Discovering the life of Afro-Germans

Rosemarie Pena's German passport at age 2. She said she had a recurrent nightmare of being an abandoned infant.
Rosemarie Pena's German passport at age 2. She said she had a recurrent nightmare of being an abandoned infant. (Family photos)
Posted: June 06, 2012

When she was growing up in Willingboro as the only child of Walter and Perrie Haymon, she felt like "a little princess." She was the center of her parents' lives, attended private school, and took piano and ballet lessons.

But Wanda Lynn Haymon "always had something gnawing" at her, she said. Relatives whispered about her at family gatherings and cousins told her that she was not really part of the family.

She had recurrent nightmares, too, of being an infant abandoned on a snowy doorstep with uniformed men - possibly soldiers - standing around her.

"I really had doubts," she said. "I'd go to my parents and ask if I was adopted and they'd say, 'Do you feel adopted?' I would say 'No' because I was treated so well."

She found out - through documentation in 1994 - that "I wasn't who I thought I was."

Wanda Lynn Haymon was actually Rosemarie Larey, a native of Germany who had been adopted. Her biological father was black, possibly an African American soldier, and her mother was white and a German national.

She was born in 1956, only 11 years after the Nazis, who regarded blacks as racially inferior, sent 25,000 Afro-Germans to concentration camps, where many were subjected to medical experiments and sterilization.

Even after the war, the stigma of having a biracial child caused many mothers - including Rosemarie's - to give up their children for possible placement with African American families.

Now, as Rosemarie Peña, she heads the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey ( http://blackgermans.us), an organization whose name belies its reach: It connects Afro-Germans internationally and seeks to document their experience.

About 200 people attended the group's convention last year in Washington and a greater number is expected for the second convention, Aug. 10-11 at Barnard College in New York City.

Peña, 55, of Marlton, also is completing a master's degree in the department of childhood studies at Rutgers University in Camden, researching the history of "brown babies" and Afro-Germans across the world. Blacks make up about 3 percent of the population in Germany and are spread out across the country.

"Children have grown up in Germany as outsiders in their own country," she said. "I'm interested in looking at that from a scholarly perspective.

"How do these children grow up today and negotiate a positive identity when they are seen as 'others,' foreigners in the country?"

Peña, a former administrative computer coordinator at the College of New Jersey who retired from the job on disability in 1998, began having serious questions about her identity at age 12 when her parents took her to a Newark immigration office to be naturalized as an American citizen. She also wondered why she had to use a baptismal certificate - instead of birth certificate - to register at schools.

By 1994, when Peña obtained full documentation, she began piecing together parts of her life, even locating her birth mother, Ilse Moellegaard.

Moellegaard, a concentration-camp survivor, said she placed Rosemarie on the doorstep of an African American military family, hoping that the infant would be taken in.

She had come to the United States in the late 1950s and talked with her daughter, first by phone from her home in Scottsdale, Ariz, and later in person during a two-week visit at Peña's home, then in Willingboro.

"I found out my nightmares were pretty close to the truth," Peña said. "She said I was dropped off in the snow but the men in uniforms in my dream were not soldiers; they were police."

Her "haunting" nightmares stopped after she learned more of her past, she said.

Her mother, who was of Danish origin, told her she saw Nazis shoot her father. After the war, she said she was raped by a black man in Germany and couldn't identify him.

She was pregnant when she married a white American soldier, George Larey, and decided to start afresh after Rosemarie was born by finding her child another family.

The baby was sent to an orphanage and later adopted by Army Sgt. Walter Haymon Jr., and his wife, Perrie, both African American.

"I saw her [Rosemarie] and I told my husband I saw the prettiest baby and I went back and got her the next day so my husband could see her," Perrie Haymon said. "He agreed with me that she was a pretty baby and we'd keep her.

"We decided not to tell her about the adoption because she looked so much like both of us," she said. "Later on, though, we thought it was wrong not to tell her."

The Lareys, meanwhile, moved to Texas, where they had two children. Ilse Larey died in 2002, never quite emotionally connecting with the daughter she gave up, possibly because of the trauma of her earlier time in Germany.

Peña, a divorced mother of two grown children, later changed her name from Wanda Lynn back to Rosemarie. "I think it's part of reclaiming my true identity," she said. "I didn't want to cause my parents pain or disappoint them, but I wanted to be my authentic self."

After receiving a degree in psychology from Rutgers, Peña continued to seek out her roots. She attended an annual meeting of an Afro-German group in Germany and soon returned to Rutgers to get a second degree, in German, in 2010. "I felt like my soul was at home," she said.

Her work as president of the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey also has kept her busy. "Our purpose is to create an online space and events to bring Afro-Germans together, and also to create an academic organization," she said. "I'm interested in stimulating scholarly inquiry and identity development."

The cultural society "helps bring a sense of belonging," said Peña's friend and fellow society board member Carmen Geschke, 63, a Greenville, S.C., resident who runs an accounting firm. "Humans have a tendency to want to belong to a group."

Geschke grew up in Germany without ever being told her father was black. She knew her mother was shunned and that she was teased because of her tan complexion and kinky hair.

Moving to the United States, she found other black Germans, in Detroit.

But the Black German Cultural Society "opened up my world," she said. "I'm not some poor little black German girl who is alone.

"I am part of a group, and I'm proud of that group," Geschke said. "Many of us have good stories. We have mastered our lives and we're happy."

Though considered inferior in Hitler's Germany, many blacks from African nations were invited after the war to study at German schools, and some stayed and got married, said Andy Waskie, a historian and Temple University professor who teaches German.

"It's not the melting pot that we have," said Waskie, who will serve this summer as a guest professor in Germany. "But Germany is more open now, and accepting."

The racism is "a lot more hidden; it's an undercurrent," said Geschke. "Things like that are not talked about."

When racism "is put in the forefront . . . when a light shines on it, it goes away," Geschke said.

Studying the Afro-German experience is one way of shining the light, Peña said. "My dream is to go back to Germany and spend time with Afro-German children to determine their experience. Perhaps my research can be used to influence policy in Germany and it will see itself more as a multicultural nation."


Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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