Coco Schumann, “I only ever wanted to play jazz”

Coco Schumann,2014©Katerina Oikonomakou


Imagine a Jewish teenager playing swing music in Berlin, in 1941. That boy is Coco Schumann, born not very far from Alexanderplatz in 1924. What he would go through in the years to come has been well documented, in a book, a theatre piece that keeps touring Germany and countless newspaper stories. Yet it was many years before the well known jazz guitarist would decide to open up about it all: Berlin under nazi occupation, Theresienstadt and the “Ghetto Swingers”, Auschwitz and the death marches. And how it felt returning to his bombed out hometown.


Mr Schumann, why did you wait so long before you started talking about your experiences in the death camps?

I was thinking that nobody would understand anyway.


What did it take to to change your mind?

It happened at a meeting of Holocaust survivors who had been in Theresienstadt. We were there with my late wife, who also was in Theresienstadt, among survivors who had come from all over the world. And the TV was there doing a story and talking with people, but I made to sure to avoid the camera. This didn’t go unnoticed by the journalist, Paul Karalus, who asked the man responsible for the event “why does Coco Schumann keep moving away from me every time the camera comes close to him? When will he finally say something?” Then he asked his camera man to turn off the camera, approached me and asked “Mr Schumann, why are you always turning away?” I responded that I did not wish to say anything at which he said that “If you don’t talk about it, who will?” It was finally clear to me that I had a duty to tell my story. Since then, I have been repeating it over and over again.


In Theresienstadt you were one of the inmates who were forced to be part of a propaganda film that was going to show the world what a swell time the Jews are having in a nazi concentration camp. How did this come about?

Yes, I was the guitarist of the “Ghetto Swingers” and the actor Kurt Gerron was forced to make this film that you are talking about. Kurt was a famous actor who had fled to Holland but was incarcerated there in another concentration camp. When that was liquidated, he was brought to Theresienstadt. So the Nazis saw in his arrival a great opportunity, to do a film with such a famous guy. Later he would be sent to Auschwitz, too…


German actor and director Kurt Gerron dances a scene for his dancers as director for the film TWO IN A CAR. 5th March 1932.

Recently there was a screening in Berlin of Claude Lanzmann’s recent documentary,“The Last of the Unjust”; it is based on a series of conversations that the French director had, many years ago, with Benjamin Murmelstein, the Vienna rabbi who was the last head of the council of elders in Theresienstadt. Did you happen to meet him while you were both in Theresienstadt?

I never met him in person, but of course I knew Murmelstein. We all did. He never had any choice, that’s what I believe. The Nazis were the ones making all the decisions.


You were born in Berlin. Did your family always live in the city?

Scheunenviertel was where my whole family, on my mother’s side, had always lived. My mother had been a hairdresser, which was like a family thing – they had all been hairdressers. There’s still a photo of my grandfather in front of his shop in the Scheunenviertel. My father, who was an upholsterer, belonged to the Evangelical Church of Germany. But he became Jewish when he married my mother, because my grandfather disapproved of his daughter marrying a goy.


Were your parents religious?

No, not at all. My mother only ever went to the synagogue on the big religious holidays. In fact it’s funny because my dad, had a relatively bigger interest in the Jewish rituals. But I never cared for religion, in general. I used to joke that I was a fat child because we would feast on all the major religious holidays, Jewish as well as Christian. In our home we always had a Christmas tree and we would celebrate Easter, too; with my dad’s family.




Would you recall Berlin of your childhood years?

Oh, it was beautiful. When I was 11 or 12 we moved from the Scheunenviertel to Hallensee. I have very fond memories from that time. I can recall how I would go to the Delphi Palast and climb on the wall. Today it is a cinema, but at the time it was a dance hall and people would dance outside in the summertime. I loved to climb at the wall and sit there and watch them and listen to the band.  Berlin was always a very lively place, there was a lot to do, one could not stand still.


Had you already started studying music?

No, but I was already fascinated by it. Long before climbing on that wall. My uncle –who later emigrated to the US- used to play percussion. And I have a memory of myself as a very little boy listening to him and his friends playing music on his birthday. Normally I would have been sleeping, but I remember that I was so excited that they couldn’t take me away from the percussion. My mother would also tell me another story; at one point she had her hairdresser’s shop on Kottbusser Damm and there was a pub nearby where my father and I would meet her for lunch. In that pub there was a piano and my mother used to say how crazy about it I was, I only wanted to sit on the piano and play. I must have been around 6 years old.


When did you start taking lessons? 

When I was 14 years old I was given a guitar, as a present. A cousin of mine, on my father’s side, was drafted and sent off to fight in the war, so he handed me his guitar a very simple one, nothing special. Now in school I had a teacher, a German language teacher, who also gave us music lessons. He would play a tune on his guitar and we sang along. He was the first to teach me the chords. It was a little later that I searched out a private instructor, because of course as a Jew I was not even allowed to study music.


French director Claude Lanzmann, in Berin, November 2013, after the screening of “The Last of the Unjust”.

You are talking about 1938. The Nuremberg Laws had long been introduced. In what ways had your life changed by then?

I had been forced to transfer to a school on Joachimstaler Strasse, which was only for Jewish students. And naturally I was not allowed to study music. And I was also not allowed to play music in public; let alone that I was underage. But anyway, that did not stop me. The problem was that at the time, if a musician wished to be allowed to perform, he was obliged to become a member of the Reichsmusikkammer. This was never a choice for a Jew, it goes without saying.


But you still did perform in public.

Oh, yes, I was not allowed to do it, but I did it anyway. When I think back on the risks I was taking back then… When I was 17 years old I was performing on stage with the band of Tullio Mobiglia; one of the many Italian bands that were here at the time. We played at the Rosita Bar, a very elegant establishment, and at the Groschenkeller.


Coco Schumann, 2014 © Katerina Oikonomakou


A young Jewish musician playing jazz in Berlin in 1941 – I cannοt think of anything in this description that had not long been outlawed by the Nazis. How did you ever pull it off?

What was happening was this: Members of the Reichmusikkammer would go into clubs to check what music was being played. I remember this happening quite often at the Groschenkeller, for instance. Now in the Groschenkeller the public was very heterogeneous, with many students coming in to listen to the bands. So there was always a student who, at the request of the manager, would remain at the top of the stairs and watch out for the guys of the Reichmusikkammer. They were very easy to recognise, because they were all dressed identically, with trench coats and floppy hats. Another student was standing at the base of the staircase. We were performing at the cellar, so if those guys came, the student at the top of the stairs would whistle and the student at the other end would then whistle to us and we would rapidly change the tune we were playing.


So you would switch to a German song?

Exactly, we’d do it right away. And we had taken all precautions, too. We had torn off the Αmerican titles of the songs. Those were not musicians, they were Nazis, they could not read notes. So we simply pretended we had German songs in front of us.


But there was still you, a Jewish musician onstage.

If they asked for our IDs, the owner handed the IDs of the rest of the band, saying that I was just a client who asked to play one song.


That also means you were not wearing a yellow star, right?

That’s right, I wasn’t. You see I had one with press studs, that my mom had made for me. So I would take it off and put it in my bag. This was all extremely dangerous. You know,17-year-old boys are cheeky; naïve, bold and cheeky, that’s the way it is.


Elderly citizens of Berlin rest on a bench marked ‘Not for Jews’, June 1945

Didn’t enough people that you socialised with know that you are Jewish? Were not worried that someone might turn you in?

Some did know and some didn’t. And someone did in fact tell on me, but that was much later, in 1943. And you know what? It was not the SS that came for me, but the Criminal Police. Which leads me to believe that whoever it was that told on me, had informed them that I was committing a crime. You see I was going out with Aryan girls. Oh, of course I was. I was a young musician… I was committing what the nazis called Rassenschande. But they had arrested me on the basis of information, so they could not prove it. And so they turned me over to the SS. That’s how it started…


Were you then deported to Theresienstadt?

Things took some time. First my father came to see me at the transit camp where they were keeping us, at the Grosse Hamburger Strasse. It used to be a Jewish school, but the SS were using it now. My father pleaded with them saying how he had raised me as a good German and would they at least please send his son to Theresienstadt instead of Auschwitz. At the time people were under the impression that Theresienstadt was not a real camp. The nazis were trying to create the impression that they had built a place were the Jews were free to live as they wished. There was a normal football team, one could receive packages from home; well, whoever did not receive packages starved…They would show the Red Cross and the Swedes around Theresienstadt, to fool them into believing it was for real. But they could not fool anyone. The Red Cross and the Swedes could see through the deceit. If they had wished to do so. They simply did not want to know.

Well, anyway. In the camp I joined the “Ghetto Swingers”, that was our name. It was put together by Eric Vogel, a trumpeter who managed to survive and later emigrated to America. The nazis wanted to show the world that “look, here they can even play their forbidden music, everything is normal”. Nothing was normal, nothing. We played forbidden music, yes. And then came the transports to Auschwitz.


Were you aware of what was under way in Auschwitz?

Details we were not aware of. One knew that it was very bad. And when a new transport was announced everyone was overcome by great fear. We were all afraid our name would come up. And one day, it came up in the transport list; my name. I was going to Auschwitz. Upon arriving, as we came out of the train, we could see those tall chimneys. And we said, “oh, it’s a factory”. Then we were given prisoners’ clothes to wear. In Theresienstadt we had been allowed to wear civilian clothes. So we were given those prisoners’ clothes. And then a man of the SS appeared. “So that you know where you are, this is extermination camp Auschwitz. The entrance is through the gate and the exit through that chimney”. And from that moment on we knew where we were.


You somehow managed to play music in Auschwitz, too.

Oh, yes, thank God. They led us to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where they had placed the families of the Roma. They had murdered them all, in the gas chambers, a day prior to our arrival. So as to make space for us. So one day I was talking with a violonist with whom we had been together in Theresienstadt, Otto Sattler was his name. He was a very well known violinist from Prague. And as we were talking there comes another prisoner, a kapo, and asked if we wanted to join a band. The accent was familiar to me, it was a Berlin accent but the face was not. “Coco”, he said to me, “I am Heinz!” I had no idea who Heinz was, but apparently he had been a regular at the clubs I had been performing. He was now a political prisoner.

So the kapos gave us instruments; we never knew who they belonged to. There had been so many musicians in Auschwitz and all of them had carried their instruments with them. And with their instruments we played music. We played whatever the SS wished to hear. All kinds of songs. But mostly La Paloma; We were wondering what was it about that song. Maybe…there was this film, “Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7”, starring Hans Albers who was a huge star. And in that film he was singing La Paloma, which them made the Hit Parade. Probably that was why. But you know, I was still wondering about that years later, back in Berlin.


German actor and singer Hans Albers (1891 – 1960), Hamburg, 1920.

Did you have to listen to it or play it often after the end of the war?

Sometimes, yes. But I have always made a conscious effort to forget about the concentration camps, to let go. I never wanted to make a sort of profession out of it. Music has saved me and music is all I have done after the war.


You were saved while on a death march, right?

That was after we were first transported to Dachau. And one day we were ordered to evacuate Dachau and we were told we would be moving toward Innsbruck. We later found out that they were planning to murder us. But the Americans were faster.


How long after your liberation did you return to Berlin?

It was a total mess, everything…But I soon acquired the necessary travel permit from the Americans and got on a train. I got off at Pankow, where my uncle had a small weekend house. And he was there, indeed. My uncle told me that my parents had survived the war.


Had they been hiding in Berlin?

No, they had left the city and gone to Silesia. They had been hiding there in the woods. But they had returned and lived again in Hallensee. I went to them.  Since then, I believe that I have a guardian angel. I do.


What were your first impressions of the bombed out city?

Berlin was destroyed, completely destroyed. There was not one building that had not been affected. I started roaming the streets right away and the next day after reuniting with my parents I was off to Kurfürstendamm, I wanted to walk there. And outside the Ronny Bar I could hear the sound of music. That was just off Uhlandstrasse. The house above it had been destroyed, but at the basement the musicians were performing. Many of my friends were there!


July 1945, Berlin women work in a ‘chain gang’ to clear rubble in the war torn city.

Did any of your Jewish friends manage to survive the war?

Only a couple of them, who happened to be Mampe, like me. You don’t know what Mampe is, do you? Back then there was a liquer company that produced a liquer called Mampe Halb und Halb; half and half, like those of us who were half Jewish. They still make this liqueur, I think. So, yes, we called ourselves Mampe.


You earlier said that your wife had also been to Theresienstadt. Was that where the two of you meet?

That’s another story, no. After meeting my musician friends I, too, started playing at the Ronny Bar. But there was still curfew in Berlin, the Americans did not allow clubs to be open after 8 pm. So one night I am coming out of Ronny Bar and I hear someone calling my name, from the other side of the street. Two girls were standing there. One of them was an acquaintance, Bella Hirschfeld was her name. So I went over to her to say hello and the other girl, Gertaud, said “Weren’t you the percussionist in Theresienstadt?” That was the beginning of our story.


How did your collaboration with Helmut Zacharias come about?

He came knocking on my door one day. He asked “do you want to play music with me?” Of course I did! At the time I was playing at the Greifi Bar, on Joachimstalerstrasse. The clientele was made up of all sorts of guys dealing in the black market, so they were spending a lot of money and that meant I had a good income. Zacharias, on the other hand, said “I don’t have any gigs coming up, but do you want us to give it a try?” I told him that what mattered to me was to make good music.


In Coco Schumann's house, poster with Marlene Dietrich©Katerina Oikonomakou


And yet you still decided to emigrate to Australia a few years later.

That was in the 1950s, yes. You know, the nazis were returning in all sorts of administrative jobs. They were becoming judges, public officials…My wife was not feeling comfortable. She was the one who insisted on us leaving. And then one heard so many good things about Australia. So we signed two-year work contracts and got our free tickets. They needed working hands.


But Australians did not musicians.

No, they didn’t. I was working for a marmalade factory.


That was quite a decision, to give up music.

Only I did not. I worked as a musician. I did what I wanted to do. One night I took my guitar and asked around after the best club in the area. I was told to go to the Katharina Bar. I simply went there, climbed the stairs and in my very bad English told them that I come from Berlin and I want to play music with the band. So they let me play with them. And afterwards the owner of the club came over to me and said “Will you play again next Friday?” I told him that I could not do it, since I had a contract with a marmalade factory. “Look, I have permit to serve food here and thus employ someone in the kitchen”. So he took over my contract and I was hired as kitchen help. And for the next two years I played music.


While in Australia, did you miss anything about Berlin?

Not much…Oh, well, nightlife. You know, there was a saying about Melbourne, that it’s as big as New York’s Central Cemetery and twice as dead. I missed Berlin’s amazing nightlife. I would start a gig at 9pm and sometimes go to bed at 5 in the morning. I never got tired of this life. I enjoyed it, I had a very good time.


Is there a song about Berlin that you never get bored of?

Let me see. Lots of them. But I think it would have to be “Ich habe so heimweh auf die Kurfuerstendamm”.


I meant to ask you about this poster that you have of a show starring Marlene Dietrich. Did you know her?

I played with her. That was right after the war, at the Titania-Palast. This picture was given to me by the son of Marno the Magician, who had been part of that show. She made one appearance there and I was a member of the Melody Trio that accompanied her. But, you know, it’s not like I was so impressed by her; as a musician I happened to work together with a lot of famous actors. Of course she was a great lady, a very brave lady too. But as I said, OK, she was one of the many beautiful women in show business.


Interview by Katerina Oikonomakou, February 2014 BerlinInterviewslogo