Black Perspectives’ book editor, Adam Lee Cilli interviews Mary Romney-Schaab on her most recent book publication, An Afro-Caribbean in the Nazi Era: From Papiamentu to German. Mary Romney-Schaab was born in New York City, but her roots are in the Caribbean island nation of St. Maarten. A retired educator, she spent over 40 years teaching English to speakers of other languages in Madrid, New York, Barcelona, and Connecticut. She has an Ed.M. in Instructional Media, and an M.A. in TESOL, both from Columbia University; an M.A. in Spanish, and a B.A. in Spanish, both from Middlebury College. She has a passion for oral history and family history. She believes in the power and value of oral history for all families and diasporic communities worldwide.
Adam Lee Cilli (ALC): Could you give a brief synopsis of your book?
Mary Romney-Schaab (MRS): My book describes the World War II experiences of my father, Lionel Romney (1912-2004). He was one of the few Black civilians who survived the Nazi concentration camp system. He told me about his experience in an extensive oral history, which serves as the basis of the book. It also contains an account of my visits to the concentration camp where my father was imprisoned.’
ALC: Could you briefly describe your father’s background? What brought him to Europe? How did he end up in a concentration camp?
MRS: My father was from the Dutch side of St. Maarten, an island in the Caribbean. By the mid-1930s he was working as a sailor on merchant ships transporting cargo between the Caribbean, North America, and Europe. In June 1940, World War II had started in Europe. He was working on a ship sailing through the Mediterranean on its way to Greece. When the ship reached the area between Tunisia and Sicily, it struck a floating mine (an explosive device). And when it struck the mine, it sank. But the crew of my father’s ship was rescued by a ship from the Italian navy. So that was how my father became a political prisoner in Italy. And for the next four years, from 1940 to 1944, he was transferred through a series of internment camps there, until 1944, when he was deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. He was a prisoner at Mauthausen for almost a year, until the camp was liberated by the US Army in May 1945, at the end of the war.
ALC: Can you tell us a bit about Mauthausen?
MRS: Mauthausen was unique in the concentration camp system, because it was the only one that was specifically designated to work its prisoners to death. Most of the work was done in the granite quarry where the camp was located. Many prisoners also died from starvation, torture, medical experimentation, exposure, disease, and other causes. Of over 200,000 people imprisoned at Mauthausen from 1938 to 1945, at least 90,000 died there.
ALC: How would you summarize your father’s concentration camp experience? Can you give a few examples of how he described it?
MRS: My father was not assigned to work in the quarry at Mauthausen. He worked as a lumberjack. However, he did experience and witness the abuse, intimidation, torture, and murder of fellow prisoners on a daily basis. This traumatized him to the point where he was virtually silent about it for over 40 years. But in 1989 he finally opened up and began to talk about it. He started by describing his first night in the camp, when all the prisoners who arrived from Italy with him were lined up, in a state of total undress. He was the only Black prisoner in that group, and an SS man singled him out for abuse. Speaking in German, the SS man said “You black dog, what are you doing here?” Then he severely brutalized my father by kicking him. Each prisoner was given a number to substitute for his name. My father said that he was terrified every night when the SS would enter the barracks and call out the number of a prisoner who would be taken to his death. So he was always listening for his number. Fortunately, he never heard it. In fact, my father still remembered the first few digits of his number over 40 years later. He also told me about a conversation with a fellow prisoner in which they discussed how they did not expect to survive because they had witnessed so many atrocities. The Nazis did not want the rest of the world to know what they were doing. So if they had to abandon a camp, they would often kill all the prisoners before they left, so that they (the prisoners) would not be able to tell what they had seen. That was the fate that my father thought awaited him at Mauthausen.
ALC: How did your father survive?
MRS: One reason was that he was not assigned to work in the quarry. But I think the main reason for his survival was his command of languages. At Mauthausen, prisoners with language skills were often allowed to live longer than others because they could serve as interpreters. My father, who knew six languages, was one such prisoner. He knew English as a native language, plus Dutch, German, Papiamentu (a Caribbean language), Spanish, and Italian. There were lots of prisoners in Mauthausen who spoke these European languages, so he was able to communicate with a lot of people. One of his nicknames was “the Translator.” The subtitle of my book, From Papiamentu to German, pays tribute to the role of languages in his survival.
ALC: What was the impact of your father’s experience in the concentration camp on the rest of his life?
MRS: I don’t believe that his ordeal at Mauthausen ended with his liberation from the camp. I believe that he was in post-traumatic stress for the rest of his life. He was a quiet person. I think he didn’t want to get too close to many people because he didn’t want any questions about his past. I now understand that his forty-plus years of silence about Mauthausen was a symptom of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During the period of his silence, when I was trying for over twenty years to coax him to speak about his internment, I didn’t know that he had PTSD. This was because I didn’t know the depth of his suffering, and because at that period in history, very little was known about PTSD. But after reading a bit about trauma theory, I understand that trauma victims often try to bury the trauma in silence, but that talking about that trauma can be very cathartic. And I believe that this was the effect of the oral history on my father.
ALC: You visited the concentration camp where your father was imprisoned. Can you describe that experience?
MRS: Visiting Mauthausen was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. It encompassed the full spectrum of emotions from terrifying to gratifying. Since that first visit to Mauthausen, I have been at peace with my father’s experience there, perhaps because I felt that it gave me a chance to walk in his footsteps and share his pain in a way that I could not without visiting the camp.
ALC: Why did you write your book?
MRS: There are many reasons, but one was that I wanted my book to be an example of the value of oral history. I hope it encourages others to record oral histories with their families. Another reason is that I wanted to contribute to a part of African diaspora history that is largely absent from the history books, i.e., the presence of Black people in the Nazi era. Also, I wanted my book to be an example of how we can often present counternarratives through oral history. The lived experiences of many Black people can inform us about areas of history that have been misrepresented or would otherwise remain unknown.
ALC: What would you say is the significance of your book?
MRS: Black history is not usually associated with the Nazi era, but because of my father’s oral history, I was able to reframe my own perceptions, to a broader, more diverse and inclusive understanding of that period in history and share it with others through my book. It illuminates the obscure area where World War II history, Nazi Era history, and Black history converge. My father’s story can expand our perspectives on all three.
ALC: What do you want people to learn from your book?
MRS: I hope my book will be an example of what we can learn from the lived experiences of older people who have witnessed history. My father’s story is an example of an experience that only came to light through oral history. So I hope it inspires others to discover what their elders have witnessed. It’s a very spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually enriching experience for them and for us. For excerpts from the oral history I recorded with my father, please see the website for my book.permission.