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Music

Jazz in Auschwitz - Coco Schumann looks back

Coco Schumann made a name for himself in Berlin's 1930s underground jazz scene - where he refused to be cowed by Nazi dictates. In one sense, it was his affinity for the genre that later saved his life.

A few weeks ago, reporters crammed into Heinz "Coco" Schumann's bungalow in a western Berlin suburb to celebrate the performer's 90th birthday. His humble abode seems like that of any other nonagenarian German. A closer look at the photos on the walls, however, reveals a life shaped and ultimately saved by music.

Schumann's father was German and a Protestant, his mother a German Jew. Coco Schumann stayed in Berlin for the first 10 years of Nazi rule. He refused to wear a yellow star and to limit his activities to those deemed suitable by the Nazis.

While his parents moved around Berlin, at times being hidden by German friends, he made a name for himself in Berlin's underground jazz scene - which remained popular despite the authorities' ban on the popular American import.

...on a false sense of security in the 30s

'Arrest me, too'

In 1942, Schumann had his first close call with Nazi racial laws. A group of German SS officers came into a bar where Schumann and his band were playing. The guards were searching for Jews and others whom the German government sought to eradicate. Upon the men's entry, a Jewish audience member mounted the stage and tried to escape through a back door while Schumann and his band were playing.

"I went up to the SS officer and said, 'If you're going to arrest him, you should probably arrest me, too,'" Schumann recalled. When asked why, Schumann continued, "I told him, 'First, I'm Jewish. Second, I am underage. And third, I am playing jazz.'"

Although he wasn't arrested at that time - Schumann thinks the officers did not believe he was Jewish - things changed one year later. In 1943, German authorities began deporting Germans of Jewish-Christian parentage - and someone had apparently informed the authorities that Coco Schumann's mother was Jewish. Schumann received a letter from the police authorities that he was to report to the Alexanderplatz police station. The letter didn't state his crime. He was promptly arrested upon arrival and sent to the Gestapo. They then deported him to the concentration camps.

"Theresienstadt. Auschwitz, Dachau. No one believed that I was actually in these places," Schumann said. "For a long time, I felt that no one would understand what I saw. I didn't understand it myself."

Suppressed memories

Schumann was saved from the gas chambers of Auschwitz because a guard who was charged with sorting out new arrivals recognized him from Berlin's jazz scene and placed him in a Roma musical group.

Previously, at Theresienstadt, Schumann had begun playing in a band known informally as "The Ghetto Swingers." Following his transfer to Auschwitz in September 1944, he played songs such as "La Paloma" for the German guards during an approximately five-month stay in the camp, while they murdered thousands of innocent Jews, ethnic Poles, Roma, gays and others.

...on meeting his wife

"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.

But he survived the camps and returned to Berlin in 1945. While strolling down the bombed-out remains of Berlin's Kurfürstendamm shopping street, he met his future wife, herself a survivor of the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

"I didn't know when I met her that she was also in Theresienstadt," Schumann said. "But she knew me because I was the drummer in the Ghetto Swingers group. The musician doesn't know the public, but sometimes the public knows the musician."

The couple married in Berlin, and later emigrated to Australia, where they lived for five years. But the two missed the jazz scene in their former home, and returned to West Berlin in the mid-1950s.

A change of heart

His career took off as Berlin's jazz scene saw its rebirth in the post-Nazi years. Schumann began to write music, arrange, and experiment with the electronic guitar. At one point, he played with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. He gave concert tours in Europe and on cruise ships, and became known as Germany's most famous swing guitarist.

But for years, the musician would not talk about his experiences in the German death camps. That did not change until a decade ago, when he attended an event in Berlin for concentration camp survivors.

...on survival and looking back

"I didn't speak about it," Schumann said. "But then, I was at a function for concentration camp survivors with my wife. People from Israel and New York and from all over the world were in attendance. But when I saw the camera, I turned away. The reporter then asked someone about me and learned that I was in a concentration camp. Then he came over to me again, and said to the camera man, 'Switch off the camera for a moment.' He asked, 'Why do you always go away when you see the camera?' I said, 'I don't want to speak about it.' But then he said, 'If you don't speak about it, who should tell the people what happened there?' And at that moment something clicked - and I thought he was right."

Since then, Schumann has told his story to German school classes and in a television documentary. His feeling is that he was lucky to have survived the camps. While the experience left an indelible mark on his life, he says he holds no bitterness towards Germany or German society.

"I was happy that I got out of the concentration camp," Schumann said. "That was the only thing that counted. I survived. I am still alive."

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