Coco Schumann, Holocaust Survivor and Renowned Jazz Guitarist, Dies in Berlin

Renowned jazz musician, who performed in the Theresienstadt ghetto and the Auschwitz death camp, passed away at 93

Coco Schumann in Berlin, Germany. August 1997.
Florian Frank

Coco Schumann, a Holocaust survivor who went on to become one of Germany's most celebrated jazz musicians, died at the age of 93 in Berlin, his record label Trikont announced on Monday.

Together with his band, the Coco Schumann Quartet, Schumann, a self-taught maestro, achieved great renown and was one of the first artists in Germany to perform using an electric guitar.

Born in 1924 to a Jewish mother and a Christian father who later converted to Judaism, Heinz Jakob Schumann received his first guitar in 1924 from a cousin. He performed guitar and drums in Berlin swing bands as a boy.

Schumann reportedly got the nickname Coco from a French girlfriend, who had difficulty pronouncing his real name.

As a Jew in Germany after 1933, Schumann was banned from performing in public. But he paid no attention to the ban and took off the yellow star the Nazis forced him to wear as a symbol of his religion.

The artist was denounced in 1943 and sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto. There he performed as a member of the "Ghetto Swingers," a band founded by engineer and amateur trumpet player Erich Figel. In 1944, the band was brought to Auschwitz concentration camp, where they played during new arrivals and accompanied forced labor colonies as they marched. Three of the 16 members of the original band survived. "My life was saved by music," Schumann will later say.

Schumann was liberated by U.S. soldiers during one of the notorious "death marches," the forcible movements of prisoners from camp to camp. As the soldiers arrived, Schumann on the verge of death.

The guitarist refused to speak about his life as a Holocaust survivor. "I'm a musician who spent time in a concentration camp, not a camp inmate who played a bit of music," he wrote in his autobiography "Der Ghetto Swinger" (The Ghetto Swinger), which was first published in 1997 and soon turned into a bestseller, staged as a musical in Hamburg in 2012.

After the war, he remained in Germany until immigrating to Australia in 1950 with his wife and son, only to return four years later to take up where he had left off musically.

During his career, he performed with violinist Helmut Zacharias and piano player and singer Bully Buhlan, among other greats of the German jazz and swing scene.