Friday, October 14, 2011

Rosemarie Pena about herself and Germany's "Brown Babies"

She was born in Germany. Adopted by an African-American family. And discovered later on in life her biological mother was a Holocaust survivor in post-war Germany. Meet Rosemarie Pena, the President of the Black German Cultural Society, NJ.

By Erik Kambel

An interview with Rosemarie Pena about Germany's "brown babies", her personal history and about the convention of Black Germans in Washington, DC, which she organised this year.

To start, who are the "brown babies" of Germany?
This is just one of the pejorative terms used after World War II to describe the children of white German mothers and African American and Moroccan Soldiers, who where stationed in Germany during and after the war.

What is the difference between the so called Rhineland babies or Rhineland bastards as the Germans called them and the German brown babies?
The children you are referring to here were born after War I to German mothers and "Africans" serving as French colonial troops occupying the Rhineland.

Why were the "brown babies" given up for adoption. And why to African-American families?
Of course there is a plurality in terms of individual circumstances. However according Yara Collette Lemke Muniz de Faria, the scholar most noted for her research on the Afro-German children born during this time, many believed that it would be better for these children to be raised in the land of their fathers where it was believed at the time to be more tolerant towards Blacks. This assumption is one that was highly controversial then and remains today.

You were also adopted.
Yes, I was adopted when I was about two years old and brought to the United States and raised by a loving and devoted African American military couple. Given the circumstances of my birth, I was extremely fortunate. Although this was not the case for everyone who was adopted, I could not have asked for a better upbringing and family life.

What did it do to your identity to find out that you where born in Germany and that you were bi-racial or dual rooted?
I always knew that I was born in Germany and discovering my true identity and the facts surrounding my birth confirmed suspicions I had had since I was a child. I can say that since learning the truth, I have been more firmly grounded and self confident. No longer was I the subject of the whispers of others (usually my parent’s relatives) who knew more about me than I knew myself. Prior to this, I found their comments to be emotionally disturbing and very painful. The knowledge of my personal history and identity therefore allowed for much needed emotional healing.

Your adoption mother waited until you were 38 to tell you that were adopted. Why did she waited so long?
Since I was very close to my adoptive parents in terms of complexion, my un-relatedness was not visibly noticeable. It was also very common in those days to hide adoption when possible, believing it was in the best interest of the child. In later discussions with my adoptive parents, they shared with me that they had always loved me as their own and avoided even admitting to themselves that I was not their biological child. They thought they were being protective; doing the right thing in not telling me. They also believed that the knowledge that I had been abandoned would be unnecessarily painful for me.

Did you find your biological parents?
In the mid 1990’s found and spent a brief time with my biological mother prior to her death in 2002. While I was happy to have the opportunity to get to know her and as a result, more about my heritage, it was difficult to form a lasting relationship. Essentially, we were strangers and there was no semblance of a familial bond between us. Unfortunately we were estranged from each other when she passed away. She was unable to give me any details about my biological father and I have not attempted to do any research for any further information about him to their date.

You are now the President of The Black German Cultural Society, NJ. What does the organisation do?
Our organisation documents and promotes the activities of Black Germans and the Black presence in Germany as reflected in past and present times, particularly, but not limited to, the areas of the creative arts and humanities. As an academic organisation, we take an active role in researching and recording the history of Blacks in Germany. We are committed to strengthening relationships among all who identify as Black Germans and Black persons who have a connection to Germany. We also endeavour to promote the inclusion of Black German history and experience in the curriculum of both German and Diaspora Studies, and encourage bilateral Student Exchange opportunities.

Is your organisation only for post-war adoptees?
Emphatically No! Our organisation is totally inclusive, in that it concerns itself with the interests of all Black people in, from or otherwise interested in or connected to Germany in the past or present.

You visited the annual meeting of the Afro-Germans in Germany, the Bundesstreffen. How did you experienced it?
I attended the 2008 Bundestreffen upon the invitation of my dear friend Noah Sow, whom I had only known briefly through the internet at that time. It was a moving, memorable and life altering experience for me. I look forward to the opportunity to attend the meeting again in the not so distant future.

You also contributed a letter to the book "Briefe Bewegen die Welt" (Letters Move the World). What did write in the letter?
This letter was a personal one, written to Noah Sow upon my return home from my first trip back to Germany since I left as a young child. It was a thank you letter, expressing my appreciation to her for her kindness and hospitality. Her monumental gesture was the beginning of a very special friendship and I will always be grateful to Noah.

In August this year you organised the convention of Black Germans.
Our inaugural convention was held in August at the German Historical Institute-DC. The event was far more successful than any of us could have possibly imagined. It was truly an international experience as our guests represented many different countries. Among others, there were participants and guests from all over the US, Canada, Germany, South Africa and Luxembourg. It was an historic event as this was the first of its kind to be held in the United States. Additionally, a delegation of Black Germans was invited to Capital Hill to discuss their most significant concerns. I would invite your readers to our convention website to view the remarks from Congressman Alcee Hastings of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and Ambassador Peter Ammon of the German Embassy in DC. In addition, there are many photos memorialising the event, as well as audio and video media from the convention opening, including the presentation of the “Champion of the Humanities Award” by the Humanities Council of DC. to Mr. Hans J. Massaquoi, Jr. on behalf of his father, Hans J. Massaquoi Sr., and the extraordinarily powerful keynote lecture delivered by Noah Sow which I have watched and listened to myself more than a dozen times since the occasion, see http://blackgermans.us/convention2011

What are your hopes for the black community in Germany and in the US?
First let me say that I look forward to next year’s convention with great anticipation and and for many more in the years to come. I hope that we will continue to nurture the invaluable relationships that exist currently while establishing new ones; continue to share our stories and concerns with one another; work together to increase our collective visibility; ensuring that our voices are heard and our history and achievements are known all over the world. This is especially important as a legacy for our children, their children, and their children’s children and so on.

(Photo of Rosemarie Pena, by Sarah Glover)

Some links
- Staatenlos - a personal story of Rosmarie Pena
- Meet Rosemarie Pena, child of the Holocaust
- The Difficult Identities of Post-War Black Children of GIs

2 Comments:

G. Lasana said...

Great to hear from Erik Kambel again...but Rose, I cannot discern the reason for your phenomenal commitment to Black German culture...perhaps there is something more personal at work here...

Anonymous said...

Of course she has a personal stake in Black German culture, she was born there and had a German mother and a Black German father. She wants to know her roots and that is perfectly understandable.

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