‘Breath of Freedom’: German Filmmaker Recounts Making Documentary About Black G.I.s

Dag Freyer, filmmaker, "Breath of Freedom." (Photo: Smithsonian Channel)

For nearly two decades, German filmmaker Dag Freyer had a deep desire to share the stories of black American G.I.s and Afro-Germans who lived in his homeland during World War II.

However, when the opportunity came about to create “Breath of Freedom,” his new documentary on the subject, the 39-year-old, who is white, questioned the appropriateness of his involvement.

“Why would I be the right person to make this film? I thought an African American filmmaker from the United States should make it” Freyer confesses, admitting he feared there would be backlash. “I had really never thought about the color of my skin in my whole life. This was the first time that I thought about it.”

Good thing he got over his uncertainties and moved forward with filming. Presented by the Smithsonian Channel, “Breath of Freedom” is a compelling 90-minute documentary that recounts the experiences of African-Americans during World War II. It examines the racial injustices black American G.I.s underwent in the military, the freedoms they enjoyed overseas—including the interracial relationships they had and the children they produce–and their influence in the civil rights movement.  Former U.S. Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, Congressman John Lewis and Charles Evers, brother of civil rights activist and World War II veteran Medgar Evers, are among the many contributors. Cuba Gooding Jr., who starred in films about black World War II veterans,  narrates.

Freyer talked to XFINITY about the influence black American G.I.s had in Germany, the relationship between black World War II veterans and the civil rights movement, and Nazi Germany’s black concentration camp prisoners.

Did you grow up hearing stories about these African American G.I.s in Germany?

My grandparents still had memories of African American G.I.s sharing candy with German children. So those are stories I knew like many people in Germany who would share those kinds of stories.  Obviously, not only African American G.I.s shared their candy; the white G.I.s shared their candy, too. But since many of these children saw African Americans for the first on this occasion this sort of stuck in their memories.

How long did it take for you to work on this documentary?

I went to the States for the first time to do research during the summer of 2012. When we started out we were kind of unsure if we could make this film. We worried we wouldn’t be able to find people who could still talk about this period. And those experiences are very personal; you can’t just go to someone with a camera and record their story. I believe you have to meet most of these people first and sort of build a relationship and that’s what I tried to do on that first trip. And when I came back I thought about these stories being fresh in everybody’s memory and these veterans that I met really wanted to talk about it and share these very, very personal experiences and that was of course a blessing and a privilege to learn that they would share these stories with us.

It seems like you got some very good interviews. Many people are unaware of the experiences slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers and his brother Charles Evers experienced during World War II.

Medgar Evers, I think is very, very famous in the United States. Not that many people in Germany, I believe, had heard of him. So I’m kind of glad that this part of his life, the war background is not that well-known, played a major role in this film.

Watch “Breath of Freedom”
[iframe http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/watch/Breath-of-Freedom/7436118728291891112/160973891661/Breath-of-Freedom/embed 580 476]

Many people also are unaware of the influence black World War II veterans and the civil rights movement.

I believe the story of the World War II veterans and their later part in the civil rights movement is a part of the story, still I believe should be more popular but had already been researched in a couple of books and documentary. I believe what’s new about our documentary are the post-war years and we really want to back to the training of these soldiers in the United States and what they experienced there and their wartime experience. We also wanted to show obviously there are African American war heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen. We talked to Dr. Roscoe Brown Jr. and he’s really a very, very impressive person, a very sophisticated individual with incredible experience. But we also wanted to show that most of the African American G.I.s were foot soldiers and never received the kind of recognition of their service during the war and most of them didn’t receive after the war either. I’m really glad that we can present a mixture of veterans of the Tuskegee Airmen—who were a famous group–and those who were among those foot soldiers.

What did you learn from working on this documentary?

For me, it was incredibly impressive to meet these veterans and to see that they were sharing their stories at their age and were still lively with the memory and were you open about it and ready to talk to me. I had the impression that many of them—I mean obviously they had memories of their own life—I told them about other veterans and I believe it gave them the feeling that their own experiences weren’t just personal but were a part of history.  That was a fascinating part of making this documentary: all of these personal stories and experiences if you put them together, they make history. And for me that was incredibly fascinating and a very touching experience.  The experiences these veterans had in Germany often contradicted the experiences in their own country. I believe there’s a lot to learn from this documentary on both sides for Germans and Americans.

Another fascinating part of this documentary is the story about black people in Nazi concentration camps during that period. Who were these people?

That is story I really can’t tell you too much about. It’s really a story in itself that needs more research. I can’t tell you too much about I interviewed an Afro-German actor who I actually met 15 years ago when I was still a student and I remembered his story when I made this film. Since most of the stories of the African American veterans who came over after the war were really very positive because they had opportunities here that they didn’t have at home, it was very important for me to show what German racism felt like for blacks who grew up here to sort kind of counter the experiences of the African American soldiers. And of course the experience about blacks living here in Germany during the Nazi era, it was a very, very hard life for them. Most of the Afro-Germans here at the time had ancestors in the German colonies and when these Africans came to Germany before World War I, most of them can recall these time of Germany as a pretty good time and the Germans kind of welcomed them because they were exotic and it reminded them they had colonies. But all of that changed after Germany lost its colonies in 1918  after World War I. The country entered a climate of hostility and on top of that hostility that was already there the Nazis of course could sort of build up their ideology of racism against anyone who wasn’t Aryan, Jews most of all but also blacks. This is the history of these blacks who were in Germany during the Nazi years and also ended up in concentration camps.

You also touch on Germany’s brown babies, children produced from the relationships between white German women and black American G.I.s. You tracked down one of these children, Elvira Rypacek, who was able to reunite with her father.

Yes, that was a very, very touching moment for me to. We approached some organizations that were responsible for helping these brown babies finding their fathers in the United States. It’s kind of strange to call them brown babies because they are grown up right now. She let us be a part of the reunion.  We flew over the United States and we were part of that fascinating moment when she met her dad for the first time. It also shows you that this film was a last opportunity to make this kind of documentary because in the meantime, unfortunately, her father Ross Walker Jr., had passed away. And she tracked him a year or two later she wouldn’t have met him.

Read XFINITY’s interview with David Royle, executive vice president of programming and production for the Smithsonian Channel, who discussed “Breath of Freedom” and other black-centric programming the network offers, here.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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