A final song for Coco Schumann

I’m sure every journalist has some stories they regret not getting round to. I know I’ve got a few.

One involved a German-Jewish musician whose life story is so amazing it’s hard to understand why they haven’t made a Hollywood movie about him yet.

Coco Schumann dodged the Gestapo as a teenager, playing ‘forbidden’ swing in Hitler’s Germany, then survived three Nazi camps and became a noted musician after the war.

For years I’d planned to interview Schumann about his life, even managed to get hold of a home phone number. But somehow other work always got in the way and there was never any great interests from the editors I’d pitched the story to, which might have prompted me to cold call him. When I did, last week, nobody picked up the phone. I wrote to his agent to check that I still had the right number.

“Regrettably Mr.┬áSchumann isn’t available for interviews anymore due to dementia,” his agent replied. On Monday, as I was lying at home with the flu, news arrived that Coco Schumann had died.

I suppose if I’d managed to speak him, I would have asked Schumann, who was born in Berlin in 1924, more about what life was like here back then. In German-language interviews he recounts his fascination with Nazi torch marches and his excitement at the prospect of Hitler Youth camping trips _ until someone made clear that he couldn’t join, because he was Jewish.

I would have asked to hear his stories about Berlin’s underground jazz scene in the 1930s, at a time when the Nazis were cracking down on “degenerate art.” In an autobiography published in 1997, Schumann wrote that he began to hang out in bars from the age of 12, and landed his first job as a musician playing the drums when he was 15. That would have been in 1939 _ the year World War II erupted and a year after the Night of Broken Glass made clear to everyone what consequences Nazi ideology would have for Jews.

And yet, Schumann, the son of a Jewish seamstress, somehow played on. As Europe was going up in flames, young Coco and his bandmates would jam through the night, always keeping two lookouts at the door to watch for men wearing the telltale leather coats and wide-brimmed hats of the Gestapo. As soon as the feared secret police appeared, Schumann told an interviewer years later, the lookouts would whistle “and we’d play a polka or some German nonsense.”

It helped that Schumann was tall and blond, but in 1943 he was summoned for deportation. Schumann was already standing in a line destined for Auschwitz when his father, who was considered ‘Aryan,’ managed to convince an officer to send his son to Theresienstadt, the Nazis’ “model camp,” instead.

Theresienstadt was a perverse spectacle created to mislead the world about what was happening in all the other concentration camps and further the lie that Jews were being treated humanely _ even allowed to have fun in their own little ghettos. Schumann, like many others, survived by playing along, but in his case that also meant performing precisely the kind of music the Nazis hated. His band _ the Ghetto Swingers _ included several famous musicians. A remarkable fragmentary recording of one of their performances was found in Israel after the war. You can hear it in this Austrian interview with Coco Schumann from about 20:30 onward.

When Theresienstadt was closed, Schumann and his bandmates were deported to Auschwitz, whose chimneys were billowing smoke when they arrived.

“We though these were factories until the SS-man accompanying us with a dog (…) said: ‘Just so you know where you are, you’re in the extermination camp Auschwitz. Here’s the entrance through the gate, and look, over there are the chimneys, that’s the exit.’ That’s when we realized why it smelled so bad. Human flesh, burning.”

Again, he somehow managed to get into a band, playing a guitar left behind by a Romani inmate who had been gassed. As death became an everyday occurrance, Schumann and his fellow musicians clung to their sanity through music.

Most of the Ghetto Swingers were murdered but Schumann was taken to Dachau, and then _ he’d contracted typhoid_ forced to march toward Austria where the Nazis planned to simply shoot the surviving detainees in a remote valley. The U.S. Army caught up with them first, just in time.

What must it feel like to have to have come so close to death so many times? From everything I’ve read and heard about Schumann, he wasn’t a bitter man. But he didn’t mince his words when it came to calling out those responsible for all the evil either. In one of his accounts of Auschwitz, Schumann described the guards as “trained monsters” who would happily consort with the camp elders _ hardened criminals who were put in charge of policing the other inmates.

“But a highly decorated Jewish surgeon who had saved countless lives was considered dirt,” he said.

Schumann’s only explanation was that our species evolved its brain faster than its heart. “We humans can fly to Mars, and we can fly to the Moon, but in the back of our minds we’ve still got the cave man’s cudgel.”

Twenty-one when the war ended, Schumann returned to Berlin and reunited with some of his old bandmates. He reportedly became the first person in Germany to play an electrically amplified guitar, spent several years in Australia, and had a flourishing career as a jazz and swing musician that lasted into the 21st century.

Schumann told his own story better than anyone else. He didn’t need another interview. Still, I wish I’d called him soon after I got that number.