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Obituary: Coco Schumann

German jazz musician who played with the Ghetto Swingers in Terezin

    Photo: Olaf Ziegler
    Photo: Olaf Ziegler

    He insisted he was a musician who survived the concentration camps, not a Holocaust survivor who happened to make music. Indeed for Coco Schumann, who has died aged 93, music, especially his beloved jazz, was as essential as air.

    For music he would take huge risks but music also repeatedly bailed him out when all seemed lost. An inmate of Terezin,  Auschwitz and Dachau – he kept going by playing through the horrors.

    Heinz Jakob Schumann was born in Berlin, the son of Alfred Schumann, an upholsterer, and Hedwig Rothholz, whose family owned a hairdressing business. Alfred, an Evangelical Christian, converted to Judaism in order to marry Hedwig.

    The Schumann family were not particularly religious and Coco used to joke that he was fat as a child because the family celebrated all the major religious festivities, both Jewish and Christian.

    The Berlin of the mid-30s was an exciting place — especially for a budding musician.Young Schumann would spend hours perched on the wall of the old Delphi Palast dancehall listening to the band playing and watching people dance. He had originally played percussion but when he was given his first guitar at 14, he found his real calling.

    At first he took lessons from one of his schoolteachers but with the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws, he was forced to move school. As a Jew, he was not allowed to study music, let alone play in public but that didn’t stop the irrepressible Schumann, who immediately set out to break whichever rules he came across.

    So there he was, a cheeky underage Jewish musician playing “degenerate” American music in Berlin venues and engaging in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the Reichmusikkammer, the police tasked with checking what music was being played in the clubs. He also dated Aryan girls and it was one of them, a French girlfriend who found Jakob too difficult to pronounce, who gave him the nickname “Coco”.

    Schumann’s luck finally ran out in 1943 when he was arrested. While he was being held in a transit camp on his way to Auschwitz, his father, who had fought in the First World War with distinction, successfully pleaded with the SS for his son to be sent to Terezin instead.

    The Terezin “showcamp” had been built to fool outside observers into believing it was a normal place where the Jews could live normal lives: people were allowed to wear civilian clothes; it had a football team and even a jazz group, the Ghetto Swingers. “The Nazis wanted to show the world –-‘here they can even play their forbidden music, everything is normal’, Schumann would recall years later. “But nothing was normal, nothing. Yes, we played forbidden music. Then came the transports to Auschwitz.”

    Transported to Auschwitz himself, Schumann at first — fooled by the tall chimneys — mistook it for a factory before an SS guard put him right:” This is an extermination camp. The entrance is through the gate and the exit through that chimney.”

    But even in the hell that was Auschwitz, music came to his rescue: another prisoner recognised Schumann from his Berlin-playing days and invited him to join the camp’s band. They played with instruments that had belonged to other musicians who had already been sent to their deaths. The band performed whatever the SS wished to hear: a particular favourite was the song La Paloma.

    Transported again, this time to Dachau, Schumann almost died during a death march but was rescued by the Americans’ arrival. He made his way back to Berlin and discovered that both his parents had miraculously survived, although the city was totally destroyed.

    He was roaming the streets one day when he heard music coming from the basement of a pile of rubble that had once been a building. He walked in and was greeted by many of his musician friends. Through music he also met his wife  Gertraud,  a former Terezin inmate, who recognised him from his spell with the Ghetto Swingers.

    Schumann started playing the clubs again and was making a name for himself. However, something unsettling was happening: an ever-larger number of Nazis were coming out of the woodwork and slyly returning to public life. So in the ‘50s Schumann and his wife emigrated to Australia.

    Schumann was soon performing at a local club, although he was officially employed as a kitchen help. But Melbourne —“as big as New York’s Central Cemetery and twice as dead” — could never compete with Berlin, even post-war Berlin, and after a few years Coco was back playing where he belonged.

    His career took off and he played with stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Ella Fitzgerald.

    One thing he refused to do, though, was to talk about his experience in the camps until, at a meeting of Holocaust survivors,  a journalist filming the event, asked him why he was avoiding the camera. “I don’t want to say anything,” replied Schumann. “If you don’t talk about it, who will?” came the challenge.

    Schumann realised that telling his story was not a choice but a duty. So he started doing it and even wrote a bestselling book about it, The Ghetto Swinger, which was turned into a successful musical.

    Coco Schumann’s wife Gertraud, predeceased him. He is survived by his stepson Peter.

    Heinz Jakob (Coco) Schumann. Born May 14, 1924. Died January 28, 2018.

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