"A LEGENDARY MUSICIAN'S JOURNEY
FROM NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS
FROM NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS
TO A LIFE OF MUSICAL BRILLIANCE."
Born in 1924 to Jewish and Protestant parents, Heinz Jakob "Coco "Schumann survived not one but three Nazi concentration camps. As a young man, Coco began playing illegally in jazz clubs in his teenage years in Nazi Berlin. The blond haired, blued-eyed young man passed undetected as Jewish until 1943, when he was arrested and deported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt. (Terezin).
Just as it played an important part in his life outside the camps, music played an important part of Coco's life in the camps, especially in Terezin which Hitler and the Nazis used to stage an unrealistic picture of what went on in the camps. Artists, poets, musicians, etc were sent to Terezin and able to escape the death camps until they were of no more use to the Nazis. While in Terezin Coco played with the "The Ghetto Swingers" a jazz band organized in camp and used for propaganda purposes. The band can be seen in the infamous Nazi propaganda film Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film about the Jewish Resettlement which was filmed at the camp. The Ghetto Swingers included pianist Martin Roman, Kurt Gerron, clarinetist Bedrich "Fritz" Weiss, and guitarist Coco Schumann. Roman and Schumann survived, Gerron and Weiss did not.
After Terezin Coco was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He vividly describes his haunting arrival at the camp and the life that followed. He arrived in January of 1945, and again his skills as a musician saved his life. He survived day-by-day as a musician forced to play for the SS, for corrupt and sadistic guards and for his fellow prisoners as they streamed into the gas chambers.
Ultimately he was sent to a remote satellite camp for Dachau where once again music helped him survive. But musicians need instruments and musician- prisoners often had to improvise. One such occasion involved Coco and a fellow prisoner.
"I clung to my life. Music helped me here, too. Word spread quickly that I was a musician. A prisoner who was in the Aussenkommandos (exterior work detail), laying cables and working on farms had discovered an old, derelict guitar in a barn. He managed to slip a bar of margarine out of the kitchen, and the next day the prisoner asked the farmer whether he would like to trade. He smuggled the big thing (guitar) thing past the guards into camp--unbelievable. Unfortunately it did not have strings on it. This same prisoner got hold of some pieces of cable. I removed the insulation, tensioned them and tighten the cables. I was able to bring the guitar back to life, and it didn't sound too bad.."
While in this satellite camp, he contracted spotted fever, and was forced on what was to be a death march to Innsbruck. Coco, however, is still with us today because an American battalion intercepted this march and liberated them. At the moment of liberation he looked up to see a Protestant preacher standing and crying over him and praying for him. His freedom had arrived.
How can a memoir about a Jewish man's imprisonment in, not one but three, Nazi concentration camps be marvelous?
Because of the beauty of the writing, the presentation of an indomitable spirit, and the joy of life that shines through even at the coldest of moments. This memoir is a tribute to those who made it through the Nazi years, and most assuredly a tribute to those who did not. For this we need to thank not only Coco Schumann but also his collaborators Marx Christian Graeff and Michaela Hass and translator, John Howard.
Coco, not unlike thousands of others, did not talk of his years in the hands of the Nazis for many years. It was only in the 1980's that he began to tell his story in Europe. It has only recently been told in English. The Ghetto Swinger was published in January 2016 by Doppel House Press.
The book should be of great interest to scholars interested in this time in history, to the Jewish population who will probably be familiar with WWII stories from their own families, and to anyone who likes non-fiction that serves to better mankind. It should also be studied by musicians interested in Jazz from the early 1940's in Germany to the 1990's internationally for after his liberation Coco traveled the world and played with the best musicians and singers of his time. He even was the first to play the electric guitar on stage in Germany.
I feel honored to have been given this book by NetGalley.