The Woyingi Blog

Mixed Race Lives: Theodor Wonja Michael

Ever since reading Hans Massaquoi’s memoir Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany, I’ve become fascinated with the life stories of Afro-Germans. After World War II, when African-American soldiers were stationed in Germany, the number of mixed race Afro-Germans would increase rapidly up until today when their existence, although not as common as in the US, France or even Britain, could hardly be said to be rare. There are even Black History Month celebrations, organizations like the Initiative for Black Germans (ISD), that combats racism and supports programs for Black youth.

When I was in Germany, in the former mining town of Mulheim an der Ruhr, a White woman sat beside me on the train and asked me how I managed my hair. Her daughter, who was mixed race like me, was having trouble figuring out what to do with her hair and wanted a new style for going into high school. I didn’t really know what to tell her because I myself didn’t know what to do with my hair at the time. I just lived with it.

Theodor's Mother and Father Courtesy Bundeszentrale fur Politische Bildung

Theodor Wonja Michael is one of the oldest Afro-Germans living in Germany. He was born on January 15th 1925 in Berlin. His father, Theophilius Wonja Michael, was originally from Cameroon and arrived in Germany in 1894. According to Theodor, his grandfather was one of several community leaders who signed protection treaties with German explorer, and later Imperial Consul-General Gustav Nachtigal (1834-1885) in 1884 which began German’s colonization of Cameroon.  I’ve realized that many people don’t know that Germany had African colonies: Togo, Cameroon, Tanganyika, and Namibia. These were lost after Germany lost World War I and divvied up by France and England in 1919.

Growing up, German children would sometimes ask Theodor if he was from the Rheinland. This was because there were other Afro-Germans born in the Rheinland, the children of local German women and the some 25, 000 to 40,000 African soldiers who had been stationed there as occupation forces by France from 1919 to 1929. Many of these soldiers were Senegalese Tirailleurs. These mixed race children were often referred to as “Rheinlandbastards”. The German government protested the presence of African solidiers in the Rheinland and much propaganda was written about these soldiers kidnapping and raping White women. The situation was often referred to as the “Schwarze Schmach” or “Black Shame”. Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf wrote “the Jews had brought the Negroes into the Rhineland with the clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily-resulting bastardization.” It’s hard to know if and how many of these children survived under the Nazis. According to the  Deutsche Welle article “The Fate of Blacks in Nazi Germany“:

Deutsche Welle spoke to leading German historian Prof. Reiner Pommerin to find out what happened to these children. “I published a book in the 70s, which told the reader about the sterilization of mixed blood children. These were children who had been fathered by occupation forces – mostly French occupation forces,” he said. His book, “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”) publicized the sterilization of the Black minority in Nazi Germany.

Prior to the publication of the book in 1979, this information was unknown to the public. The sterilization of biracial children was carried out secretly because it went against 1938 Nazi laws and procedures. The exact numbers remain unknown, but it is estimated that 400 children of mixed blood were sterilized – most without their knowledge, Pommerin said.

Today, the fate of the “Rhineland Bastards” still remains largely unknown. The lack of public knowledge regarding their fate may have to do with the “lack of public interest in minorities,” said Pommerin.

Theodor Wonja Michael

Back to Theodor’s story. In 1926, his German mother, Martha Wegner died, leaving behind her four mixed race children, Theodor, James (born in 1916), Juliana (born in 1921) and Christiana. In my research it states that his father was a circus performer and that after his death Theodor and his siblings were taken in by his father’s circus colleagues. According to Osei Boateng, most Blacks in Germany at the time worked in the entertainment industry. Africans were hired to portray “traditional African dances and songs”. People would pay to see them perform as if they were animals in a zoo. But it was a living. When Theodor go older even he performed in these circuses, seeing songs he didn’t even understand the words to. As Theodor grew older the racist policies of the Nazi regime began to affect his life more and more. In 1936, mixed race Germans lost their citizenship and declared “fremde” foreigners. He lost his job as a bellhop at Hotel Excelsior due to a complaint from a Nazi guest. Theodor found work in films. He was cast in a small but visible role in Germany’s first colour film in 1943, “Muenchhausen”. He played an African servant cooling dignitaries with a feathered fan. The film was commissioned by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. When asked about the experience, Theodor said “They trained me–and it is, of course, extremely ironic that it was the Nazis who gave me my big break!”

Theodor was twice conscripted and twice rejected because he was Black. The second time was when Germany desperately needed soldiers, but he still wasn’t good enough. In 1943, at the age of 18, Theodor was forced into a Labour Camp outside of Berlin. He had to work 72 hours a week at a war munitions factory. During this time, Theodor was constantly afraid of being sterilized like many other Afro-Germans were. In 1945, the Labour Camp was liberated by Russian soldiers.

Theodor and his siblings were separated after their parents’ deaths. In my research I haven’t been able to find out what happened to his sister Christiana however, his brother and sister James and Juliana ended up in France. These siblings were only united with each other and Theodor in the 1960s. In 1994, while researching her book Rewriting The Footnotes — Berlin and the African Diaspora, Paulette Reed-Anderson met with James. He recounted to her how the German authorities in France took away his German passport and learned that he was no longer a German Citizen because he was Black:

“[It] was in 1937. We were in Paris… My passport had just run out, so I went to the German consulate to have it renewed… ‘What do you want’, the clerk demanded. ‘To renew my passport,’ I answered. ‘Your passport?!’, he said. ‘What are you, are you German?’ ‘Yes, here is my passport,’ I answered. “He examined it. “Born in Berlin on 2 October 1916 and so on and so forth. Then he took my passport and went away with it.

A quarter of an hour or more went by before he returned — but without my passport. I said: ‘I thought you were going to give my passport back to me’. “He said: ‘No, we are going to keep your passport. You are no longer German. Black Germans do not exist’. “Then, I was really angry. What was I supposed to do without identity documents and such? Nothing! How could I prove that I was really born in Berlin? This was the worst moment in my life…”

Theodor returned to acting after the war because there was nothing much else he had experience doing. He would go on to become one of Germany’s most respected Shakespearean actors. He has used his respected position to influence the casting and direction of the plays he is in. For example:

In “The Tempest,” for instance–performing the role of Prospero–he persuaded the director to cast the Duke of Milan as a black man and his deformed slave, Caliban, as white. And in “Driving Miss Daisy,” he enhanced the fond but prickly relationship of the black chauffeur with his white Georgian employer to “somewhat of a romance, a love story.”

Theodor also eventually went back to school, receiving a Master’s Degree from the Institute of Economics and Politics in Hamburg. He was able to visit Africa as the editor of the journal Afrika-Bulletin and as the economic advisor for German development projects in Niger, Ghana and Nigeria. In the 1960s, he was even able to visit Cameroon and see his father’s birthplace. Theodor said that he has always felt a connection to Africa and as a child his father told him African folktales at bedtime. However, Theodor sees himself as German, first and foremost.

In 2000, Theodor Wonja Michael was invited to speak about his experience in Nazi Germany at Howard University in Washington D.C. The lecture he gave was entitled “German-African Relations–A Retrospective From the Colonial Period Until Unification.” He had been invited by Professor Yvonne Poser on behalf of the university’s Department of Modern Languages and Literature in an effort, according to Poser to “help our efforts to integrate black German history and culture in our German curriculum and to foster a dialogue between blacks in Germany and the Howard community.”

Many in the United States still don’t know about the experience of Blacks in Nazi Germany or even that there are Afro-Germans. Theodor appears in a British documentary entitled “Black Survivors of the Holocaust” (Hitler’s Forgotten Victims UK Title) by David Okuefuna and Moise Shewa. He was happily surprised to find that at Britain’s Holocaust Museum there were many documents about the Afro-German experience under the Nazis. While at Howard University, Theodor remarked, making reference to the documents in the British Museum: “Of course, what they say is not known in America. In fact, I am puzzled about how little Americans seem to know about Africa in general.”

When asked by Afro-German journalist Jeannine Kantara what he thought Obama’s election meant for Afro-Germans, he remarked:

In Germany, we still have a long way to go. Here we encounter a form of careless racism that is based on racial purity. A German has to “look “German and accordingly, he or she must be white. I do not know whether my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will already be able to reach such a position because here in Germany they will still be confronted with the question of origin.

In 2009, Theodor received the first Black History Month Award for his role as an Ambassador for the Afro-German community. Theodor currently lives in Cologne with his second wife. “I walk a lot and rehearse, but that must soon make way because I wish to write my memoirs,” he says. “It’ll be about a German, not an African.”

Recommended Reading:

Remembering Africans in the Nazi Camps by Rowan Philip (article from The Washington Post available online)

The Fate of Blacks in Nazi Germany by Chiponda Chimbelu (article in Deutsche Welle available online)

Blacks During the Holocaust  (article from the United States Holocaust Memorials Museum available online)

Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi Era by C. Lusane (Academic Text published by Routledge)

Black Germans do not exist by Osei Boateng (article in The New African available online)

We Are President! by Jeannine Kantara (article in The Zeleza Post available online)

Gert Schramm: A Black German Survivor of the Holocaust & Barack Obama by J. Kantara (article from Kantara’s Blog avaiable online)

A Tribute to Theodor Wonja Michael (article from Black History Month Berlin Germany 2009 available online)

Black History Month Berlin-Germany 2009 Website

Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD) Website

Schwarze Menschen im Nationalsozialismus by Nicola Lauré al-Samarai (article in German from the Bundeszentrale fur politische Bildung available online)

Sie sind Deutsch? Ja, klar. Afro-Deutsch (article in German from Deutsche Welle available online)

Schwarz sein und deutsch dazu by John A. Kantara (article in German from Die Zeit available online)

Video Interview in German with Theodor Wonja Michael available online

Wikipedia Page in German on Theodor Wonja Michael

Wikipedia Page in French on Theodor Wonja Michael

Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich by Tina Campt (text from the University of Michigan Press)

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German, My Father, and I

My Father spoke German. That was one of the very few facts I knew about my father before I actually found him. My mother had told me that he had lived in Germany before coming to Canada and had learned to speak German there.

But my knowledge of my Father’s German proficiency would have an unexpected effect on the trajectory of my own life. In my Grade 10 year, during which I spent mornings attending classes at the now demolished Laurentian High School and afternoons getting visiting teachers because I couldn’t cope with a full day of school because of my overwhelming social anxiety, I decided to do something different, something to engage me intellectually and quench my at that point insatiable thirst for knowledge. I had already attempted taking Philosophy classes which ended up being weird private lessons in theosophy that involved reading the works of the likes of Madame Blavatsky in some European man’s appartment. This would not due.

One day, well scanning the bookshelves at Carlingwood Library, I spotted a poster for German Language Courses. They were offered for free and you could even get high school credits for them, all you had to do was attend classes on Saturday mornings all the way down town at Hopewell Public School. I remembered that my father had spoken German and somehow I felt this was a sign, that I was meant to learn German.

I began at the beginning, a Grade 9 Class for newcomers to German. My teacher was a lovely Austrian woman. We were provided with a textbook which we were free to take home with us. I immediately took a great liking to German. For many people, German is just the language of Nazis and Adolf Hitler, but there was a Germany before the Third Reich. Actually, something like 1 in 4 Americans is of German Ancestry (there was even a possibility that German would have been the official language of the newly independent United States) and at the time of my taking these classes, German was the third most spoken language in Ottawa (now  it’s a competition between Chinese-the statistics don’t specify if it is Mandarin or Cantonese-and Arabic). German is also part of my own heritage. My great great mother was German, a Schoeder.

I came to love elements of German Culture as well. I became quite found of Lieder, German songs by composers like Schubert, based on the work of German poets like Goethe. I also developped a fondess for Kurt Weil songs as sung by Ute Lemper. I would never have had the opportunity to develop such obsure tastes had it not been for CBC Radio.

I excelled at German. It made me realize that I was quite gifted at acquiring languages quickly and thoroughly. It gave me a newfound confidence and sense of my own intelligence, something which had been battered down so long during my years of functional illiteracy in elementary school. German also gave me a way out of Laurentian High School. I had been told again and again by teachers and guidance counsellors that I would be better off at a more “academic school” where I would be challenged more intellectually. But to get a transfer out of my home school I would have to be a Music Student (couldn’t read a single note, still can’t), in French Immersion (self-taught French) or be studying an international language that was not offered at my home school-Bingo! Because I had studied German in Grade 10 I was allowed to transfer to Nepean High School for Grade 11 where I could continue my German Studies up to the OAC Level (back when there was Grade 13, boy am I dating myself!).

I had been warned that Nepean High School as very posh and very snobby. I would be Black White Trash in an ocean of silver-spoon-fed WASPs. That was an understatement. The school was something out of a John Hughes film-Think Pretty in Pink! But, the standard of education was amazing. We were being educated to go on to university as that was what all our teachers expected us to do. It was during my first year at Nepean High School that I learned how the socio-economic class of the students who attended a school shaped the standard of education at that school and the expectations teachers had about their students, even before getting to know them. This reality made me very angry. It also compelled me to excel. And this I did, with a vengence.

My first year at Nepean High School I came top of my class in German and went on to win the annual regional German Language Contest and the annual provincial German Language Contest. I was an Academic Star. I even landed a half-page write-up in the City Section of the Ottawa Citizen (a few weeks after my grandmother was convicted and the Citizen Court reporter wrote that my family was one of the most dysfunctional families he had ever written about).

My prize for my win at the provincial level was an all expenses paid 4-week trip to Germany! I had never been anywhere outside of Canada other than Ogdensburg, New York with my grandparents in their RV. I would be flying on a plane! I would be staying away from my mother for 4 whole weeks! I had never done this before unless she was in the hospital, at which time I would stay with my grandparents. No grandparents this time-just total strangers in a strange land.

Needless to say, my trip to Germany was a life-changing experience. My mother was not happy to see me leave and actually wanted me to cancel the trip but I went without her blessing. My time in Germany really helped me gain confidence as an individual without my mother (who at that time was my one and only friend) and helped me overcome my social anxiety. I got to meet other teenagers from across Canada (BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia) and from around the world (Uganda, Kenya, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Slovakia, Mauritius). We travelled all across Germany, visiting cities like Bonn, Frankfurt, and of course Berlin.

My Father in front of the Olympic Tower

I knew that my father had lived for some time in Munich, which was the last city we stayed in before we returned to Canada. This seemed fitting. I wandered the streets of Munich thinking that I was looking at the same buildings my father had seen, maybe even walking down some of the same streets my father had walked down.

When I finally found my father I would learned that he had lived in Munich while building the Olympic Tower (Olympia Turm) for the 1972 Munich Olympics. This was the first Summer Olympics held in Germany since the infamous 1936 Olympics that had been held under the watchful eye of the Fuhrer (which means leader by the way). The Germans were eager to paint themselves in a more positive light, to show the whole world that they had overcome their Nazi past and were happy, hopeful and open to diversity. This included a Cultural Olympics that showcased artistic talent from around the world, including Nigeria.

Nigerian composer Akin Euba premiered his piece Dirges at the University of Ife Theatre at the 1972 Olympics. This piece is a unique synthesis of African and Western musical influences. Euba also studied Lieder. In his essay “Text Setting in African Composition“, Euba writes:

The strength of German Lieder (art songs) in the nineteenth century rested partly on the gifts of the poets who provided composers with the texts that they set to music. It occurred to me early in my composition career (in the mid 1960s) that African composers might equally look to African poets for the texts of their songs.

One of Euba’s earliest settings was of a poem by J. P. Clark, “Abiku”, first as a dance-drama then as a song with a three-part chorus with five Nigerian instruments.

But the showcasing of African Classical music on an international stage is not the sort of thing most people remember about the 1972 Munich Olympics. What most people remember is the Israeli Olympic team being held hostage and then massacred by terrorists. This event is the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film Munich. My father was actually present in the Olympic Village when this all went down.

Learning German provided me with countless opportunities that I otherwise would not have had. But I never would have considered learning the language if  I had not had this strange attraction to it because of my association with it and my father.