Coco Schumann had just eased himself into his chair on the bandstand in the Berlin bar where he was playing guitar when he spotted a squad of SS officers come in. Their swastika armbands made it clear who they were.
They headed straight for one member of the audience, grabbed hold of their quarry and began dragging the hapless fellow to the door.
Their shouting made it clear he was a Jew. Instead of shutting up, Schumann, who was also a Jew, summoned up the guts – the chutzpah, – set his instrument aside and confronted them.
“If you’re going to arrest him, you might as well arrest me too.”
When the officer asked why, Schumann replied: “First of all I’m Jewish, secondly, I’m underage, and thirdly, I’m playing jazz.”
The officer shrugged and ignored him. They left dragging their prey with them.
Schumann managed to avoid capture for one year when someone, he suspects, at the bar betrayed him in 1943. He was 19.
Schumann was shipped to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what is now Terezin, in the Czech Republic.
The Nazis used Theresienstadt as a front to try to convince the Red Cross, other agencies and concerned countries that the accounts they were hearing of the annihilation of Jews in Nazi-run concentration camps and elsewhere were just rumours.
The SS allowed the Judenrat, a counsel of well-known Jews, to manage the camp or at least the section the SS wanted the world to see. The Jewish Council staged concerts, lectures and ran schools for the children of inmates.
Behind the façade, the Nazis ran a forced-labour camp. Once the workers were worn out, the SS sent them to concentration camps where they went straight to the gas chambers.
It’s estimated that over 88,000 people from all over occupied Europe were detained there before being deported to Auschwitz and other camps.
In anticipation of a Red Cross inspection, the SS spruced up the camp’s façade in February 1944. The SS also sent over 7,500 sick, elderly and disabled people to Auschwitz because they looked out of place in the façade of normality.
Swinging at Thereisenstadt
Aware of his musical abilities, the SS dispatched the young guitarist to the camp where he joined the Ghetto Swingers, a jazz band that entertained the guards and the inmates.
“It was the flagship-ghetto the Nazis showed the world,” Schumann recalls. Much to his astonishment, he discovered a coffeehouse shortly after his arrival.
“A coffee house! In the ghetto! I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Playing forbidden music for the SS
There, Coco joined the legendary Ghetto Swingers playing the music of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, music that the Nazis had long outlawed.
Because the Ghetto Swingers’ drummer had been deported to Auschwitz a few days before, Coco took his place on the bandstand. They played every day.
“We feigned a normal life. We tried to forget that there was an impenetrable fence all around.”
As part of the effort to deceive the Red Cross and other agencies, the SS concocted a 20-minute film that shows the band performing in a park at the camp.
Swinging in Hell
Immediately after the spruce-up, the band was deported to Auschwitz where Schumann’s talent won him a chair in the camp’s band. The group was tasked with serenading new inmates and easing their fears while some were being tattooed and others – many of them children – were being led to the gas chambers.
The looks on those children’s eyes left scars that never healed.
“I avoided looking into children’s eyes after that,” Schumann admitted.
“For a long time, I suppressed what I saw – the eyes of children who were led to the gas chambers, the bodies being offloaded,” Schumann recalled.
His quick wit saved him from sharing their fate.
When he was brought into the camp, Schumann came face-to-face with the devil incarnate, camp doctor Josef Mengele, who was attracted by the young jazzer’s blue eyes and blonde hair.
Mengele asked him where he came from and what he did, Schumann shouted “Berlin, Herr Obersturmbannführer! Plumber, Herr Obersturmbannführer!”
Schumann also entertained the guards. Because he was a favourite of theirs, his talents earned him sturdy boots, warm clothes and extra food portions.
Looking back at his days in Hell, Schumann recalled “The human is a peculiar creation,” Coco ponders.
“Unpredictable and merciless. What we saw in those days was unbearable, and yet we bore it. We played the tunes to it, for the sake of our bare survival. We played music in hell.”
Jewish and Swing roots
Heinz Jakob Schumann was born in Berlin in 1924, the son of Alfred Schumann, a Protestant and Hedwig Rothholz, a Jew. His father converted to Judaism out of love for his mother.
Heinz got the nickname, Coco, from a girlfriend and caught the jazz bug when he was 13. A friend played Ella Fitzgerald’s a Tisket-a-Tasket for him and that was it. Using a guitar given him by a cousin, Schumann taught himself how to play jazz on it.
This was no mean feat. Hitler and the Nazis were in power and as a Jew, young Coco had been branded an outcast, a pariah. As well, Hitler had branded jazz a degenerate music, so buying and listening to discs like Fitzgerald’s were illegal – as was playing jazz guitar in a night club.
But as we have seen, Schumann couldn’t care less.
Liberation and life after
As the war turned against the Nazis, the band’s days were done. Food was scarce and sanitary conditions appalling. Schumann caught spotted fever and his captors sent him on a death march. Soon after, he was liberated by American troops.
Despite the past, Schumann returned to Germany, where he met his wife, Gertraud Goldschmidt, who recognized him from her days in Thereisenstadt. The couple emigrated to Australia in 1950, but returned to Germany in 1954, where he began a lengthy successful career backing the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Ella Fitzgerald Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. In time he became known as Germany’s premier swing guitarist.
Breaking the silence
Like most Holocaust survivors, he would not speak of his experiences.
But then on a visit to the Bavarian countryside in the ‘80s Schumann heard a group of young people drinking at a table next to him. The more beer they drank, the louder they declared their convictions that the Holocaust never happened.
“I’m sorry,” Schumann told them before he got up to leave. “I know better. I was there.”
After nearly half a century, the encounter forced him to break his silence. Now he knew he had to tell his story.
Schumann began speaking out wherever he could. Eventually, he wrote and had his autobiography, “The Ghetto Swinger: A Berlin Jazz-Legend Remembers,” published in 1997.
It became a bestseller. In 2012 the book was staged as a musical in the Hamburg.
Coco Schumann passed away in 2018. He was 93.