I retrieved “Destined to Witness” by Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi at my little neighbourhood library last autumn. But it’s been unread until this month. I thought Black History month would be a good opportunity to finally read this book and learn more about a part of Afro-German history I didn’t know anything about: The lives of Black Germans during the Nazi regime.
In this memoir Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi tells the story of his childhood beginning with his parents origins in the Liberian upper class and the German countryside. Born in 1926, as the grandson of an African diplomat the first years of his childhood are very privileged. After his father’s family leaves Germany he and his mother, a German nurse, move into a working class neighbourhood and then in 1933 the Nazis come into power. First, Massaquoi admires the Nazis but he learns fast that as a “Non-Aryan” boy he doesn’t fit into their ideology and idea of a German society.
Throughout “Destined to Witness” Massaquoi discusses the racism and marginalisation he experiences throughout his childhood and teenage years. He tells the readers about the war, the bombings, the post war years and how he eventually emigrated to Liberia and finally to the USA where he became a successful journalist at Ebony magazine.
This memoir is a moving, interesting and fascinating account of survival and resilience. Massaquoi’s narration is both touching and intelligent. This book made me angry and it made me tear up. My heart is full of gratitude that he shared his story and full of admiration for the bravery of him and his mother, a strong woman who always fought for her son.
For me one of the strongest aspects of “Destined to Witness” was how Massaquoi who survived the Nazi’s terror exposes the hypocrisy and contradictions of the US-American and British liberators whom he idolized yet criticizes. While the allies fought for democracy and against the racist society in Germany, they ironically seem to be blind towards their own racism: Namely the segregation in the USA and the British colonialism which Massaquoi witnesses in Nigeria.
While I absolutely loved this memoir, there is one thing I need to criticize and that is the German translation of the title. Originally published in English with the title “Destined to Witness” the German publishing house had the brilliant idea to change it into “‘N-word, N-word, chimney sweep!’ My childhood in Germany”. I understand that the publisher wanted to make the discrimination against Massaquoi obvious by quoting this racist rhyme. Still I am shocked and speechless that someone would deliberately use the German n-word and put in on the cover of a book. Even worse the book was turned into a movie of the same name in 2006.
Maybe there is some explanation for changing the title. Massaquoi was still alive at the time. So maybe he didn’t mind the German name. But I think the publisher should’ve kept the original title instead of putting the n-word of the cover of a book. Despite this aspect “Destined to Witness” is a wonderful, smart and moving book that I can highly recommend to all of you.