A Life for Music | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 26.04.2002
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A Life for Music

Coco Schumann, legendary jazz musician, survived Auschwitz by playing for the camp guards. On Friday, the 78-year-old presented a new documentation on his life at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.


"I am not someone from a death camp who played music, but a musician who was in a death camp" - Coco Schumann

According to Coco Schumann "you either have the feeling for jazz or you don’t". Duke Ellington had it, Benny Goodman - and Coco Schumann, the legendary jazz musician, who would not have survived the Holocaust without his love for jazz.

"I’ve had this feeling since I was 13", Schumann says. Leaning forward in his chair he recalls, with a twinkle in his beady eyes, how it all began with his parents’ grammophone.

"As a very small child I would put on records - all on my own", he says, rather proudly. Then, young Coco Schumann would bang away with a couple of wooden spoons on whatever he could get his tiny fists on: tables, chairs and floorboards.

A life in a day

On this hazy Berlin morning, Coco Schumann sits in the semi-darkness of the Jewish Museum’s Rafael Roth Learning Centre and watches his life go by.

Schumann cannot quite believe what he is seeing: the life of a man, who due to his bravery under the Nazi regime, has become a musical legend. Faded photos, yellowed documents, music clips: Schumann’s life, on computer, open to the public at the Jewish Museum’s Leaning Centre.

Now a small, grey-haired 78-year-old, with a twinkle in his eye and a broad, warm smile, Schumann watches as the computer shows a photo of himself as a grinning 14 year-old, sitting at the Wannsee baths with a guitar in hand.

Yet the moment of apparent youthful bliss, captured in a yellowed snapshot in the summer of 1938, is misleading. The Wannsee was forbidden ground for Jews, and the Nazis were already cracking down on what they called "foreign evil" – jazz.

As a young man, Schumann frequented Berlin’s busy jazz bars, where Berliners would meet who had a penchant for foreign music, and a distaste for the Nazis.

A fatal attraction – in 1943 Schumann was reported to the Nazis for not wearing a yellow star, going to forbidden concerts, and for illicit relationships with so-called aryan girls. Schumann was sent to Theresianstadt, a sealed-off, occupied town in Czech territory which served as a ghetto for Jews.

Theresienstadt was no death camp, but a temporary station, where Jews were "kept" before being sent to the death camps. On arrival at the "showpiece ghetto", used by Hitler’s regime to deceive about Nazi killings, Schumann couldn’t believe his luck when he discovered a small bar in the ghettos dusty streets. Here, each jew was granted an annual two hour visit.

Schumann got together with fellow musicians, and formed the band "Ghetto Swingers". He couldn’t save the inhabitants from their tragic fate. But he could, with his light-hearted music, ease their pain – at least for two hours.

Survival through music

Later, on arrival at Auschwitz, Schumann had to watch as the "Ghetto Swingers"' clarinettist was sent to his death.

Together with 2,498 newcomers, Schumann and his colleagues were divided up into those who could work and those who were too old or sick. "Weiss asked whether he could go with his parents", Schumann recalls. The guard pushed him to his parents with a laugh. Little did Weiss know that they were on their way to the gas chamber.

Schumann would not have survived the cruelties of the concentration camp without his music. He was recognized by his barracks senior, who introduced Schumann to the camp senior. "The camp guards had enough to eat, to drink – but they always needed music", he says.

From then on, Schumann played every evening for the camp’s unruly guards. But he also had to play music when prisoners were sent to the gas chambers.

"I looked the children in the eye, and could see that they knew what was happening", he says. "It was the worst thing ever".

Every day counts

Today, after surviving the concentration camp, and a later life as musician, including numerous radio shows, records and concerts, Schumann sits in the Jewish Museum and reflects on those days in the camp, when "every day counted".

Asked how he felt, playing "La Paloma Ade", the guards’ favourite, while countless Jews were sent to their death, Schumann says "desperate". "On the one hand, we were glad to survive. On the other it was heartbreaking to watch them go".

For Schumann "La Paloma Ade" will always be the funeral hymm for Auschwitz’ lost children. But, he says, "I could still play it as have never felt any ties to this song at all".

But the memories tormented Schumann to such an extent that he emigrated to Australia in 1950 with wife and son. Schumann played his sorrows away with the help of his guitar. "Back to the world in which my soul had found a home. Back to swing ...."

Coco Schumann

He returned to Berlin (photo) in 1954. Schumann still plays with his quartett today. His 75th birthday wish was to be able to play music for yet another 75 years.

"If I had broken down, and many did," he says, "Then they (the Nazis) would have won. And I didn’t want to give them the pleasure!"

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