The Benny Goodman of Theresienstadt Comes to Life in Tel Aviv Tribute

Fritz Weiss is not a household name, but an Israeli musician wants to change that with a concert showcasing the jazz Weiss recorded under the noses of the Gestapo.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

The rehearsal took place at 10:30 A.M. at the Felicja Blumental Center in Tel Aviv. One of the musicians, who came from Petah Tikva, complained of heavy traffic and the lack of parking space. The band leader, saxophonist Shai Brenner, smiled at the displeased performer and nodded. After the musician entered the hall Brenner said: "I know that looking for a parking space can be a very annoying experience. But this time, with this concert, I can't but smile. Here we are about to enter a hall with great acoustics in the most beautiful part of Tel Aviv. The people whose music we are about to play risked their lives to play jazz. So we should put things in proportion."

Nearly 70 years have passed since most of the musicians Brenner is talking about – the Jewish musicians who played jazz in occupied Prague and then at the Theresienstadt ghetto – were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. They left behind a small number of recordings, made right under the nose of the Gestapo. Some of these works will be played on Saturday night at the Felicja Blumental Center, at a concert that will salute the art and heroism of the jazz players from Theresienstadt, headed by Fritz Weiss – a saxophonist, clarinet player, and music arranger who led the Theresienstadt jazz band and wrote all the arrangements for the works. The show is the brainchild of Brenner, who will perform alongside saxophonist and clarinet player Morton Kam, pianist Asaph Finkelstein, guitarist Uri Ben Zvi, contrabass player Kostya Adelkind, and percussionist Leon Haviv.

A Jewish fighter for jazz

"He is a source of inspiration, a role model, a shining example,” says Brenner, speaking of Fritz Weiss, who was murdered at Auschwitz at age 25. “He was a Jewish fighter for jazz. That sounds bombastic, but that's what he was. He was just over 20. What maturity, what love for jazz, what spiritual strength he had to have been able to do all he did in the subhuman circumstances in which he found himself. And all to keep jazz alive. People don't know the name Fritz Weiss, and it's important for me to change that. His name should seep into the public consciousness."

Weiss was born in Prague in 1919 to a middle-class Jewish family. His parents were not musicians. As a youth he was attracted to swing, which came from America and swept Europe. He began playing the trumpet, then switched to the saxophone and clarinet, joined the school choir and became its leading performer. "According to what I've read, his Prague contemporaries compared him to Benny Goodman," says Brenner. "He also looked a bit like him."

In 1939, after the Nazis completed their occupation of Czechoslovakia, Weiss joined the big band led by Emil Ludvik, one of the jazz ensembles active in Prague. The Nazis, who considered jazz inferior music played by blacks and Jews, prohibited performances by jazz ensembles, but the bands continued their activities underground. According to Brenner, the fact that the Nazis closed the universities in Czechoslovakia promoted musical activity.

Weiss quickly became the musical manager and arranger of Ludvik's band, which rehearsed in the Jewish orphanage in Prague and even recorded some 30 works there, mostly jazz pieces by Czech composers or jazz arrangements of Czech songs, plus a few famous American swing pieces. About 10 years ago the Jewish Museum in Prague released a CD with some of these recordings, made in 1940 and 1941. The CD aroused Brenner's curiosity. He delved into it, wrote down the notes of the works, and read all he could on Weiss's life (though information is sparse, says Sima Shahar, manager of the archive and curator of Beit Theresienstadt, the Theresienstadt Martyrs Remembrance Association). Brenner came up with the idea for Saturday night’s concert, assembled the musicians, and arranged the works originally composed for a big band.

The pieces arranged by Weiss for Emil Ludvik's big band, and later for the small band at Theresienstadt, spoke the idiom of contemporary American swing: the rhythm was lively, the wind instruments interacted in an energetic polyphony. Judging by the rehearsal held earlier this week at the Felicja Blumental Center, Brenner and his companions succeed in capturing this spirit. Collaboration between Weiss and Ludvik's band continued after the saxophonist and arranger was sent to Theresienstadt in 1942. "He wrote the arrangements in the camp and smuggled them outside with the help of a Czech policeman," recounts Brenner. "He risked his life. It's really incredible. He was in a concentration camp and the band continued performing based exclusively on his arrangements."
Weiss was not content with writing arrangements and smuggling them outside the concentration camp. In Theresienstadt he began his own quintet which, according to Beit Theresienstadt archivist Sima Shahar, included Wolfy Lederer (piano), Pavel Livansky (bass), Jacob (Coco) Schumann (who played the drums, though his main instrument was the guitar), and Franta Goldschmidt (who was also a guitarist, but as part of the quintet played a different instrument). According to Brenner, Weiss also played in a trio in the ghetto.

The main jazz band in Theresienstadt was called the Ghetto Swingers. It was founded by engineer and amateur trumpet player Erich Figel, and its musical manager was German-Jewish pianist Micky Roman, who was one of the only musicians from Theresienstadt not murdered in Auschwitz (Coco Schumann was also saved from the death camp). According to Shahar, it is unclear whether Weiss played with the Ghetto Swingers.

Uplifting catchy tunes

The jazz concerts at Theresienstadt were just a small part of the diverse musical activity in the camp, which included many concerts with performances of works composed in the camp by composers such as Viktor Ulmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, and Hans Krasa. "Not easy music," says Shahar of these works, which were composed in an uncompromisingly Modernist spirit, "music that is difficult to listen to." The energetic swing style of Weiss and his friends, by contrast, was much more catchy and uplifting.

Culture, music, art, and creation provided some joie de vivre and a short respite from the reality of life in Theresienstadt – one of hunger, disease, gruelling physical work, high mortality, and no certainty about the future. "No one danced to the jazz sounds," adds Shahar. The concerts were held mostly in the café opened in the camp in 1943, though "of course there was nothing on the table. Even in the propaganda film the Nazis shot in the camp, you don't see coffee cups. People are sitting there with frozen expressions. But the music is playing and they listen to it and clap."

The propaganda film, meant to show the world that the Jews in the camp were leading a normal life, included shots of the Ghetto Swingers in performance. Immediately after the film was completed, says Brenner, the musicians, including Fritz Weiss, were sent to Auschwitz. "According to the testimony of Coco Schumann, Weiss was supposed to go through the selection and be sent to work, but he insisted on staying close to his father, who was in the line sent to the gas chambers, and that's how he went to his death," says Brenner. Weiss was murdered on 28 September 1944, his twenty-fifth birthday. Exactly 69 years later, on September 28, 2013, a concert will be held in Tel Aviv saluting his talent, determination, and courage.

"I'm from a family of Holocaust survivors, my father was in the Holocaust as a child, and I naturally feel a deep connection to the story of Weiss and the jazz performers from Theresienstadt," says Brenner. "But I want to emphasize that this is not just a personal interest. Weiss' story illustrates the deep connection of the Jewish people to jazz. Europe was home to hundreds and thousands of Jewish jazz players like Weiss - excellent musicians who died in the Holocaust.

"At Buchenwald the inmates also played jazz. And at Mauthausen. As Jewish and Israeli musicians today, these are our roots. Not New Orleans, Chicago, and New York, but Theresienstadt, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen. Of course, Jewish players in Europe were clearly influenced by American jazz, yet still, jazz for me is not the music created there, on that great continent, and brought here after the establishment of the state. It's that as well, but it's also music that belonged to the Jewish people, with rich and deep and tragic layers in Europe. I think the Jewish people should embrace and adopt jazz as its national music. It is our music."

Shai Brenner (left) and his band rehearse their tribute to Fritz Weiss.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
The Fritz Weiss jazz band at Theresienstadt ghetto. Weiss is playing clarinet.

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