Hans Massaquoi, a former managing editor of Ebony magazine who wrote a distinctive memoir about his unusual childhood growing up black in Nazi Germany, died in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, his 87th birthday.
He had been hospitalized over the Christmas holidays, said his son, Hans J. Massaquoi Jr.
Inspired by the late Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” Massaquoi decided to share his experience of being “both an insider in Nazi Germany and, paradoxically, an endangered outsider.” His autobiography, “Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany,” was published in the U.S. in 1999, followed by a German translation.
Massaquoi was born Jan. 19, 1926, in the port city of Hamburg. His mother was a German nurse and his father the son of a Liberian diplomat. When his grandfather was recalled to Liberia, Massaquoi’s father decided to return to Africa too, but his mother insisted on staying behind.
Living with his mother, Massaquoi grew up in working-class neighborhoods of Hamburg. There were other black Germans, but not many; some were offspring of European colonial troops who occupied the Rhineland after World War I.
In his book, he recounted a story from 1933, when he was in second grade. Wanting to show what a good German he was, Massaquoi said he cajoled his baby-sitter into sewing a swastika onto his sweater. When his mother spotted it that evening, she snipped it off, but a teacher had already taken a snapshot. Massaquoi, the only dark-skinned child in the photo, is also the only one wearing a swastika.
He wrote that one of his saddest moments as a child was when his homeroom teacher told him he couldn’t join the Hitler Youth.
“Of course I wanted to join. I was a kid and most of my friends were joining,” he said. “They had cool uniforms and they did exciting things — camping, parades, playing drums.”
Germany was at war by the time he was a teenager, and he describes in the book the near-destruction of Hamburg during the Operation Gomorrah bombing attack in the summer of 1943.
Massaquoi had a theory to explain why he avoided deportation to concentration camps during the Nazi reign.
“Unlike Jews, blacks were so few in numbers that they were relegated to low-priority status in the Nazis’ lineup for extermination,” he said in a 2001 interview with London’s Independent newspaper.
After the collapse of Germany at the end of the war, he played saxophone in clubs that catered to the American Merchant Marine and worked as a translator for the British occupying forces.
Eventually he left Germany, first joining his father’s family in Liberia, before moving to Chicago on a student visa to attend an aviation mechanics school. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951 and served stateside during the Korean War. Afterward, he became a U.S. citizen, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois and began a career as a journalist.
He worked first for Jet magazine before moving to Chicago-based Ebony, where he rose to managing editor of the magazine aimed at African American readers.
Chicago author Studs Terkel interviewed Massaquoi for his 1984 book, “The Good War: An Oral History of World War II.” By the late 1990s, approaching retirement, Massaquoi decided to tell his own story in an autobiography.
He was surprised by its reception in Germany.
“I had expected some interest there, but this has surpassed all my expectations,” he told the Contra Costa Times in 2000. “I think the Germans want to get some closure about those years.”