Drummer for the Nazis

By Henk van Gelder, May 13, 2016
NRC Handelsblad, Amsterdam

View the original article in Dutch.

Coco Schumann (1924)
Playing music in the ‘model camp’ Theresienstadt saved his life. Even then, Schumann was sent to Auschwitz. And he played on. In the English translation of the German book, the Jewish musician Schumann relates how he survived by making music in concentration camps.

Heinz Jakob Schumann longed to be in the Hitler Youth. In his Berlin elementary school, in the thirties, he was just like all the other students fired up with optimistic excitement brought by the new regime. Everything would be different and better. And he was an adventurous boy who, of course, wanted to hear that. But as he walked forward in the classroom, with five pennies in his pocket to buy the necessary HJ badge, he was stopped by the teacher in front of the whole class. No, the man said, Jews were not allowed to participate.

Young Schumann hardly knew he was a Jew. At home they celebrated the Jewish holidays, but also Christian ones. The Christmas tree stood beside the Hanukkah candles. For the Nazi regime, however, this made no difference. Schumann did not join the Hitler Youth; first, he was sent to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz. And he survived both places of abomination by playing in camp orchestras. In Theresienstadt, he played drums with a jazz band, which was called The Ghetto Swingers, known to history by way of a mendacious film documentary about the camp.

Coco Schumann—he got his nickname from a French friend who could not pronounce the H in Heinz—was silent about its horrific past for a long time after the war. He didn’t want his non-Jewish friends and colleagues to feel any guilt. And he did his best to give no offense, mindful of a [Jewish, survivor] friend who once said to him: “Coco, they will never forgive us for what they did to us.”

As soon as possible [after the war], Coco wanted to be back as a musician among musicians, and he continued his career as a guitarist in the German entertainment industry. Until the Theresienstadt film in which he was featured so prominently became increasingly spoken about. Gradually he began to give interviews and to participate in historical documentaries. He told his life story to Max Christian Graeff and Michaela Haas for the book Der Ghetto Swinger (1997), which is now published in English. “The suffering and fear have changed my life,” he says in the preface, “but the music has kept me going and made everything good again. […] I am a musician who has been in several concentration camps, not someone in a concentration camp who also made a little music.”

The Ghetto Swinger also has plenty to say about the Berlin jazz clubs where Schumann brazenly played until he was arrested in March 1943, and his postwar career in which he says he never reached the top, but became a “specialist” who managed to earn a living for his family. But it is inevitable that the chapters on the camps make the biggest impression. If not for them, this book would not exist.

Model Camp

The Ghetto Swingers had already been formed by the time Schumann was interned in Theresienstadt. They fit perfectly into the facade of the model camp that the Germans were using as propaganda for the Red Cross. Such an orchestra gave a passionate impression. They even played music strictly forbidden outside the camp: the hot jazz of American idols like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The Gershwin classic “I got rhythm” was their signature tune.

Schumann was lucky, but how bitter it was, too: the orchestra was temporarily shut down because the drummer was put on a train to Auschwitz. Schumann, who had worked previously as a guitarist, bluffed that he was a drummer. The job brought him benefits including extra food rations and a little room—an unimaginable luxury there. And when they had to appear in the film, the musicians even got new white shirts. But ultimately, these prisoners also went the way of their previous drummer.

Schumann arrived in Auschwitz in October 1944. There too, he was in touch with other musicians who had formed a camp orchestra. They sent him to a warehouse where the belongings were piled of those who had been killed. He found a Selmergitaar “I had never played on such a beautiful instrument. I did not think about the previous owner—that was the only way. ” The serene sentence remains unfinished. Schumann refers undoubtedly to how it was the only way to survive.

The orchestra had the task of playing cheerful music at Nazi parties and at the main entrance of the camp. Frequently they had to play the wistful La Paloma—the favorite number of the camp leadership. After the war Coco Schumann played it often. “Sometimes I thought then about the people who were sent to their deaths. But there were also moments that I was not thinking of them. Then, I thought about the music. I had at least one good reason never to play La Paloma ever again, but I had a thousand reasons to play it.”