, it always seems that the history being presented—Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman—is intended for people who don't know history at all. Maybe that benefits some people—"Tell me more about this Martin Luther King fellow!"—but I imagine a lot of people tune it out, because they already know. Which is too bad, because there is fascination aplenty when you wander off the well-worn paths of the overly familiar. This is one of my favorite columns that centers on black history, about a Chicagoan I imagine will be unknown to most.
Perhaps the best way to introduce Hans J. Massaquoi is to mention two huge crowds he finds himself part of at different times in his life:
The first is an ecstatic throng lining the Alsterkrugchaussee in Hamburg, Germany, in 1934, cheering and shouting sieg-heil as Adolf Hitler rides by in an open car.
The second is the immense audience gathered before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963 to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
That Massaquoi, 73, a former editor at Ebony magazine, was an enthusiastic participant in both events, and has fond memories of both King and Hitler, is a dramatic tribute to the mutability of human beings.
Massaquoi's story — of growing up black in Nazi Germany—is an incredible tale. Told in his new book, Destined to Witness (Morrow, $25), it would be ridiculous and improbable in fiction. But it is not fiction.
Just how Massaquoi ends up being born in Hamburg is itself fascinating. His grandfather, Momolu Massaquoi, is a tribal king in Liberia who loses his crown in a power struggle and is dispatched to Germany as Liberia's consul general.
Momolu's eldest son meets and romances a 16-year-old Hamburg girl, Bertha Baetz. They bring Hans-Jurgen Massaquoi into the world, without benefit of wedlock, on Jan. 19, 1926.
The waning days of the Weimar Republic are not typically painted in the rosy hues of Eden. But when you're a young boy, anywhere they feed and love you is idyllic, and young Hans is cooed over and adored as much as any tot can be.
Then the political wheels in Liberia turn, his father and his extended family scatter to various safe havens, leaving Bertha and her dark-skinned son to fend for themselves in Hamburg at the exact moment that the most monstrous racist regime in history is coming to power.
Perhaps the biggest shock of the book is: Life for Hans is not all that bad. Sure, urchins trail after him, chanting "Neger, neger, schornsteinfeger," ("Negro, Negro, chimney sweep"—the title of the book when it was published in Germany, where it was a best-seller). But he has lots of friends, and the Nazi machine, busy eliminating much more locally populous elements, never gets around to him.
Like his schoolmates, little Hans adores Hitler, and doesn't associate his occasional personal difficulties with his beloved Fuhrer. When his Tante Fatima —the only member of his father's family who is sometimes on the scene — asks him what he wants one Christmas, he requests a Hitler; Goering; Goebbels figurine set. And she buys it, despite the taunts of the toy store owner. (Fatima herself is a marvelous personage—a brilliant African woman who speaks six languages, she bops through Nazi Germany in a big afro and a leopard coat, an amazing anachronism, like watching a newsreel of the Nuremberg rallies and spotting Brandi on the platform).
As the 1930s progress, it dawns on Hans that he isn't quite accepted as a 100 percent German boy. The Kafkaesque horror common to such narratives creeps in. Jewish teachers at his school disappear. Hans isn't allowed to use the playground anymore. His mother loses her job.
The ironies and twists are too numerous to recount. Hans has a hard time shifting his loyalties from Max Schmeling to Joe Louis. He manages to survive the Allied bombing, which pounds much of Hamburg to smoldering rubble, then nearly is lynched by a mob mistaking him for an American flier.
The road from ruined Hamburg to his aunt's tarpaper shack in Barrington to Lake Point Tower is long, the story too incredible even to summarize. It left me wanting to know how Massaquoi, who two years ago retired to New Orleans, after nearly 40 years at Ebony, resolves all the conflicting sights and feelings and memories in his own mind. Do they reside easily or do they conflict: the proud Hamburger and the proud Chicagoan, the boy who begged unsuccessfully to be let into the Hitler Youth and the proud paratrooper with the U.S. Army.
"My life is so intertwined, so mixed up, I don't know if I've ever really unraveled it," he told me. "I sometimes wonder when I look back on my life how I can comfortably embrace the whole situation, all the experiences I had. But I feel quite comfortable with it. When I go to Hamburg, I feel like a local Hamburger. When I'm walking around Chicago, I definitely feel at home in Chicago."
Most accounts of World War II are horror stories, and rightly so. Which makes Massaquoi's exceptional tale all the more precious. Horror eventually numbs you, and it is reviving, and heartening, to learn of this intrepid black child and young man who, through a combination of guts, smarts, luck and a really good mother, manages to waltz through the darkest abyss of the 20th century and come out whistling.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 5, 1999
Postscript: Hans Massaquoi died in January, 2013, at the age of 87. His book was made into a movie in Germany.