To celebrate Black History Month, the Helsinki Commission screened “And We Were Germans: The Life of Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi and Ralph Giordano.” The 30-minute film chronicles the journey of Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, an Afro-German survivor of the Holocaust who emigrated to the United States and became the editor of Ebony magazine, one of the first monthly publications for African-Americans.
The film connects the experience of Afro-German and Jewish-German survivors of the Holocaust by recounting Massaquoi’s experience in Germany, including his relationship with Ralph Giordano, a lifelong Jewish friend.
To introduce the film, Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission spoke about the Commission’s focus on diverse and vulnerable populations from Roma and Jewish populations to national minorities and migrants in Europe and the United States since its inception. She also discussed Commissioner’s work on the situation of People of African Descent in Europe or Black Europeans, including hearings and legislation in the U.S. Congress and resolutions and events in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and OSCE.
The film was followed by a conversation with director John A. Kantara about the film and current situation of people of African descent in Germany and across Europe. Kantara discussed his motivation for making the film and what he considered to be the most moving parts of the process. He found inspiration after traveling with young Afro-Germans to Chicago and attending a cultural exchange with African-Americans where he met Hans Massaquoi. He was concerned that Black German history was not widely taught in schools, nor was there a strong awareness of the Afro-German population’s history from Germany’s colonization of Namibia, Burundi, and Tanzania to the children of African-American soldiers stationed in Germany. Kantara made the film with the hope that he could change the lack of education regarding black history in Germany.
Kantara also elaborated on what moved him during the filmmaking process, noting the importance of African-American struggles during the U.S. civil rights movement to Afro-Germans. He indicated that trying to organize people who have been affected by discrimination and racism is an important task, and was his primary aim throughout the filmmaking process. Kantara also offered his thoughts on the new release Black Panther, noting the large turnout in Berlin and special initiatives to screen the film for Afro-German youth. Kantara revealed that it was remarkable to see young black Germans relate to the movie, and identifying with the people and plot of the film.