Thursday, 10 May 1945

Lichtenberg: Theodor Wonja Michael

"The Soviet officer flipped through his workbook, looked at me and asked me what I was doing here in Germany. I was startled and explained that I was born here after all. My father had come to Berlin after Cameroon had become a German colony... Whether I had worked for the Nazis was the next question. I answered truthfully that as a foreign worker I had been conscripted for war service, that I had been accommodated here in this camp and had worked in an armaments factory... The conversation had developed into a strict interrogation, which became unpleasant for me (...) It was so unlikely that a black German would still be alive after the war that I was suspected of collaboration... 1945 was a terrible year, the hardest of my life: What would you answer if you were accused of being alive? As the saying goes, I was always caught between two stools".

Theodor Wonja Michael was born in Berlin on January 15, 1925, the youngest son of Theophilius Wonja Michael from Cameroon and his German wife Martha (née Wegner). His mother died just one year after the birth. When his father also died in 1934, Michael was only 9 years old. He grows up under partly miserable conditions with foster parents who want to make profit out of him and let Michael perform at "ethnographic shows".

When Berlin classmates rave to the 9-year-old about the meetings of the NSDAP junior staff organization "Jungvolk", he too wants to become a member. To his surprise he is rejected and sent away. That's when Michael senses for the first time that he doesn't belong, he remembers later. In 1939 he finishes elementary school, but cannot start an occupational training because of the discriminating Nuremberg racial laws.

To ensure his survival, Theodor Wonja Michael tries from now on to remain as invisible as possible, constantly accompanied by fear of arrest and forced sterilization: "That was the important thing for us during the Nazi era: not to stand out. I did everything I could to keep a low profile." So he worked as a doorman in a hotel in the meantime, but was dismissed due to a complaint of a guest "about his skin colour". Michael's passport is also withdrawn and he is now stateless.

As an Afro-German, Theodor Wonja Michael experiences National Socialism as a time full of contradictions: "In 1943, after the proclamation of 'total war', anyone who could still carry a rifle was drafted. But I wasn't drafted and I can only say that I'm still grateful to God for that today.
In 1943, the 18-year-old was sent to forced labour. For the ammunition factory J. Gast in Lichtenberg he had to work in the armaments production from now on, 10 to 12 hours a day. As accommodation he is assigned to a "foreign labourer camp" at the Adlergestell. Since he only speaks German, the other forced labourers look at him suspiciously. With a lot of luck Michael survives several bomb attacks in the outdoors. As a so-called "foreigner" he is denied access to the air-raid shelter.
On April 20, 1945, Theodor Wonja Michael experiences liberation in the Lichtenberg factory. But once again he finds himself in a paradoxical situation, as the Soviet liberators first accuse Michael of collaboration with the Nazis.

After the end of the war, Michael passes his Abitur and studies in Hamburg and Paris, among other places. Later he worked as a journalist and editor. In 1971 Michael began working for the German Federal Intelligence Service. He is the first black federal civil employee in the higher service. At the same time he is involved in the Afro-German community. Theodor Wonja Michael dies on October 19, 2019 in Cologne.

"The liberation is a sore point for me to this day. I must say that Germany was and is my home. And then you suddenly see your homeland broken and shattered. One is free oneself: that is wonderful! It's a wonderful thought to be free from the burdens that you had before. But is one really free?"

(Sources: Theodor Michael, "Being German and black. Memories of an Afro-German," Munich: DTV, 2013; interview by Corinna Spies with Theodor Michael, 23 March 2014; "Theodor Michael Wonja, dernier rescapé noir des camps de travail nazis, est mort," Le Monde, 25 October 2019; illustrations: private property)