Hans Massaquoi, who grew up black in Nazi Germany, dies at 87

Hans Massaquoi, a 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 Jan. 19, his 87th birthday.

He had been hospitalized over the Christmas holidays, his son, Hans J. Massaquoi Jr., of Detroit, said, but he did not disclose the cause of death.

In an interview in 2000, Mr. Massaquoi told the Associated Press that he credited the late Alex Haley, author of “Roots,” with persuading him to share his experience of being “both an insider in Nazi Germany and, paradoxically, an endangered outsider.”

Mr. Massaquoi’s autobiography, “Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany,” was published in the United States in 1999, and a German translation was also published.

Mr. Massaquoi’s mother was a German nurse, and his father was the son of a Liberian diplomat. He grew up in working-class neighborhoods of the port city of Hamburg.

He recounted a story from 1933, when he was in second grade in Hamburg. Wanting to show what a good German he was, Mr. Massaquoi said he cajoled his babysitter 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 could not 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 described in the book the near-destruction of Hamburg during the “Operation Gomorrah” bombing attack in summer 1943.

He wrote about becoming a “swingboy” who took great risks by playing and dancing to versions of American swing music, which was condemned by the Nazi regime. After the collapse of Germany at the end of the war, he said he was able to save his mother and himself from starvation by playing the saxophone in clubs that catered to the American Merchant Marine.

Eventually he left Germany, first joining his father’s family in Liberia, before going to Chicago to study aviation mechanics. He was drafted into the U.S. Army while on a student visa in 1951. Afterward, he became a U.S. citizen and eventually became a journalist.

He worked first for Jet Magazine before moving to Chicago-based Ebony, where he rose to managing editor before retiring in the late 1990s.

— Associated Press

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