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OT: Hans Massaquoi, 1926-2013

The life of Hans Massaquoi reminds us that not all heroes carry a gun, and that not all Black history is made in the USA.

hans massaquoi

On today, the start of Black History Month, we pause to mark the passing of Hans Massaquoi, who died last month in Jacksonville, FL.

Mr. Massaquoi achieved a lot in his 87 years. Musician. Journalist. Magazine editor. Author.

But perhaps his greatest single achievement was that he lived to be 87.

Mr. Massaquoi entered life as a biracial child in Germany, born to the son of a Liberian diplomat and a German nurse. When his father and grandfather both decided to return to Liberia, his mother opted to remain in Germany, and kept Hans with her.

He grew up learning German and adopting the culture of his birthplace, as would any other child. But he was born just as the national socialist movement was taking root in Germany, which destined him for a childhood like no other.

By the time he was seven — right around the time that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany — the young Herr Massaquoi saw himself being as German as the blond-haired, blue-eyed kids with whom he played and went to school.

As you’ll see when you read his story, it didn’t take long for the Nazis to disabuse him of that notion.

You can read the fascinating story of Mr. Masaquoi’s life in this Los Angeles Times story here.

Throughout his German youth, Hans Massaquoi lived a kind of twilight existence, shunned and scorned as a mixed-race kid, but not persecuted in the way he surely would have been had he been born a Jew or a Roma. As he once put it:

“Unlike the Jews, blacks were so few in numbers that we were relegated to low-priority status in the Nazis’ lineup for extermination.”

Then again, he also survived the Allied bombing of Hamburg as a teen during World War 2, despite being denied entry into a bomb shelter because of his dark skin.

hans massaquoi child

Nonetheless, his biracial status may have indirectly saved his life, twice — first, when the Nazis decided he was unfit for the Wehrmacht, the German army, and again, when they apparently concluded it was not worth the effort to pack him off to a Dachau, a Treblinka or a Bergen-Belsen.

Imagine, if you can, growing up in a country where the only reason you’re alive is because the government of mass murderers that runs the place considers your life to be so insignificant that it’s not even worth taking.

He survived the war and eventually made his way to the United States. And when he became an editor at Jet and then Ebony magazine, he viewed America’s racial prejudice and bigotry through the lens of his German childhood.

And that is but part of his remarkable story, a story known to few people until 1999, when he poured it all into a book entitled “Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany.”

How do we measure greatness? We have so many yardsticks for that. Titles claimed. Championships won. Honors bestowed, fame achieved, fortunes acquired. The size of one’s house or the number of cars in its garage. The extent of one’s influence.

But sometimes, the greatest achievement of all may be simply to survive, to face life and emerge whole. Mr. Massaquoi began life as a child in the belly of the Holocaust and came out on the other side strong and sane, as a black man.

Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi died on Jan. 19…his 87th birthday. His story, like the man who made it, will survive.

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