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

Historian Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst recently stated DW that while researching the Federal Archives of Germany, she came across the story of a Swahili teacher who died in the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg, north of Berlin.

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

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

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Husen, who was only 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 to transport weapons to and from the front line and to serve as signalmen in the field, operating heliographs. They were called apprentices of the signal troop (“Signalschüler”) but their tasks were very dangerous.

Husen’s father died during the war, and Husen was also wounded in service. After nearly 30 years, Germany’s colonial rule in the region came to an end after its defeat 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 Woermann Line Steamship. In 1929, he left this job to stay in Germany. He married a Sudeten German and settled in Berlin. The Nazi regime quickly came to power in 1933.

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

At the same time, he twice applied for military decorations for having served 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 whenever he was in financial trouble for help. Bechhaus-Gerst thinks Husen was very brave to do this because during the Nazi era most black people tried to stay out of public office.

During this time, Husen also joined the neocolonial movement supporting Germany to reclaim its lost colonies, and he did so just to ensure that he and his family survived the Nazi era. The former African child soldier even tried to volunteer for the German army shortly after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, but failed.

So how did he end up in a concentration camp?

Husen became involved in extramarital affairs with other German women during the Nazi era. “At one point in six weeks he became a father twice, with one child from his wife and another from a woman he was having an affair with,” Bechhaus-Gerst said.

Husen was soon charged with racial defilement, or “Rassenschande” in German, a law that did not allow sex and marriage between Germans and non-Germans, Bechhaus-Gerst said. Husen was sent to 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 receive a memorial as a victim of Nazi terror. A “Stolperstein” (a bronze “stumbling block”) was planted in the ground in front of his last address in Berlin. The stumbling blocks are small brass plaques depicting victims of Nazi persecution or extermination.

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