Originally published in the Washington Post, Monday , October 23, 2000
T.Wonja Michael was born in Berlin in 1925. Their Cameroonian father [picture] Theophilus Wonja Michael arrived in Berlin in 1894 and had four children with his German wife Martha Wegner. In early 1943, Michael was marched with other Afro-Germans into a forced-labor camp near Berlin.He was there until the camp was liberated by Russian soldiers in June 1945." His three siblings fled to France after "Negroids" were declared "undesirable" in 1936, but Michael chose to remain apparently, out of sheer stubbornness. He worked as a bellhop at Berlin's Hotel Excelsior (before being kicked out by a Nazi guest).
German Of Color
Theodor Wonja Michael, gray-whiskered, Hemingway-like, stands alone behind a lectern on Howard University's campus. He has a story that he doesn't like to tell, but it is history, and so he must speak. The students have eagerly packed Ralph Bunche Hall on Sixth Street NW.
The lecture is billed as "German-African Relations--A Retrospective From the Colonial Period Until Unification." But they haven't come to hear the lecture. All week there has been talk about the Afro-German who has come to campus, the black survivor of the Holocaust. All week he has shaken up concepts of national and racial identity for hundreds of students.
So they have come again, this last day, for the flesh and blood of history, not the academic analysis that Michael (pronounced Me-Kel), with his master's degree in political science and German-accented, Shakespearean-trained voice, can offer.
They would much rather have the soul of this 75-year-old black man who survived two years in a Nazi labor camp, and who today still proudly declares his German-ness, who is committed to helping his nation understand him as a German who happens to be black. For some in the audience, it is news that there are Afro-Germans at all--currently between 100,000 and 200,000--let alone World War II survivors such as Michael.
"In many ways, being a curiosity is just as bad as being a target--I happen to be black, but I am German, and I insist on the recognition," says Michael, the son of a white German mother and a black immigrant Cameroonian father. He had come to Washington last week as the guest of the university's Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Professor Yvonne Poser says he was invited 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."
There are as many forms of discrimination as there are black identities, Michael tells his audience, and being obsessed by it, or trying to emulate whites, is self-defeating and pointless, in Germany or the United States. The students listen intently, as if before them, as Michael says, stands "the eccentric grandfather they never knew they had." "In Germany, I am still stared at; even more so when people hear my accent," Michael will say later. His skin is the color of raw leather at sunset. "Here, no one observes me, which is wonderful. I prefer to think of myself as purely German. Without color. But looking for directions here, I noticed that I approached an African American on the street. . . .
It was like I was meeting cousins." Michael doesn't like to talk about those years when millions of Jewish people were being marched off to their deaths, when being gay was a crime and being black left you completely exposed and vulnerable. With no community, he couldn't fight. With confiscated papers, he couldn't run. With black skin, he couldn't hide.
And knowing that other Afro-Germans were being sterilized and executed, he couldn't hope for anything better than humiliation and bone-jarring labor in a war munitions factory. He meets the students' eager and sometimes heated questions with answers that swing between passion and a chilling matter-of-factness: Did black Germans unite against the Nazis? "No, we stayed apart from each other for fear that the Nazis would see us as a threat."
Does Michael's "community" demonstrate against racism in modern-day Germany? "No, we are still apart--we have no community in the American sense." Have German blacks retained any of their African culture? "Have African Americans retained any of theirs?--No, we have not, except for cooking!" Shouldn't Germany pay reparations now to its exploited former colonies in Africa? "Reparations for what? You cannot compensate for this treatment. You can't change people's minds. It happened, and that's all. All you can do is make [Germans] aware of what happened." Afiya Brent-Kirk, 20, a Howard biology major, is one of the curious Who have come to hear Michael. "I'd never heard of a black German," she says later. "It's bad enough in the States, but he has to deal with racism without the help of masses of people in the same situation. I'm surprised he isn't more militant, that he's still so proud of being German." - - - Michael appears in a British documentary called "Black Survivors of The Holocaust," and he describes his visit to the nation's Holocaust Museum as a "happy surprise." "There were lots of papers on the Afro-German situation under the Nazis--I was amazed at the volume," he says.
"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." Peter Black, the museum's senior historian, says no figures are available for the number of black deaths in Germany during World War II. "The only figure we have is that between 385 and 500 people of African descent were forcibly sterilized by the Nazis."
Michael was born in Berlin in 1925. His mother died in 1926 and his father--a circus performer--died in 1934. Michael and his sister were taken in by his father's circus colleagues. His three siblings fled to France after "Negroids" were declared "undesirable" in 1936, but Michael chose to remain--apparently, out of sheer stubbornness. He worked as a bellhop at Berlin's Hotel Excelsior (before being kicked out by a Nazi guest).
He was also an aspiring actor and eventually found work. The Nazis cast him in a tiny but very visible role in Germany's first color film released in 1943--"Muenchhausen"--which showed him cooling dignitaries with a feathered fan. Later he learned that the movie had been commissioned by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels and would be used against blacks. "They trained me--and it is, of course, extremely ironic that it was the Nazis who gave me my big break!"
Michael says, his laugh nervous and unconvincing. He was 18 when he was sent to the labor camps. Michael had actually been conscripted, but when officials saw him he was immediately rejected. In early 1943, Michael was marched with other Afro-Germans into a forced-labor camp near Berlin, where he was effectively enslaved,working 72 hours a week at a munitions factory. He was there until the camp was liberated by Russian soldiers in June 1945. In 1998, he told a German Life magazine: "One must remember that the Damocles' sword of sterilization always dangled above us blacks in those years. It's why I was so afraid of going to the hospital. "Escape was not possible, certainly not if you looked like me.
Those who tried to get away were caught and put straight in a concentration camp. Usually they didn't survive." At Howard, though, he is not as forthcoming. He is careful, however, to draw a clear distinction between the labor and concentration camps. And just how did he manage his own survival? "God's help. Complying. Being inconspicuous, even with this," he mumbles, touching his cheek with the haunted look of a man who seemed never to have had that question fully answered.
After the war, Michael worked as a gofer for U.S. forces in Berlin for two years. In 1947, he married a white German woman. In the odd way that life can twist and turn, since those years, Michael has become one of Germany's foremost Shakespearean stage actors. In 1949, he took advantage of his dubious acting debut and returned to the profession. He had wanted to be an actor long before the Nazi film.
He also returned to school, eventually receiving his master's from the Institute of Economics and Politics in Hamburg. He rediscovered his African heritage in the 1960s, with frequent trips to Africa, a job editing a journal called Africa-Bulletin and the role of economics adviser to new German development projects in Niger, Ghana and Nigeria.
"You cannot force opinions to change--in fact, it makes me very angry when I see black people in minorities complaining that they have been treated this way or that," he says. Instead, blacks should "be proud of your history and of being black, and use the law if something criminal is done to you--force these supposed liberal countries to practice what they preach in the law books." His stage career has led to principal roles at mainstream German theaters in "Twelfth Night," "Taming of the Shrew" and "The Tempest," as well as contemporary German productions of "I'm Not Rappaport" and "Driving Miss Daisy."
He is currently rehearsing for his role of Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, in Schiller's "Mary Stuart," to be staged next month in Cologne. The stage, he says, is a platform for art, not politics.
But his Career tells a different story. 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."
Stephanie Webb, 19, a Howard major in administrative justice, found Michael "completely amazing--it's one thing to experience struggle as a black person, but he's just experienced one kind of weirdness on another; treated like a freak." Another student, Brooke Anderson, a finance major, would later write, "Our discussion showed how much we emphasize skin color here. In the U.S., we are African Americans.
In Germany, they are just Germans with black skin. That gives us a lot of insight about who we are." With three adult children, Michael now lives with his second wife—also a white German--in Cologne. "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."
But in the end, Michael seems to defy categories, racial or otherwise. "Which character that you've played echoes your life?" a reporter asks. Weary of all the questions, he is already rising to leave. "None! Not even close!" he answers. "Okay, which character in all of theater?" Michael stops in the doorway, turns, nods slowly and before stepping out onto Sixth Street, utters his answer: "Faust."
© 2000 The Washington Post Rowan Philp Washington Post Staff Writer Monday , October 23, 2000