Young, happy-go-lucky, wise-guy Berliner, Heinz Jacob ("Coco") Schumann, falls in love with jazz in 1936 at the age of twelve and never falls out of it. It is the most important thing in the life of this teen-age guitarist who becomes an integral part of the all night Berlin swing club scene, enjoying a lifestyle which, he writes, "didn't miss a beat" despite the Nazi takeover. Later, surrealistically, it is that music that saves his life.
A great many books have been written about the Holocaust by survivors, soldiers, historians, observers and decision makers – as well as by those who deny it ever happened and those who helped, actively or passively, to perpetrate it. This book is an experience of a different kind. The reader is drawn into a musical prodigy's 1930s swing world, its nightlife, his family and environment, so much so that during the war, when the jazz clubs' programs are switched matter-of-factly to renditions of German songs every time the Nazi controlled police come by, that danger seems an annoying and minor disruption of the main theme, Coco's music.
Nights on the town, going from one gig to another, days spent sleeping – this is Coco's life and this is what he wants from it, just to get lost in the music and to hell with everything else. Born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, blue-eyed and blond, he defies the order to wear a yellow star, letting the Third Reich pass over his head because "anyone who has swing in his blood…cannot march in lockstep," as he explains later. This is his rebellion, but it is just a matter of time until he is caught in 1943 and sent to the camps.
Coco regains his innate balance and survives by performing in The Ghetto Swingers combo at the camp - "when I played I forgot where I was" - until the completion of the infamous Theresienstadt Nazi propaganda movie, in which the band appears, makes him and the other actors dispensable.
They are all transported straight to Auschwitz and there, the unbelievable happens to Coco. He suffers one of the worst mental tortures imaginable in the Holocaust horror story, forced to join the wretched musicians who have to play at the camp entrance gates while endless lines of starving and beaten people doomed to die in gas chambers are herded to their fate.
"The wind blows the ashes of those who came on an earlier train into your face…the sad eyes that know what is coming, that briefly look at us as they pass by, are there and will always be there. Just like the music," he writes.
Of course he had to play to survive and the survival of a Jew in that war was a victory that could turn into death any minute, but he and the other musicians pay the price of seeing the eyes of the children who sensed that there was nothing good awaiting them at the end of the march, seeing them every day for the rest of their lives, seeing them right behind their own eye sockets, never to go away. Survivors live with guilt, but who can enter the hearts of survivors forced to play Strauss at the crematoria? "[Whoever] has been in Auschwitz will never be able to leave, whether he wants to or not," Coco writes.
And when one musician incredibly finds himself watching his wife and children go by, there is nothing he can do. "You're going to be joining them soon enough," another inmate says to the distraught father in a kafkaesque attempt at humor.
The Nazis like Coco's music even though they are taught that jazz is the product of racially inferior Negroes and Jews. It brings to mind virulent BDS supporters who somehow hold on to their Israeli made intel-run computers, Teva-researched medications and Israel's whatsapp and waze apps for their mobiles.
This book should be emotionally draining, but it isn't. It is sometimes funny and sometimes sad, depending on the page one is reading. On the other hand, the description of Coco's life after the Holocaust resonates with a telling depth that seems to turn into an unbridgeable chasm as it unfolds, with the world on one side and the Jewish people on the other.
Coco and his wife build a new life for themselves in Germany after the war, a development which at first is hard for them - and this reader - to accept; at some point they try to get as far away as Australia, but despite Coco's success there, they return to Germany.
They are not returning home, however, but proving that for Jews, all countries now seem the same, so one may as well choose a familiar one. Coco continues playing with the brightest and the best, even Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald perform with him, but the Holocaust has left him a marginal man devoid of a home. "The Third Reich destroyed our basic trust in humanity – a prerequisite for any sense of home." Tell me where should I go, the quintessential Jewish question and a poignant Yiddish song, comes to mind, but he, unlike many other survivors, does not find an answer in the existence of Israel. Well, he decides, if they want to make me a Jew, I will be one - and he finds a way to connect to Judaism, although not to Israel.
A small suitcase is always packed and standing ready in the Schumann apartment.
Before the war, Coco was part of a scintillating world, one that believed in man without having to say so – and although jazz and swing are not this writer's favorite type of music, anyone can relate to how his entire soul poured into that guitar. The passion comes through, even though the detailed descriptions of various gigs and performers might not interest those who are not jazz aficionados. Still, they create the mood and help the reader relate to this man whose entire being is swing.
Breaking a decades-long silence to write this story, Coco explains his long wait by saying that he didn't expect anyone to believe the unbelievable, but adds that another reason he hesitated was that "I had felt the past had to remain the past; whoever knew about it, we understood each other without words."
The book also gives the reader an interesting view of the changes in the world of modern music. Coco is the first performer to play an electric guitar on stage, but talks sadly about today's electronic way of playing – for him, he says, music is emotion, life but "machines do not offer either of the two..they never have…mistakes." It tells the reader something more about this unusual man when he writes that he would sometimes make mistakes on purpose to add variety to his performances.
In the end, the pre-war prodigy who gets paid with cartons of cigarettes for his music by US soldiers in the post war rubble that is Berlin, the young-old musician who is met by an American pastor whose tears are streaming down his face as the camp is liberated by an American battalion, finds that just a few decades later, young German intellectuals in a bar remark – not realizing who he is - that "every halfway clever child by now knows Auschwitz was one big lie."
Coco tells us along the way that he does not believe in the collective guilt of Germans, but he does not tell us whether he believes that what the Nazis did cannot happen again.
Look for this unusual book.
The Ghetto Swinger: A Jazz Legend Remembers (DoppelHouse Press 2016), has been translated into English for the first time by Julie Howard, with an afterword by Michael H. Kater, former jazz musician and Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at York University, author of a definitive work on jazz in the Third Reich.
(Note: all quotes are from the book ).