The Ghetto Swinger reviewed in BLVD, Netherlands May 4, 2016

BLVD book review May 4, 2016

by Jessica Heijmans

The Ghetto Swinger: Music saved the life of Coco Schumann in WWII

 

Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie. These are just a few of the great names that the 92 year old jazz musician Coco Schumann has performed with. His career as a jazz/swing artist started in the 1930s and spanned more than seventy years. It was only in the 1980s that Schumann started sharing his horrific experiences as a musician in the concentration camps.

When I was asked what happened I waved it away by saying: “Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Dachau – you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” Coco Schumann kept quiet about his experiences in World War Two for decades. When journalist Paul Karalus visited him in 1986, Schumann decided it was time to share his story and explain how jazz – literally – saved his life. For the first time ever, his book The Ghetto Swinger is available in English, and we received a copy of this touching story.

I still do not know how to handle it the right way: it cannot be forgotten, ignored or suppressed, but the remainder of your life should not be determined solely by the horrors that happened decades ago.

The deception of Theresienstadt

Schumann could hide being Jewish for a long time because of his musical talent and Aryan appearance. He was betrayed and arrested in 1943 nonetheless. The then 19-year-old Schumann was transported to Theresienstadt; a camp that was used by the Germans to show the outside world that they [were not mistreating] the Jews. It was not long before Schumann held an instrument again and performed with The Ghetto Swingers, [a camp jazz band] .

Even though everyone [including The Ghetto Swingers] who participated in a propaganda movie was promised freedom, Schumann was put on a train to Auschwitz-Birkenau with many others. He once again became member of a band, but this time around he played to save his life instead of [trying to] win back his freedom. In this band he had to entertain Nazi officials and perform in front of the prisoners who were marched towards the gas chambers.

I have looked for and found a home in jazz. A home without nations, without inhuman value systems… Anyone with swing in his blood cannot march in lockstep.

A home in jazz music

Schumann survived his time in the concentration camps and was saved just in time. Back in Berlin his musical career took off. He wrote music, formed a couple of bands and was the first to play the electric guitar in Germany. He also met his wife, Gertraud, who survived Theresienstadt as well.

The couple did not feel at home in Germany anymore and emigrated to Australia where Coco Schumann had various hits. Nevertheless, they moved back after four years and, once more, Schumann found his way to jazz. He played at the biggest clubs, on Mediterranean cruise ships, opened his own bar (The Coco Bar) and became a music teacher. It wasn’t until 2014, at the age of ninety, that Schumann left the stage.

I am a musician, a musician who was imprisoned in a concentration camp, not a concentration camp inmate who also plays some music.

Why should you read this book? Coco Schumann takes you on a trip through his life and the history that surrounded it. This book not only gives a new perspective on World War Two, but provides a closer look at the the jazz scene of the twentieth century as well. Schumann grabs your interest and lets you witness his beautiful, humorous and shocking experiences from up close.

Translation by author, Jessica Heijmans, copyright 2016

Dutch text here.

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