Choosing to Write

Mary L. Romney-Schaab is the author of An Afro-Caribbean in the Nazi Era: From Papiamentu to German. It is the true story of her father, Lionel Romney, of St. Martin. It includes an account of his time imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. In an interview, she shared her motivation for writing her book. The following is an excerpt from her interview, including quotes from her book.

Mary Romney-Schaab with her father Lionel Romney.

How and why did you decide to write the book?
A lot of my reasons for writing the book are based on my strong feelings about the importance of history. The historical significance of my father’s story is that he witnessed the major event of the 20th century from a perspective rarely documented in history books.

For those of us in the African Diaspora (and Africa itself), so much of our history is irrecoverable, and so much has been lost because we’ve been excluded from history that has been written by others. This is partly because there is so much of our own history that has gone unwritten, and because we come from an oral tradition.

Another reason I wanted to write this book was because of the dearth of information about how Black people were affected by the Nazi era. I wanted to contribute to the history of World War II in general, and to the history of the Nazi era in particular. It can deepen our understanding of the war, and it can broaden interest in the Nazi era if the full array of its victims is known. The more complete our understanding of the history of World War II, the better we can strengthen the entire tapestry of history and understand one another in the present.

Although my father’s is only one story, I believe that it allows us to access an area of World War II history that has largely remained marginal, as it is practically absent from the literature. When I saw how my father had been (mis)represented in the literature, I decided that it was my responsibility to give him his rightful place in history. I also address this in my book: Without telling his story, amplifying his voice, and sharing his experience, he would remain at best a footnote, a trivial curiosity or a factoid. I wanted to elucidate my father’s story in order to complete and correct what has been written about him in other works which briefly mention him.

Philipsburg around the time of Lionel Romney’s birth.

What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?
By far the most difficult aspect of the process was putting my feelings into words. It was very difficult to express the shock, the fear, the sadness, the catharsis, and so many other feelings while journeying through my father’s experience and especially when visiting the concentration camp where he was interned.

What do you hope your book achieves?
I hope my book inspires others to carry out oral history projects with the elders in their families before it’s too late. I hope readers will think about why the past is always present. I hope readers will broaden their perspectives on World War II and the Nazi era. I hope that Caribbean people will see that St. Maarten and the Caribbean had a role in World War II through the lived experiences of some of our people. I hope my book will be an example of how and why we, as Afro-Caribbean people, must take the responsibility for our history. This means learning it and teaching it to youth and making sure that it is taught to future generations.

I find that the way individuals and communities perceive their history is the way they perceive themselves. Those with high self-esteem are also proud of their history. We must take proud ownership of our history without being ashamed of it. Instead of internalizing our oppression, and allowing it to negatively affect our collective and individual self-esteem, we should be proud of our survival, not ashamed of our oppression.

Is there a story in your family history that you would like to share? Let us know by writing in to info@lesfruitsdemer.com or The Daily Herald. We will also be sharing more of Mary Romney-Schaab’s interview next week. Mary’s book is for sale at Amazon.com.

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