Monday, August 6, 2012

Researching Blacks in German Concentration Camps

Jean Voste: black inmate at Dachau,n.d.
Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies
Nazi Germany and Black Prisoners
If you’ve visited the US Holocaust Museum, you probably already know this: Blacks were incarcerated in the German concentration camps along with Jewish prisoners.  We are all familiar with the Jewish treatment - it was systematic resulting in worldwide knowledge. But, five million non-Jewish prisoners died in Nazi concentration camps to include black people who were also persecuted, sterilized and murdered. The irony is your ancestor may have been one that suffered, but then again, your veteran ancestor may have been significant in the liberation of the concentration camp prisoners.

Good News - Liberators
Thirty five US Army divisions are recognized by the US Holocaust museum for their assistance in liberating concentration camp war prisoners.  Ten units were noted for liberating major camps, but the remaining troops assisted in the liberation of prisoners held at the sub-camps. For example, Mauthausen in Austria was a major camp, but Gunskirchen was a subcamp of Mauthausen.  The 761st Tank Battalion (an African American tank unit), under the command of General George Patton, participated in the liberation of Gunskirchen, May 1945. We know that many black soldiers were witnesses to the concentration camp atrocities, but few people know much about the Africans and African Americans who were incarcerated and actual records are hard to find. So we must rely on the recounts of the stories by the victims or witnesses.

History of Black Germany
The importance of the purity of the German race was expressed before WWI. The German parliament (Reichstag) had placed a law barring mixed marriages in the German African Colonies early. Many are not aware that Germany established colonies in Africa: present day Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania and Namibia in the 1800’s as did the other western European nations..

By the time Hitler was in power, there were between 20 - 25 thousand black people living in Germany. Many Africans worked for the imperial colonial government and came to Germany or attended school or worked as entertainers having made Germany their home. Some were even French African soldiers who married, had families,  and remained in Germany after serving in the Rhineland area or American soldiers.

To maintain the “purity of the German race” the Gestapo captured about 400 Afro-German children and teenagers for sterilization. These mulatto children of black soldiers and German women, referred to as Rhineland Bastards,  were outcasts of the community targeted to prevent further  “polluting of the German pure race.”

We do find documents where restitution was given to some families, as was the case with the African-German born Lari (Hilarius) Gilges a tap dancer and  organizer of the Northwest Rann -- an organization of entertainers that fought the Nazis in his home town of Dusseldorf. Gilges was killed in 1933 by the SS at the age of 24.

Was Your Ancestor Imprisoned or Murdered? 
Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger
Story of  Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi 
Black soldiers of American, French and British armies were captured and often sent to Gestapo prisons like Butzbach. Others were prisoners in German’s occupied Belgium’s Beverloo transit camp. It is said that “some Allied prisoners of war, including black French colonial soldiers and African Americans, were interned in Stalag-III-A at Luckenwalde near Berlin. In the summer of 1940 about 4,000 black POWs were sent to Luckenwalde. In 1941 300 of them were forced to act as extras in the German film Germanin (1943).”
  • Lionel Romney, a sailor in the U.S. Merchant Marine, was imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp.
  • Valaida Snow, a female jazz singer, was imprisoned in Axis internment camp.
  • Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, the retired managing editor of Ebony magazine, was born in Hamburg to a Liberian father and a German mother in 1926. His book and movie Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger (Negro, Negro, Chimneysweep) was aired in 2006.
  • Gert Schramm was 15 years old when he was deported to the Nazi’s Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. During his time he was buried alive but rescued by fellow prisoners. His American father, Jack Brankson, was sent to Auschwitz.
Finding Records
Just as with any of the Holocaust victims, records of blacks imprisoned in the concentration camps are in forms of manuscripts, diaries, and family stories. Few may be found in the confiscated German records held at the National Archives. You may wish to begin with the RG238, Collection of WWII War Crimes Records, 1933-1949.

Also be sure to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. It is here that I found the Blacks During the Holocaust article.

Kathleen Brandt
Accurate, accessible answers

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