Art becomes more important in troubled times. Berlin-based jazz musician Coco Schumann used the power of music to survive the nightmare of three concentration camps. Now, at 91 years of age, he tells his story.
By Ilario Tapio, March 7, 2016
Satakunnan Kansa, Finland
Together, the human mind and the passing of time can smother the hot coals of memory so that they cannot speak. The Berlin veteran jazz musician Coco Schumann, 91, was silent for a long time since his youth in the 1940s. He was in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau concentration camps.
Schumann muted feelings of guilt that he was actually alive when people alongside him marched to the gas chamber. He knew that words would not be enough to tell this experience. And he thought that no one would believe him.
“I do not believe it myself. Now that I’m older I am least able to talk about the incident, but the practical experiences I am unable to recall. They were so shocking.”
In addition to talking about them, Coco Schumann has written about his experiences. His biography The Ghetto Swinger: A Berlin Jazz-Legend Remembers appeared recently in English.
The book, written with Max Christian Graeff and Michaela Haas, is a spirited and colorful story about the art of humor, as well as the power of hope in circumstances where there is no hope. Even in the Auschwitz death camp music gave Schumann hope, and he gave it to others in the message of his music.
GERMANY Heinz Jacob “Coco” Schumann is a celebrity. He is a legend of the swing-generation, a pioneer of the electric guitar, and the list of international musicians he has played with include: Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Marlene Dietrich, Toots Thielemans, and others.
Due to his advanced age and the book being available in English, he has answered questions in writing via the American publisher DoppelHouse Press.
“Music saved my life,” he sums up as the message of his book.
Schumann is Jewish on his mother’s side. The first time he felt different was in the early 1930s, when the primary school teacher asked the students to bring a five-penny coin to school the next day. So little Heinz did too.
With a coin, each student bought a nail, each of which in turn was hammered into the blackboard. The teacher explained that the nail symbolized the bold new youth organization the Hitlerjugend. And with the nail, they joined its members.
When Heinz’s turn came, the teacher intervened. The boy was a Jew, and could not, therefore, belong to the group.
It was a shock. It was a shock, not least because after that happened, school mates began to distance themselves from young Heinz. Others were superior. He was a Jew.
MUSIC sustained the boy at that time. His uncle played drums in a band amusement park where Heinz starred in dances at his grandmother’s birthday party in 1928. There, the under school-age boy saw for the first time a variety of players and decided immediately to become a musician when he grew up. Heinz became Coco, a drummer and guitarist passionately obsessed with American jazz and swing. As a teenager he accompanied several bands in Berlin’s bars and clubs.
“Police raided the clubs regularly with the Gestapo, but there was always someone at the door like a guard dog,” Schumann recalls.
“At the alarm, we changed the song on the fly and substituted German for the English words. For example, the Andrew Sisters’ Joseph! Joseph!, which mocked Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, was changed in no time to the harmless Sie nicht Blumen und nicht Schokoladen (She doesn’t want flowers or chocolate).”
Coco Schumann was not a typical Jew. He had blond hair and blue eyes. He spoke in Berlin’s youth slang and merged into the population so naturally that he felt he did not have to hide himself from the Nazis.
Not even the outbreak of the war and when the Allies started bombing put a damper on young musicians in their groove. They played music furiously and feverishly in the last days.
“Even if many of our friends lost their lives or were interned or fell on the battlefield, we kept on playing. Even when day was no longer distinguishable from night, when after an air raid darkness would fall over the streets like it was evening.”
It all ended in March 1943. The Nazis arrested 19-year-old Coco Schumann for failing to wear the yellow Star of David, for playing forbidden music and dating Aryan women.
No longer could the clever young man get off the hook by talking.
The assembly center where Schumann was sent was departing ranks of people to Auschwitz in Poland, where he was saved at the last moment. His Aryan father petitioned for mercy and showed their identity papers to the SS-commander begging to move the son to Theresienstadt. It was an “easier” concentration camp on the Czech side. Coco’s Jewish grandparents were already there.
“At Theresienstadt many musicians working in the kitchen.
“I met guitarist Franta Gold Schmidt on the second day of my arrival. He belonged to the camp jazz band The Ghetto Swingers, whose drummer was recently deported on a train for Auschwitz.”
There he got a job as a drummer in the Third Reich’s hottest jazz band.
Theresienstadt became famous in 1944, when the Nazis let the Red Cross Delegation visit the “Jewish settlement” and made a documentary film about the quality of life there. Both were macabre propaganda theater.
“They purified the camp by sending 7000 ill and old prisoners to Auschwitz. Then, the sidewalks were washed with soap and curtains were hung in the front windows. There even appeared playgrounds and the concentration camp’s own bank.”
The documentary featured a tour of the music programs in the camp including the Jewish choral and violin orchestra and, of course, The Ghetto Swingers.
“We were dressed in tuxedos, but we did not get decent shoes. They looked so miserable they masked them with flowerpots and orchestra stands. After the vicious charade Theresienstadt came back to reality.”
In September 1944, the Nazis began Arbeit nach Ostenseinsatztransporte, ie. the transport of prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau – the death camps. Over 30,000 prisoners, among them 7,000 children started the terrible train journey.
Coco Schumann’s turn came in January 1945. He started playing as soon as he got to Auschwitz because in order to make room for newcomers, the so-called gypsy prisoners, who had been a 30-person orchestra, had just been killed. With violinist Otto Sattler he reached up to select an instrument from the players’ abandoned possessions.
In order to survive in Auschwitz, he somehow had to play for sadistic SS officers and kapos – German ‘professional criminals’ who were fellow prisoners. The music was their entertainment.
“Sometimes officers had terrible parties, where we had to be able to play whatever song they wanted, immediately. One mistake or careless gesture could have meant an immediate death sentence.”
Another place they had to play was at the gate of the camp in the morning. Many of the new arrivals were directed on Dr. Josef Mengele’s order directly into the lines for the gas chambers, and the orchestra accompanied their grim march. Security officers usually requested La Paloma.
“One morning Otto Sattler stood there on the edge, and saw his wife and five children walk past him,” Schumann says.
“They looked at each other through the fence for the last time.”
Schumann’s own death was near. Even at the end of the war he was transported to Dachau in southern Germany, to Kaufering concentration camp, where he fell ill with typhus and was forced on a death march towards Innsbruck. American liberators in tanks finally arrived on May Day 1945.
“Out of one of them rose an American priest, who began to cry after seeing us. Then he uttered a silent blessing.
“It was a touching moment: a Protestant priest blessing us Jews.”
Does the contemporary reader understand more than one person’s story in this tale of a musician’s life in concentration camps? Yes, many. The book relates the scene that eventually convinced Coco Schumann to share his experiences.
A number of young people were enjoying a beer in a restaurant in the Bavarian countryside. The more they drank, the louder they declared that the Holocaust never happened.
“Excuse me for interrupting, but I know it did,” he told the young people before leaving.
“Because I was there.”
RARE image. Coco Schumann plays the drums in the concentration camp band The Ghetto Swingers.
Survivor. After the war Coco Schumann was the first German musician who played electric guitar for a live audience. He retired at the age of 90 years old.
Coco Schumann’s later life:
Last inset box:
A Must Watch Video The [surviving] excerpts of the 1945 German propaganda film from Theresienstadt.