This exhibition explores the life of Ronald (Ronnie) Roberts (1921-2001), born in Wiesbaden to a white German mother and a British/Barbadian father. Roberts experienced racist persecution at the hands of the Nazis during the 1930s and was interned as a British national in German camps during the Second World War. After a time working for the British army of occupation and running a bar in Vienna, Ronnie settled in Britain in the early 1950s. He later married Carol and ran a hotel in Devon.
The exhibition draws upon the memoir that Ronald Roberts dictated towards the end of his life, and documents and photographs relating to her husband’s life deposited at the Library by Carol Roberts in 2008.
- BBC History Revealed (December 2020)
- BBC History Revealed (August 2021)
All images and documents are from the Ronald Roberts’ Collections, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections, courtesy Carol Roberts, unless otherwise stated. Images and documents must not be reproduced without consent.
The Persecution of Black People in Nazi Germany
Prisoner Record Card from Buchenwald Concentration Camp for Gert Lothar Schramm, 1944. In the section of the card presenting reasons for arrest, the term ‘Negermischling’ appears. The use of this racial slur to describe a person of mixed heritage reveals that Schramm’s incarceration was at least partially motivated by his race.
International Tracing Service Archive, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections, Doc No. 7058062
The number of Black people living in Germany at the time of the Nazi accession to power has been estimated at around 20,000. Some of these people were from countries in what had been the German Empire, such as Namibia and Togo. Other Black people in Germany were French citizens or the children of the French colonial soldiers stationed in the Rhineland until 1930. Black musicians from the British Empire and the United States were also resident in the country in small numbers.
Most of the Black people living in Germany did not have German citizenship, and they often encountered prejudice and discrimination prior to the Nazis’ accession to power and post-war.
During the Nazi era, Black people in Germany were not a target for persecution by the Nazi authorities to the same extent that Jews were. However, Black Germans were subject to regulations that barred non-‘Aryan’ Germans from working in the civil service from 1933. All musicians were required to register with the Reich Music Chamber in order to work, and membership was often refused on the grounds of race or political views. Only one Black German, Kwassi Bruce, is known to have gained membership.
The Nazis extended The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 to cover not only Jews but also Black people and Roma. This rendered Black Germans stateless and banned them from having relationships with ‘Aryan’ Germans.
Black people faced increasing persecution and discrimination in education and employment in Nazi Germany. Many Black children were excluded from school informally – by 1941, they were excluded by law.
Black people in the German Reich were not targeted for mass killing as Jews and Roma were, but they were sometimes incarcerated in concentration camps on racial grounds, and Black Germans with citizenship were often forced to work in labour camps. Some Black Germans and Black people living in Germany were subject to forced sterilisation, including hundreds of children of French colonial soldiers based in the Rhineland.
Ronald Roberts’ Family
Ronald Roberts’ parents, Alma Karbach and Henry Evandale Roberts, met in Rostock and married in the Luther Kirche, Berlin, in 1913.
Alma Karbach was a milliner with her own business in Rostock and Henry Roberts had come to Rostock from Barbados in 1911 to study music. Because he was a British citizen, the German authorities interned Henry Roberts in Ruhleben during the First World War. After the war, he formed a show band that toured Europe.
By 1919, the couple were prospering and had rented a large villa in Wiesbaden and employed servants. Their daughter Beryl was born in 1919 and son Ronald in 1921.
Ronald Roberts’ Childhood
Henry Roberts left to go on tour in around 1924 and did not return to his young family. Ronald Roberts only saw his father once more during his childhood. Alma Karbach had to move to a small flat in Wiesbaden and took work washing, mending and ironing clothes.
In her new locale, she experienced racist insults because she had a mixed-race family. Ronald Roberts recalled in his memoir that his mother ‘was a strong-minded haughty lady, and always instilled in us to ignore the snips, we were better than them.’ Other children frequently directed racist taunts at Beryl and Ronald as they travelled to and from school. Ronnie preferred the school holidays when he and Beryl would play with their friends Annie Mann and Rudi Schepers or see members of his mother’s family.
The Rise of the Nazis
Aged eleven in 1932, Ronald Roberts joined the Deutsches Jungvolk, a part of the Hitler Youth for 10-14 year old boys. He stated in his memoir that he ‘wasn’t made welcome by a lot of the boys but I loved the sense of belonging.’ When the Nazis came to power in January 1933, Ronnie was given a Swastika to carry at the front of a Jungvolk march, but members of the local Sturm Abteilung (SA – Nazi Storm Troopers) objected. The Nazi flag was taken from Ronnie and he was told that he could no longer attend Jungvolk as ‘foreigners [were] not allowed’.
In the mid-1930s, Nazi racial persecution against Jews, Roma and Black people intensified. When he was thirteen, Ronnie Roberts was removed from his school on racial grounds and sent to a school for ‘undesirables’. There, staff and students bullied him. He stopped attending and his mother sent him to a music academy. Ronnie started to supplement the family’s income by playing the piano accordion in pubs and at music festivals. He was also forced by the authorities to work on Autobahn (motorway) construction around this time. It was increasingly hard for those not deemed to be ‘Aryan’ to find work as musicians, and this probably impacted Ronnie.
Aged fifteen, the Gestapo summoned Ronald Roberts and confronted him with allegations that he had been seen holding hands with a white girl, a breach of the Nazis’ laws around racial ‘purity’.
The Gestapo ordered Roberts to report to a hospital. He did not go, and in his memoir, he records that he discovered a few weeks later that the Nazi authorities were sterilising Black German men. He decided to leave Germany for his own safety and applied for a British passport, in the hope that it would offer him some protection against Nazi persecution. In his memoir, Ronnie said of this time:
I had no intention of being castrated; I swore to myself that they would have to kill me first. The experience deeply affected me; I was shaken to the core. To this day I am haunted by nightmares.
In the late 1930s, as a teenager, Ronald Roberts lived a semi-legal life in Switzerland as a musician and a performer in a circus, but he did not have permission to work in the country. In 1938, he travelled to Britain and attempted unsuccessfully to join the British Army. In Britain, Roberts ended up homeless and busked until he had enough money to return to Germany.
During the war, the Nazi authorities held Ronnie in internment camps in various places in Germany, including Würzburg.
Ronnie Roberts had obtained a British passport in the mid-1930s in an effort to protect himself against racist persecution by the Nazi authorities in Germany, and this had some effect in that he was interned by the Germany authorities as a British citizen for most of the war. Although conditions in the camps were often poor, Roberts was not forced to work in labour camps as some Black Germans were.
Ronnie Roberts tried twice to escape from internment. He escaped once with a friend: they were quickly recaptured. The second time, Ronnie volunteered to work on a farm and then managed to get away with the help of his sister. He hide for a time in Austria and then tried to cross the border to Switzerland, but was re-captured by the Gestapo.
After the war, Ronnie Roberts lived for a time in a Displaced Persons camp in Austria. There he worked for the British Army as a translator and a driver. He subsequently went to Vienna to live with his sister who had moved there.
In Vienna, Ronnie married a friend of his sister’s, Hermine, trained as a cocktail waiter and worked in Hotel Sacher, where he ran ‘Ronnie’s Bar’, a popular spot in post-war Vienna.
Ronnie and Hermine emigrated to London in the early 1950s but split up after his daughter from a previous relationship came to live with them. He later met and married Carol, and the couple owned a hotel in Devon, had two children and enjoyed travelling. In his memoir, dictated to Carol shortly before his death, Ronnie Roberts said:
I’m eighty years old now, and still enjoy life. The family persuaded me to sell my motorbike last year. But Carol and I haven’t given up our travelling adventures yet, although, these days we have curtailed the mileage a little.
The Persecution of Black People in Nazi Germany: Ronald Roberts’ Story
Exhibition Type: Online Exhibition