History May 18, 2022 at 02:30 pm

Remembering the Swahili teacher who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor May 18, 2022 at 02:30 pm

May 18, 2022 at 02:30 pm | History

Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst's book about Mohamed Husen. Courtesy of Amazon

Historian Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst recently told DW that while doing research at Germany’s Federal Archives, she stumbled across a story about a Swahili teacher who died at the Nazis’ Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, north of Berlin.

She was really surprised about finding that document highlighting the death of Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed (also known as Bayume Mohamed Husen) so she decided to further investigate it. This led her to write the book, “Treu bis in den Tod: Von Deutsch-Ostafrika nach Sachsenhausen – Eine Lebensgeschichte” in 2007. Here is the story of the Tanganyikan.

Husen was born in 1904 in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The city was then part of German East Africa, which included present-time Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Husen’s father, who was from Sudan, was a soldier serving in the German colonial army. “There were some colonial resistance movements in the coastal parts of German East Africa, that’s why Germans decided to enlist foreign soldiers to suppress those anti-colonial movements, since local soldiers would not be able to fight against their own people,” Bechhaus-Gerst explained.

Shortly after the First World War broke out in 1914, Husen, who was just 10 years old, joined his father to work as a child soldier in the German colonial army. According to International Encyclopedia, the main tasks of child soldiers were carrying guns to and from the front line and acting as signalers in the field, operating heliographs. They were called signal troop apprentices (“Signalschüler”) but their tasks were very dangerous.

Husen’s father died during the war and Husen was also injured in service. After nearly 30 years, Germany’s colonial rule in the region ended after it was defeated in the first world war. Still, Husen continued to work for German companies. He got a job as a waiter for a German shipping company called the Woermann Line Steamship. By 1929, he had left that job to stay in Germany. He got married to a German woman from the Sudetenland and settled in Berlin. The Nazi regime soon came to power in 1933.

Husen survived by doing several jobs. Besides working as a Swahili teacher at the Friedrich Wilhelm University, he also got a job as a waiter in a pleasure palace called Haus Vaterland in Berlin. He also appeared alongside some well-known German actors in scores of films. He played roles in two German colonial propaganda movies — Die Reiter von Deutsch-Ostafrika (The Riders of German East Africa) in 1934 and Carl Peters in 1941, according to DW.

At the same time, he applied twice for military decorations for serving in the German colonial army during the first world war. He was ignored both times but that didn’t stop him from going to the German authorities anytime he had financial problems to get support. Bechhaus-Gerst believes Husen was very brave to do that since, during the Nazi period, most Black people tried to stay away from public offices.

Meanwhile, Husen also joined the neo-colonial movement supporting Germany to get back its lost colonies, and he did that just to ensure that he and his family survived during the Nazi era. The African former child soldier even tried to volunteer in the German army shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 but failed.

So how did he end up in a concentration camp?

Husen got involved in extra-marital affairs with other German women during the Nazi era. “At some point, within six weeks he became a father twice, with a child from his wife and another from a woman he had an affair with,” Bechhaus-Gerst said.

Husen was soon accused of racial defilement, or “Rassenschande” in German, a law that did not allow sexual relations and marriage between Germans and non-Germans, Bechhaus-Gerst explained. Husen was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1941. After almost three years there, trying to survive the inhumane conditions, he died on November 24, 1944.

Husen became the first African to be given a memorial as a victim of Nazi terror. A “Stolperstein” (a bronze “stumbling block”) was set in the ground in front of his last address in Berlin. Stumbling blocks are small brass plates representing victims of Nazi persecution or extermination.

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