DESTINED TO WITNESS by Hans J. Massaquoi


My Odyssey
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Massaquoi, of mixed African-German parentage, came of age in Nazi Germany; he depicts the trauma of his childhood, and his improbable survival of it, in a nuanced, startling memoir. As a small boy, Massaquoi was “fascinated and moved” by Hitler and seduced by Nazi busywork and organized pageantry. Thus he felt exceptionally betrayed upon realizing that there was no place for a “non-Aryan” such as himself in the Reich. Although his devoted mutti protected him fiercely (his father had returned to Liberia), he encountered virulent abuse at school and was dehumanized by the Nuremburg Laws, which essentially barred him from public life, whether from a playground or from the Hitlerjugend, which all his chums joined. Things became much worse during the war years, when, perversely, he repeatedly escaped the worst fate by a hairbreadth. This included nearly being discovered “race mixing” by the SS and surviving the protracted fire bombing that leveled his beloved Hamburg. Massaquoi’s unique, pathos-filled childhood in extremis is rendered superlatively, as is his portrait of a prewar Germany giddily embarked on its own destruction; he keenly perceives both the nefarious ambiguity and the human tragedy inherent in this civic embrace of evil. Also, his depiction of postwar anguish, and his own emergence as a hipster black-marketer befriended by cynical, reefer-smoking black GIs among whom he was thrilled to “pass,” is highly engaging. Less so, however, are the instances when his narrative turns ’soft” or vaguely contemplative; the interesting tale of his eventual repatriation to Liberia to meet his volatile, powerful father is necessarily less profound than earlier chapters. Massaquoi later immigrated to the US; a journalist, he was managing editor of Ebony magazine. Although the bizarre singularity of the child Massaquoi’s plight is central to the work, it is the journalist Massaquoi’s close eye for the subtleties of personal and social behavior, as well as a rather daring digressive structural and prose style, that makes this unusual tale both substantiative and memorable.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-688-17155-9
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1999


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