Holocaust Memorial Day: remembering Coco Schumann – swing in the shadow of swastika
Schumann for a long time remained silent about his memories saying that he was a musician who was in the camp, not a prisoner playing music.
Who has swing in his blood, does not go marching!
Photo: Susan Welchmann
Jazz brings the sound of surprise, an improvisation that scares those who keep order and do not ask questions. Dachau was the first concentration camp, opened only six weeks after Hitler came to power in 1933, in which jazzers were expelled so as not to pollute the cultural atmosphere of the Aryan space. At that time in Germany, they were taught to march with the same step, although when improvised, like in jazz, the step is always different, unexpected and individual. For national socialism, ears accustomed to the Wagner’s Valkyrie, jazz was “the music of incompatible syncopes, niggers from America played by the Jews” spoiling Germanic spirit and Prussian sense of discipline of German youth packed in the ranks of Hitlerjugend, ready to be sent to the Eastern Front as cannon fodder. Even swing, which was very popular among the German youth of the Weimar Republic, disturbed the builders of the Nazi army although it was much more melodious and lighter than jazz. But the free negligence and flirting of the unapproachability of the new world’s roots threatened Nazi ideology with reason. The one who listened to and liked jazz could not be an adherent of the idea of the purity of the Germanic race. As early as 1933, immediately after coming to power, the local authorities of some cities and municipalities began to brutally penalize every swing and jazz gig. Even the exchange of records was considered a serious offense. In October 1935, the leader of the Third Reich Radio Eugen Hadamovski pronounced the final ban on the broadcasting of jazz by centralized radio stations. Consequently, every touch with jazz, every step in the rhythm of swing became life-threatening. With great pleasure, Himmler filled camps with disobedient swingers and jazzers since 1942.
MAIN FORM OF RESISTANCE: As Nazism gained wider spiritual spaces, jazz and swing became one of the main forms of resistance, most among young people. Everything was jazz: how was the tie wrapped up, what the haircut was like, and in what step was one going through the Ku’damm. There was a whole language of movement, metaphor, codes for which jazz and swing conspirators recognized one another. In 1936, just twelve years old, on the streets of Berlin, Jacob Coco Schumann (1924-2018) ran out as a solid student and an incomplete “mampe” with an extraordinary sense for guitar, which he received as a gift for his fifth birthday. Mampe was soft drink, popular at the time, which consisted of half of the liqueur, and the other half of orange juice; and at the same time, the name for all of those who were half-Jewish. In the irony of life and history, mampe was a colloquial derivative of the Hebrew word mamzer in the meaning of: a bastard, an illegal descent of an unacceptable marriage. Berlin in the spring of 1936 for boys was overwhelming: “We roamed around the streets around Ku’damm, full of bars and bars where she played the most exciting music in the world. We hid behind the doors, breathing smoke and dissolving notes.” The soft swing and jazz music was the legendary Palace of Delphi at the corner of Kant Street and the Phasanen Street, where all the famous musicians of the world performed during those years. Guided by the safe hand of the Jewish gastronomist Jozef Koenig, the Delphi palace, especially during the 1936 Olympics, became the scene of the most eminent musical performances: Teddy Steufer, Max Ruf, Gunther Herzog, Hanz Weber and the minor Jacob Schumann, later to be nicknamed Coco.
Post-war brutal and political vulgar denationalization has historically aligned the incredible and respectable vitality, creativity, courage and toughness of the cultural wonder of the Weimar Republic. Although quite aware of the inevitability of the tragedy that followed, individual and persistent voices of resistance were routinely sprung from smoky, indecent outlets all over Berlin, in which in 1941, immediately after the decision was made on the “final solution”, the hit of July was a jazz piece “You can not stop me from dreaming”. Exposed to the prohibitions derived from the Nuremberg Laws, being a Jew, a minor and a jazzer, Coco Schumann played under false identity in the orchestras Ernst van Hoff and Tulia Mobil. In March 1943, Schumann was arrested and deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, just shy of his 19 birthday.
AN “EXEMPLARY” GHETTO: Theresienstadt had a special meaning as a camp of the propaganda machinery of the Third Reich. The Theresienstadt was a ghetto for the German and international public, proof of the “humanitarianism” of the Nazis towards the Jews, a camp with a highly developed cultural life. Coco Schumann approached Frico Weiss and other musicians who were allowed to play, even jazz and swing, for propaganda purposes, and performed under the name Ghetto Swingers, immediately upon his arrival in Theresienstadt. In March 1944, the shooting of the film Theresienstadt began – a documentary from a Jewish settlement led by Kurt Gerron, a famous actor, writer and director of the Weimar Republic, who as a Jew himself was a Holocaust victim, detained after an unsuccessful perennial exile in Paris and Amsterdam.
“FUHRER’s PRESENT”: In this film, in the final production under the sarcastic name of Fuhrer, the entire city was given to the Jews, all members of the Ghetto Swingers band, sixteen of them, were promised freedom. Only three survived the Holocaust: “After shooting, we were immediately taken to Auschwitz, most directly into the gas chamber,” Schumann recalled. One of the killed was Kurt Geronn, along with 1,600 children from Theresienstadt.
In September 1944, Schumann was transferred to Auschwitz, where he was a member of the death band orchestra. They played La Paloma as people were taken into gas chambers. As long as he lived, Schumann dreamt of those who were gassed. “My music saved my life, but at what price!”
In January 1945, Schumann was transferred to Kaufering, the provincial camp of the Dachau Complex, from where in April 1945, together with other prisoners in the death march, he was sent to Innsbruck. The Nazis have vacated the camps attempting to destroy evidence of the Holocaust. In numerous deaths in which 714,000 inmates were registered, at least a third are thought to have been killed or succumbed to exhaustion and hunger. The Schumann group was fortunate to be rescued on the road by the US Army.
After the war, Coco Schumann tried with his family to establish an existence in Australia, but after five years he had to return to his Berlin. “They will not defeat me, because they themselves have been thrown to their knees”! He founded a band with Helmut Zacharias and was the first to use the electric guitar for the interpretation of jazz and swing. Schumann for a long time remained silent about his memories saying that he was a musician who was in the camp, not a prisoner playing music. Only after the publication of the autobiography Ghetto Swinger, in 1997, Schumann started actively participating in programs aimed at preserving the memory of what happened.
On Sunday, 28 January, just one day after the remembrance of Auschwitz, he died in his home in Berlin, aged 94. He died as a jazzer, because jazz is an attitude towards life, not just a musical direction.
First published in Novi magazin No. 353, 1 February 2018