Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

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The proudest moment of Hans Massaquoi's boyhood was when his babysitter sewed a swastika on his sweater. He was a seven-year-old boy in Hamburg in 1933 who wanted to be part of the excitement he saw. But when his mother got home, she snipped off the swastika. He also wanted to join the Hitler Youth. They had cool uniforms, Hans wrote years later, and they did exciting things - camping, parades, playing drums. His teacher told him that he couldn't join without quite saying why. So, when Adolph Hitler came to Hamburg the next year, Hans got his mother to bring him out into the throng that acclaimed Der Fuehrer. There I was, a kinky-haired, brown-skinned eight-year-old boy amid a sea of blond and blue-eyed kids, he wrote, filled with childlike patriotism. I cheered the man whose every waking hour was dedicated to the destruction of inferior non-Aryan people - like myself.

Hans Massaquoi's mother was a German nurse. His father was the son of Liberia's consul general in Hamburg left Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime. Hans Massaquoi and his mother stayed, hoping Germany would change. He once told Britain's Independent newspaper: Unlike the Jews, blacks were so few in numbers that we were relegated to low-priority status in the Nazis' lineup for extermination.

He loved music and became a Swing Kid, one of the small group of German teens who defiantly wore long hair, British tweeds and danced to jazz and swing music after it was banned as degenerate culture. When the war ended, Hans played saxophone in the Hamburg cellar-clubs for Allied soldiers, and came to the United States as a student in 1951, and served in the U.S. Army. He covered the U.S. civil rights movement for Ebony magazine, then became its managing editor. Hans Massaquoi had seen the work of bigotry in the land of his birth, and brought his sharp eye and rare experience to cover it in the country that became his home.

He wrote an acclaimed memoir, "Destined to Witness," in 1999, and it became a hit, especially in Germany. He had quite a journey in life, his son, Hans Massaquoi Jr., a Detroit attorney, said this week, after his father died at the age of 87. He also remembered him as good, kind, loving and fun-loving. Hans Massaquoi lived to become not just a footnote in history, but a figure of note.


SIMON: Fats Waller. You're listening to NPR News.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small