Coco Schumann, the Holocaust Survivor who Played Jazz at Auschwitz, Dies at 93

The Berlin native returned to the city after the war and became renowned for playing the electric guitar

coco schumann
AP file photo of musician Coco Schumann taken on August 16, 1997. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Heinz Jakob "Coco" Schumann, the celebrated German jazz musician who was forced to play for Nazi officers at Auschwitz, has died at the age of 93. According to the BBC, Schumann’s record label, Trikont, confirmed the musician’s death, but did not specify the cause.

Schumann was born in Berlin in 1924. His mother was Jewish and his father reportedly converted into the religion. From an early age, Schumann showed exceptional talent; he taught himself to play drums and guitar, and by the 1930s, he had become a popular fixture of Berlin’s underground music scene.

As Emily Langer of the Washington Post notes, Schumann began his career during a fraught time for German jazz musicians. Because of the genre’s association with Jewish and black performers, Hitler had declared jazz a “degenerate” art form. Nazi officials issued decrees prohibiting jazz performances and also outlawing swing dancing.

Initially, Schumann was unfazed. He continued to play jazz, sometimes removing the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany. According to Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany by Michael H. Kater, an SS officer once came to the bar where Schumann was playing illicit tunes. “You should arrest me, Sir, for I am underage and Jewish to boot,” Schumann reportedly said. The officer laughed, assuming it was a joke.

But Schumann was arrested in 1943, on charges of performing degenerate music and consorting with Aryan girls. He was due to be sent to Auschwitz, but his father, a veteran of World War I, successfully intervened. Instead, Schumann was deported to Theresienstadt, a camp in occupied Czechoslovakia where the Nazis staged an elaborate propaganda campaign to mask the true nature of Nazi concentration camps. Schumann joined a band called the Ghetto Swingers, whose drummer had been deported to Auschwitz just days before Schumann's arrival.

According to a 2016 Huffington Post article by Michaela Haas, Schumann and the Ghetto Swingers played “You Can’t Stop Me From Dreaming” in a Nazi propaganda film, which sought to portray the concentration camp as place of joy and culture.  After the filming wrapped, Schumann told Haas, the entire band was “immediately deported to Auschwitz, many of us straight into the gas chamber.” 

In Auschwitz, Schumann was forced to play in a band for hours every day, while SS commanders tattooed new prisoners and marched others to the gas chambers. Late in the war, he was transferred to Dachau, and ultimately liberated from there. When he regained his freedom, he discovered that most of his family had died in the Holocaust, but his parents had managed to survive.

Reflecting on his experience decades later, Schumann told Haas that the “human is a peculiar creation. Unpredictable and merciless. What we saw in those days was unbearable, and yet we bore it. We played the tunes to it, for the sake of our bare survival. We played music in hell.”

After the war, Schumann returned to Berlin and once again played jazz in his native city. He performed with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Marlene Dietrich, and became one of Germany’s first well-known players of the electric guitar.

“I decided I could either live the rest of my life being broken by Auschwitz,” Schumann once told Haas, “or be joyful that I survived.”

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