January 27 is the UN’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Commemorated to remember the liberation of Auschwitz, largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers
But I am writing this post in February. Black History Month. We must remember the victims and the survivors of African descent who were persecuted by Nazis because their skin was darker.
“Jews were responsible for bringing Negroes into the Rhineland, with the ultimate idea of bastardizing the white race which they hate and thus lowering its cultural and political level so that the Jew might dominate.”
Words by Adolf Hitler, from his diatribe, Mein Kampf (My Struggle)
One day in June 1933, about a dozen SS officers abducted 24-year-old performing artist Hilarius Gilges in the city where he grew up, Düsseldorf, Germany. The son of a German textile worker and an African man of uncertain origins, Hilarius had caught the attention of the Nazis because of his political affiliation and his mixed-race identity. Nazi SS officers (SS stands for Schutzstaffel, the elite paramilitary and surveillance organization established by Adolf Hitler in 1925) tortured and killed Hilarius. The murder is marked as the first death in Düsseldorf under Nazi Germany. Today, a plaza in Düsseldorf named after Gilges in 2003 is situated not far from a plaque commissioned in 1988 to commemorate the life of the slain Afro-German.
Louis Armstrong called her “Little Louis” and described her as the world’s best second best jazz trumpet
player after him. Even W.C. Handy, the father of blues, dubbed her the “Queen of the Trumpet.” Valaida Snow was a gifted singer, dancer and instrumentalist. She also played cello, bass, violin, banjo, mandolin, harp, accordion, clarinet, saxophone. You may not have heard of her, because she spent many of her heyday years abroad in Europe. She was a bright musical sensation. But, in 1939, something dark happened. Valaida’s friend and fellow performer, Josephine Baker – who was a French Resistance fighter- pleaded with her to return to America with a vehement warning about the Nazis. But Valaida traveled to Denmark, one of the first countries that the Nazis invaded. Snow was arrested by the Nazi Germans and kept in a concentration camp at Wester-Faengle. After 18 months she was released as an exchange prisoner and returned to New York, near death and weighing only 65 pounds. Snow went back to the stage but she already psychologically scarred and was never the same again.
Jean Marcel Nicolas
Jean Marcel Nicolas, a Haitian Creole, was arrested by the Gestapo (Nazi Secret Police) in Paris and charged with collaborating with the French resistance. In 1943 he was sent to Fresnes prison, then transferred to Royallieu concentration camp near Paris. On January 1, 1944, he was registered at Buchenwald and given the number 44451. In October, he was transferred to Dora, then Mittelbau. Then he was transferred again to the subcamp Rottleberode. On April 4, 1945, approximately 2,000 inmates were marched from Rottleberode to Niederachswerfen, Germany. The inmates then embarked on two trains ostensibly for another camp. Nicolas was reportedly on one of these trains. After an Allied air attack, the trains had to be abandoned at Mieste and Zienau. At this point Nicolas disappears from history. (Excerpted and adapted from The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Abraham Peck.
Lieutenant Darwin Nichols
The African American pilot from Portland Oregon, was pronounced missing in action September 12, 1944. He was incarcerated in a Gestapo prison in March 1945. Blacks incarcerated by the Nazis (especially prisoners of war, who were kept separate from white POWs) often faced greater maltreatment than white inmates. It is believed that he was killed trying to escape. He fell into the Lahn river. His body was identified in June 1945. He is buried at the The Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium.
In 1941, Gert Schramm’s father, a black man from America who traveled to Europe to work at a construction company, was arrested for violating racial purity laws and having a child with a white German woman. In 1944, that black man’s 15-year-old son, Gert Schramm was arrested by the Gestapo. The number 49489 was tattooed on his left arm at Buchenwald camp. Somehow, he survived and is one of the few still alive to tell his story.
Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed
Tanzanian native Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed (also known as Bayume Mohamed Husen) was a young soldier serving in the German colonial army in German East Africa. After World War I, he moved to Germany, married a woman from the Sudetenland. Like many blacks in Germany at the time, he was cast in films that needed black people. Mohamed had sexual affairs with several German women and had children with them. The Nazis did not like that. Mohamed was arrested and charged with racial defilement. He languished in Sachsenhausen concentration camp without trial. He died there three years later.
Bin Adam is the first black person given a memorial in Germany as a victim of genocide by the Nazis. A memorial erected in 2007 stands in front of the house in Berlin where he lived. He is the subject of the book Truthful Till Death by Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst.
When we talk about the Holocaust and the horrors of the Nazi regime, we remember the persecution of the Jews. I was introduced to Anne Frank in my adolescent years. I spent many days engulfed in her diary. The imprints of my tears are still between the pages. It’s a book that I cherish til this day.
I watched La vita è bella “Life Is Beautiful” in my high school senior literature class. I wished I could meet a man as funny as Guido Orefice, the Italian Jewish waiter and I wondered if I was as dainty as his lover, Dora. The little boy was one of the cutest I had ever seen. And when the Americans came to rescue him, I couldn’t stop smiling.
The Jews, the homosexuals, the handicapped and mentally disabled, the Roma- all victims of Hitler’s vision of the master race.
However, there’s another set of people who we overlook over and over again.
People of African descent.
Children of African parentage
What happened to them?
The Nazis did not have any systematic plan to eliminate them, but the Nazis did not make life easy for them either.
But let’s go back in history.
There were not many blacks in Germany before World War I. After the war, the number of black in Germany multiplied. After defeat, Germany lost all its African colonies and as part of the peace Treaty of Versailles, Allied forces occupied its Rhineland region in Western Germany along the Rhine River. Black soldiers from French African colonies were deployed in Rhineland, alongside French troops. Firpo Carr in Germany’s Black Holocaust: 1890-1945, estimates that over 200,000 French troops occupied the Rhineland region. We don’t know how many of them were black. Many of the black soldiers came from Senegal, Morocco and Algeria.
The presence of black soldiers exacerbated racism and social hysteria among native Germans, who viewed their presence as an invasion.
Conservative voices blamed the black soldiers for raping and murdering German women. The panic attracted the attention of women’s rights activists and religious groups who advocated for the withdrawal of the black troops.
“It is a serious violation of the laws of European civilization to use black troops to occupy the territory of a people as civilized and intelligent as the Germans,” stated Friedrich Ebert, president of the Weimar Republic.
“The Nazis, at the time a small political movement, viewed them as a threat to the purity of the Germanic race,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Racist propaganda against black soldiers depicted them as rapists of German women and carriers of venereal and other diseases.”
Even Pope Benedict XV asked for the removal of black troops in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson came under pressure to oversee the withdrawal of the black soldiers in Europe.
“The crimes supposed to have been perpetrated by the black soldiers of the occupation forces- as we know now from the original records – were no more significant than the crimes of white soldiers. However, the basic fear of the “anti-colored” movement in Germany, in Europe and in the United States was the possible impact of black people on the European social order and its culture,” writes Professor Pommerin.
More black people immigrated to Germany after World War I from former German colonies. They came to Germany as colonial officers, students, artisans, performing artists and former soldiers.
Soon enough, black men and German women admired one another, some fell in love, some got married…
“The German government kept officially silent about these children for several reasons. First, the voluntary liaison of a German woman with a black soldier did not fit into the national concept of German womanhood.”
Professor Reiner Pommerin, The Fate of Mixed Blood Children in Germany, Published in German Studied Review. Vol 5, No 3 (Oct. 1982) pp. 315 -323.
…and some had babies…
The children of black men (particularly black soldiers occupying Rhineland) and German women were called “Rhineland Bastards” or the “Black Disgrace” or “Rhineland Mischlingers” (mixing their blood with “alien” races).
Even before Adolf Hitler became the Reich Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the estimated 25,000 people of African descent living in Germany in the 1920s (a relatively small community in a country of about 65 million) already endured intense discrimination and were not allowed to acquire jobs in many places, particularly the military.
The Afro-German community was “a thorn in the Nazi’s eye, and bizarrely linked in Hitler’s mind to the Jews.”
Black people (and people of African ancestry) living under the oppressive Adolf Hitler regime in Germany and Nazi-occupied lands from 1933 – 1945 endured all manner of persecution from incarceration to torture. They were not allowed to attend universities. Several medical and anthropological studies denigrated black people to scientific experimentation.
Adolf Hitler was obsessed with the idea of racial purity and he was disturbed by the growing number of mixed race children. There were reportedly more than 800 such children in the Rhineland and Hitler wanted to get rid of them “because he considered them an insult to the German nation.”
“The mulatto children came about through rape or the white mother was a whore…In both cases, there is not the slightest moral duty regarding these offspring of a foreign race.”
Hitler in Mein Kampf
When the Nazis came into power, many interracial couples fled Germany with their children. Many were forced to separate and were thrown in prison and camps if they refused. Others were killed by the Gestapo or SS.
Their children were medically sterilized.
Sterilization & Medical Experimentation
Enthusiasts of eugenics gave long-winded quasi-scientific arguments about the inferiority of mixed children. The secret sterilization program was brought to light in 1979 with the publication of a book by German historian Prof. Reiner Pommerin called Sterilisierung der Rheinlandbastarde. Das Schicksal einer farbigen deutschen Minderheit 1918 – 1937. (Sterilization of the Rhineland Bastards: the fate of a colored German minority 1918 – 1937)
The growing population of mixed race children frightened and angered Nazis. In 1920, the popular publication Medical Review featured an article by Dr. F. Rosenberger. The doctor wrote:
“…shall we stand in silence and allow it to happen that in the future the banks of the Rhine shall echo not with the songs of beautiful and intelligent white Germans, but with the croaks of stupid, clumsy-half-animal and syphilitic mulattos?”
According to Professor Pommerin, many prominent members of society expressed alarm over the “Rhineland Bastards.” One Protestant minister wrote several letters to the German Minister of Interior, which provoked the Minister to launch an investigation into the Rhineland Bastards.
Pommerin reports that on April 14, 1933, nine weeks after the Nazis took over, Herman Goring, Minister of the Interior, ordered an examination into the exact number of mixed blood children in Germany. Doctors took photographs and measured the bodies of mixed children. Dr. Wolfgag Abel of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Antrhopologie noted “that their education level was lower than that of German children of the same age. He described the children generally as uneducated, disorderly and violent. But he did not find any ‘hereditary disease’ – nor did he have a solution to the problem,” according to Pommerin.
Then came the Nürnberg Laws.
Pommerin writes about how these laws which institutionalized eugenics and racial policy evolved to incorporate people of African descent:
“On July 14, 1933, a law was approved which sanctioned sterilization in cases
of ‘hereditary disease.’ An amendment in 1936 allowed sterilization of alcoholics, but it made no mention of sterilization for individuals of mixed race. Another law prohibited people with Jewish or black ancestors from being farmers – to prevent the inheritance of German lands by non-Germans. Yet another law restricted civil servant appointments to persons of non-Aryan descent. These new race laws caught the attention of foreign countries, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Their reaction caused the German Foreign Ministry to call for concentration of the laws ‘only on Jews.’ The laws were not changed by Frick, the new Minister of the Interior, was forced to make an official statement about the new German race policy. Because of this initiative on the part of the Foreign Ministry, the Nürnberg Race Laws of September 1935 incorporated the specification ‘Jewish’ in place of the earlier ‘non-Aryan.’ This was done in order to maintain friendly relations with countries with non-white populations towards some of whom Germany already harbored imperialistic intentions. Frick’s statement had emphasized that German efforts with respect to race were directed specifically towards Jews in Germany and were not intended to reflect a judgement on the quality of other races. The exclusion of black students from the swimming pool at Tübingen and the cancellation of contracts with black musicians, among many other steps, revealed the true direction of Nazi race policy. Meanwhile, a secret meeting had taken place in Berlin in March 1935.”
Pommerin reports that this group, called together by the Minister of Interior, met to discuss the “problem” of mixed raced children. Some of the attendants suggested sterilization to prevent the mixed race individuals from producing children, but there was still the fear of backlash from foreign governments. Others suggested sending the mixed race children to countries with large black populations and having them raised there. The German government give the children “10,000 German marks” as compensation or resettlement fare. But this suggestion was eventually let go because it seemed expensive. Pommerin reports that the committee eventually decided to sterilize the children in a “top-secret operation,” called Commission Number 3.
And so the sterilizations began…
“…these children were taken from their homes or schools without parental permission and put before the commission. Once a child was decided to be of black descent, the child was taken immediately to a hospital and sterilized…many times without their parents’ knowledge.”
“J.F., of German nationality, born September 20, 1920, living in Mainz, is a descendant of the former colored Allied occupation forces, in this case from North Africa, and shows corresponding typical anthropological characteristics, for which reason he shall be sterilized.
C.M.B., of German nationality, born July 5, 1923, living in Koblenz, is a descendant of a member of the former Allied occupation forces, in this case an American negro, and shows corresponding typical anthropological characteristics, for which reason she shall be sterilized.
A.A. of German nationality, born March 14, 1920, living in Duisburg, is a descendant of a member of the former Allied occupation forces, in this case a negro from Madagascar, and shows corresponding typical anthropological characteristics, for which reason he shall be sterilized.”
The Fate of Mixed Blood Children in Germany by Reiner Pommerin. German Studies Review. Vol. 5, No. 3 (Oct., 1982), pp. 315-323
Hans Hauck, a black Holocaust survivor, shares his sterilization experience in the documentary, “Black Survivors of the Holocaust”, also called, “Hitler’s Forgotten Victims. Hauck says he did not receive any anesthesia during the operation. After he received the sterilization certification, he was “free to go” and was told to ensure that he would not have sex with Germans.
Pommerin’s revelations did not attract much public attention. But, according to the news outlet Deutsche Welle, one politician of the Social Democratic Party was interested and sought the names of the victims. He proposed to compensate those who were sterilized and give them 3,000 German marks, ($2,190).
Afro-German women who got pregnant were force to have an abortion, writes Martin Smith.
I could go on about the incarcerations, the bigotry, the internment, the murders of black people in the Nazi regime, but I will round off here.
This Black History Month, let’s strive to learn new stories and unearth forgotten accounts.
USA Today gives a chilling account on the Germans’ “Massacre of 100 black soldiers.”
The story of the Liberian-German, Hans Massaquoi, who died at age 87 in 2013. He was a former managing editor of the American Ebony magazine and he wrote a memoir about his childhood in Nazi Germany. As a boy, Hans was sucked into the Nazi propaganda. Here he is in this iconic photo, the brown kid with a swastika stitched on his shirt.
His life was featured in a drama series that aired on German television a few years ago.
Read his story:
Growing Up as a Black Kid in Nazi Germany – A True Story Of A Liberian
Hans Massaquoi dies at 87; wrote of growing up black in Nazi Germany
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