The Life of a Jazz Legend and Auschwitz Survivor

Coco Schumann's remarkable story of how music kept him going

Words By Stephanie Taralson

Berlin, 1950. This city’s most famous wall is still a decade away from existing, but the opposing sides of the Cold War are manning their ideological positions and settling in for a standoff. Germany is divided in two; debates about rearmament have ignited new concerns in citizens exhausted by years of violence and destruction.

Anxious to leave their war-scarred country and start over, Berlin-born musician Coco Schumann and his wife, Gertraud, accept an offer from the Australian government for expedited immigration. Schumann hopes that his skills as a jazz guitarist will open doors for him, as they have in the past.

He’s right. Opportunities come knocking and Schumann’s musical career starts to take off in Australia, but the siren call of heady nights in Berlin isn’t easily ignored. “Things were different in Australia … The clock had (already) struck midnight, not a soul to be seen. St. Kilda Junction, a small milk bar frequented by taxi drivers was the only place open in all of Melbourne. I would hang out there for two or three hours and could only drink milkshakes … I could not take this for much longer. In Berlin at this time of night my friends would be moving on to the next club, and certainly not the last one!” Just four years after leaving, Schumann was making his way back to Berlin, a prodigal son for the second time.

The Berlin that Schumann had left was raucous and wild. In the months and years following the end of World War II, corners of the city began to be repopulated with pleasure seekers, relishing in the “careless joy” of being able to play music again. “All of the clubs and jazz cellars I grew up with had been reduced to ash and rubble; everywhere people were improvising. One club after another opened its doors again … I played at least eight hours almost every day, working just like a miner in the Ruhr district: going down into the mine at night and coming back in the morning at five. Mostly I did not make it home because I was so wired after playing it was pointless.”

I am a musician who spent time in concentration camps, not someone in a concentration camp who also played a little music.

The streets were bombed out and the venues shabby, but the music was swinging hard and there was an appetite for jazz. “The Armed Forces Network (AFN) studios in Berlin were continuously broadcasting all the latest hits from a mobile transmitter that was carried around on a truck … One afternoon we went to the Sommerlatte, a small club next to the Friedrichstadt-Palast. We played semi-improvised Russian music and tangos – for good pay: vodka and a couple of potatoes! … [Then] the first jobs with the Americans at the Tempelhof Officer’s Club changed everything. Each of us was paid with a carton of cigarettes. This was phenomenal. I could barter it for whatever I wanted.”

This urban playground, itself a heap of rubble but buzzing with expectations of a new start, was in some ways akin to what the city had been in the 1920s and early ‘30s, when western Berlin was the roaring European capital of avant-garde film, design, fashion, and literature.

Then the arrival of war, apocalyptic: “We saw apartment buildings break apart from the force of the explosions or shoot up in flames like torches made of straw. If it rained, the billowing smoke and ash condensed to the ground where it formed a sludge that stuck to the soles of our shoes. It was hard to walk, exhausting and bleak … We kept on playing even when day was no longer distinguishable from night, when after an air raid darkness would fall over the streets like it was evening … It was as if we were possessed. The only thing that counted was today; tomorrow was uncertain.”

The conflict extended beyond the physical threat of bombings. Nazi control was tightening, and patrols roamed the streets looking to punish deserters, minors, and anyone deemed ‘antisocial’. Once, during an SS-led raid of the Rosita Bar at Bayerischer Platz, a headstrong Schumann attracted attention: “… one of the SS men stood in front of the bandstand, clapping his hands with much enthusiasm. He brought out the devil in me. I stood up and said, ‘Actually, you have to arrest me!’ He looked bewildered. ‘Why?’ ‘Well, I’m a Jew, I play swing and I’m a minor.’ He laughed out loud and could not stop laughing at this stupendous joke. The entire bar roared with him.”

Ghetto Swingers poster
Coco portrait 1946
I make many mistakes when I play, and I make a lot of them because I like it – they prove that the music is alive.

There they were, the two labels that would come to define Schumann: jazz musician, Jewish. Born to a German–Jewish mother and a Christian father from Thüringen, Schumann’s childhood was “uncomplicated.” “The Christmas tree stood next to the Chanukah candles; Easter was celebrated with my father’s parents, Passover at my mother’s family.” Schumann started playing the guitar as a precocious teenager with natural talent. But with the enactment of the anti-semitic Nuremberg laws in 1935, which sought to define Jewishness based arbitrarily on ancestry, Schumann suddenly became marked as a full-blooded Jew.

Schumann’s luck held until 1943. Then, at age 19 he was arrested, ripped from his life in Berlin, and deported to the Terezín – Theresienstadt – labour camp not far from Prague. So began two hellish years trapped inside the extensive network of Nazi camps. “Even at first glance the conditions in the camp were intolerable due to the fact that it had been built to house 7,000 Czechs and now held about 59,000 prisoners. Nevertheless, the scenery was confusing. I discovered small parks and – even though it was locked up – a church. There was a coffee house in the middle of the camp, and I could hear familiar music coming from inside, music that was my music.”

Terezín was indeed confusing. Located in a converted medieval fortress, it was an anomaly, a showpiece. This model camp was intended to soothe suspicious humanitarian organisations and promote the ‘attractive’ conditions in all Nazi concentration camps. Although not an extermination camp for mass executions, the site was squalid and overcrowded. However, the unusual management of Terezín left room for ‘self-organised entertainment’ among inmates, and several musical and cultural groups had formed within its walls. Thanks to a new acquaintance, Schumann quickly found entrée into one of these ensembles: “He told me the band’s drummer had been put on the train for Auschwitz a couple of days ago. I told him I could play the drums. A few minutes later I had a new job; I was the drummer in one of the hottest, high-octane jazz ensembles of the entire German Reich.”

In this respect, Schumann was lucky. By finding employ as a musician, he avoided the hard labour that most inmates were subject to. “When I played I forgot where I was … We were a ‘normal’ band who played for a ‘normal’ audience … We performed for ourselves and to save our lives – like everyone else in this ‘town’, this cruel, phony stage set for theater plays, children’s operas, cabarets, scientific lectures, athletic events – an absurd social life and a bizarre, self-administered survival in the waiting line of the ovens of the Third Reich.”

Ongoing pressure from the Danish Red Cross and International Red Cross resulted in Nazi officials allowing a visit to Terezín by organisation representatives. Contrary to what prisoners had hoped for, the tour was a perfectly enacted exercise in Nazi propaganda; to Schumann, an “incomprehensible success.” “Not even a hint of suffering and misery could be found anywhere. Wherever the visiting committee went, they saw actors rehearsing or acting in a play before a cheering, well provided for audience. As soon as they left the scene was interrupted and ‘normal’ conditions were reinstated…”

The triumph of the image presented to the Red Cross inspired Nazi propaganda strategists to dream bigger. They proposed the making of Theresienstadt – ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (Theresienstadt – A Documentary Film about the Jewish Resettlement) and conscripted Schumann and his bandmates as musical actors. Those selected to star in the propaganda film had been promised ‘special rations and food packages’; instead, they were marked for transfer, eastward to one of the extermination camps in Poland. Schumann and his fellow musicians found their names posted on the lists of those to be transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Schumann had no trouble isolating what changed when he was transferred from Terezín to Auschwitz. “It was the difference between living in the naïve hope of being set free and trying to stay alive for the next couple of hours.” Nevertheless, Schumann again ingratiated himself with the right people and worked as a musician in one of the camp bands. “We musicians were a welcome ‘diversion’ from the monotonous, gray, ‘lethal’ boredom of daily life in the camp, and we quickly became an essential part of this macabre world … If we were not playing for the SS while they tattooed the new arrivals, we usually had to be at the camp’s main gate.”

On other occasions, their band was forced to perform for higher ranking officials, in “a constant state of stress” to play well and please their captors. During one private concert, a notorious and sadistic SS Rottenführer (corporal) known for his brutal torture methods approached Schumann and struck up a conversation about their shared hometown. “I felt sick. He asked me a question: ‘Say, you’re from Berlin?’ And after I nodded: ‘Yes? Nice. Me too. Where did you play?’ I finally gathered up my courage and asked: ‘Herr Rottenführer, do you think I will get out of here alive?’ He paused, then answered quietly: ‘I don’t know.’”

Families separated forever by the gas chambers, an evening concert played inside the delousing showers, entire barracks of inmates being murdered to make room for incoming prisoners – Schumann’s memories of Auschwitz are chilling and unimaginable. The main camp gate where the band often played was also located along the path from the barracks to the gas chambers, the last journey for many prisoners. “ … the children looked me directly in the eye. They knew exactly where they were going. These images are burned into my mind. I can blink as much as I want. Sometimes it helps when tears start running down my cheek, but as soon as I open my eyes the image returns. Something inside of me has been broken forever, something that can never be repaired.”

As the war slogged to an end, Schumann was shuffled through the camp system and eventually liberated in southern Germany. In the summer of 1945, he made his way home to Berlin and his uncle’s garden cottage in Pankow, which had remarkably escaped the destruction. “I found my friends again, friends with whom I had spent carefree weeks, and I was happy to be with them again, the Germans. The last thing I wanted was for them to look at me and feel ashamed for what had been done to me and to others. To be honest, I felt ashamed for them: that what I had to suffer was done in my own – German – name.”

Coco Schumann Melody Trio ad for concert with Marlene Dietrich at the Titania Palast 1946
Coco Schumann and pianist Herbert Giesler Berlin 1942

The creative energy of post-war Berlin was a distraction from the dark memories of Czechoslovakia and Poland. Schumann met an acquaintance who was familiar with the new technology being used to modify acoustic guitars: pickups, amplifiers, the works: “There was plenty of material lying around to tinker with in those days.” Nervously, he agreed to have his instrument outfitted with the magnets from an old set of army headphones, and with that, became presumably the first performer in Germany to use an electric guitar on stage.

International stars were also making their way to Berlin, and upon returning from Australia, Schumann joined them on the bandstand. Marquee names and unknowns alike, everyone went bar hopping after a concert. Die Badewanne (The Bathtub) bar was one of the city’s ‘best-kept secrets’, the type of spot where one could jam with Ella Fitzgerald, who “sang in a way that made our knees weak;” Dizzy Gillespie, “an unbelievably nice guy and a real clown;” or Louis Armstrong, who advised Schumann, “Coco, it’s not important what you play. It’s important how you play it.” Schumann himself has a similar perspective: “I make many mistakes when I play, and I make a lot of them because I like it – they prove that the music is alive.”

Several successful decades later, Schumann is retired from performing, having gained fame in Germany and inspired both a graphic novel and a theatrical Kammerspiele. In the 1980s and ‘90s he was especially active in public education, speaking in schools and to the media about his Holocaust experiences.

Louis Armstrong’s advice notwithstanding, it seems that, for Schumann, perhaps the most important of all is not even the ‘how’, but the simple fact of music-making. “The camps and the fear changed my life, but the music has kept me going, and has made everything good again … I am a musician who spent time in concentration camps, not someone in a concentration camp who also played a little music.”

This feature was produced in collaboration with Doppelhouse Press, who kindly supplied and granted use of excerpts from Coco Schumann’s remarkable story as told in full in The Ghetto Singer, available for purchase through all good book shops, online outlets, and as an eBook.

The original German edition was published by dtv in 1997 and is available under the title Der Ghetto-Swinger.