DESTINED TO WITNESS
By Hans J. Massaquoi
Morrow. 443 pp. $25
Reviewed by Melvin Jules Bukiet
In the aggregate, the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust have undergone what Alvin Rosenfeld has called (in another context) a "double-dying," by retroactively losing their individuality as well as their lives. Likewise there's a perception out there that all unhappy survivors are alike, of a stripe. But every one of these people's stories has an element of the unique, even miraculous. Every one can say something like, "I went out to the barn and when I came back my entire family was gone." Among these unique tales, however, few are as extraordinary as that of the former managing editor of Ebony Magazine, Hans J. Massaquoi, who was born in Hamburg in 1926 to a German mother and an African father whose own father was a Liberian tribal king.
Massaquoi's memoir, Destined to Witness, is essentially an interracial Bildungsroman set against the background of the twisted cross. Unlike James McBride's or Danzy Senna's stories of growing up in a mixed household, Massaquoi's book aims to contain not just questions of identity and memories of prejudice but the densest historical trauma. He quotes the German minister of agriculture, who wrote in 1933, "It is essential to exterminate the leftovers from the black Shame on the Rhine." He never forgets the statutes that theoretically sentenced him to death during the 12-year reign of the thousand-year Reich.
Defying these statutes merely by breathing, Massaquoi experienced a rather charmed war. Yes, strangers looked at him curiously, neighbors mocked and cursed him, and various schoolteachers let him know in no uncertain terms that he was non-Aryan; yet he wasn't hunted down or carted away. Instead, he hung out among Hamburg's "swingboys," who danced and played jazz throughout the 1940s. Certainly, we can empathize with this dance on the edge of doom; but that empathy is undermined because, despite the perpetual sense of threat, he still felt and acted, well, German. Indeed, he yearned to enlist in the Wehrmacht and seemed to suffer more from the army's rebuff than anything else.
When Massaquoi left Hamburg, he stayed with relatives in Salza, location of the Dora missile research center and concentration camp. There he saw trucks full of Jews arriving and empty trucks leaving. Still, he insists that "it wasn't until after the war had ended that I -- and the rest of the world -- learned the dark; horrible secret" of a place "only a fifteen-minute walk from where I lived." Perhaps the naive and frightened youth kept awareness at bay, but the "rest of the world," especially the residents of Salza, simply must have known, or chosen not to. Even when Massaquoi appropriately turned against the racist mania that consumed Germany, he consistently imputes his own innocence to other Germans, avowing, "I suspect that the vast majority of the men in my neighborhood became involved with the Nazis for reasons that had little to do with ideology." This reader suspects the exact opposite.
Still, one can't help but feel for an adolescent adrift in the midst of vast historical turmoil. His father left the family in the early 1930s, and Massaquoi and his mother had to fend for themselves as World War II began. They took refuge in shelters when Hamburg was bombed during "Operation Gomorrah" in late 1943. To earn a living, Massaquoi worked in a series of factories and later, quite fearlessly, entered the postwar black market, in which smuggled cigarettes were the only currency. His strength and resilence are so impressive that Destined to Witness takes on the quality of a true-life Horatio Alger book titled "Destined to Succeed." It's here, in his entrepreneurial adventures, in his multiple romantic escapades, in his restless peregrinations that finally led to his father's Africa and ultimately the United States, that Massaquoi's memoir becomes an entirely engaging story of accomplishment despite adversity.
In Liberia, he discovers that his family is part of a ruling elite that essentially owns the nation. He calls on the president for help in settling a family quarrel -- and sleeps with the president's girlfriend. His relatives are ministers and judges of the Supreme Court, but he still has to live in a miserable shanty where he contracts malaria. It's a journey worth telling, and he tells it with gusto.
Obviously Massaquoi was a decent man in an indecent era, but a reader still wishes for a more complex worldly knowledge. What Massaquoi doesn't quite realize is that for all the pain of his personal history he may have had it better than just about anyone else. If he had been a Jew, he would have been killed; if he had been a "pure" German, he might have become a teenage killer; and if he had been in America, he would have undergone the oppression of that pre-Civil Rights era. The very title he has chosen for his memoir describes his outsider status, but a man destined to witness may never quite participate and may never fully understand the awful events he witnesses.
Melvin Jules Bukiet's most recent books are the novels "After" and "Signs and Wonders" and an anthology, "Neurotica." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.