We Played Jazz in the Hell of the Holocaust

Even in the shadow of death, Fritz Weiss brightened the lives of Jews in Theresienstadt with his jazz music. A tribute to a brave artist.

The fascinating story of the ‘Ghetto Swingers’ – a jazz ensemble active during the Holocaust – reveals one of the lesser known aspects of European Jewry’s age of horror  • Composer and musician Fritz Weiss, played jazz in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and even smuggled out arrangements to Emil Ludwick’s band in Prague • 70 years ago, he was taken to the gas chambers at the age of 25 • Saxophonist Shai Brenner tells of the lost jazz legend

גטו סווינגרס בסרט תעמולה נאצי
The Ghetto Swingers as portrayed by Nazi propaganda

I am a soprano saxophonist, and have been playing for twenty years now. Two years ago, I started to have an interest in the connection between the Jewish people and jazz music in the time of the Holocaust. It was then that I learned of the chilling and tragic story of the Jewish jazz band the ‘Ghetto-Swingers’ and the musician who headed it, Fritz Weiss. As a member of a holocaust surviving family myself, the story excited me so much that I decided to dedicate a special musical project in their memory.

Fritz (Badrich) Weiss was born in Prague on 28 September, 1919 to a Jewish family. He was attracted to jazz music from a young age. The traditional jazz which developed in New Orleans, ‘Dixieland’ and later Swing, was very popular back then and swept through America and Europe. As a jazz fan, Weiss bought many records and very quickly decided to fulfill his love of jazz by learning to play wind instruments. First he played the trumpet, then he mastered the clarinet and the saxophone. The young Weiss discovered an insatiable talent, first as part of his school band and then as part of Emil Ludwick’s famous jazz orchestra in Prague. In addition to being a leading musician at such a young age, he also wrote the jazz arrangements for the orchestra, and gave his time to friends to teach them the art of improvisation in jazz. His orchestra colleagues described him as a prodigy.

Jazz as degenerate ‘Jewish music’. Nazi propaganda poster

The rise of Nazi Germany in 1933 changed things. Jazz in Europe was now synonymous with Europe’s Jews, and was described by Nazis as “degenerate music by the Jewish subhumans.” The Nazis banned jazz music: first Jews were forced out of the various orchestras, then they were prohibited from playing entirely. Weiss and his friends had to conduct rehearsals in hiding in an orphanage, under the nose of the Gestapo.

In 1942, Weiss and his family were taken to the Theresienstadt  concentration camp, but jazz continued to fill his life there as well. Weiss joined the Jewish orchestra in the camp – The Ghetto Swingers – which played Dixieland and Swing style music, took on its management and even founded additional jazz ensembles.

The Nazis allowed the cultural scene and jazz music to exist in the ghetto as a propaganda measure and as a diversion. The jazz ensembles played at the ghetto ‘café’. Weiss continued to write the jazz arrangements for Ludwick’s jazz orchestra in Prague, smuggling out the notes through a Czech guard at the risk of his own life. If he had been caught, he probably would have been killed.

Conditions in the camp were very difficult: serious hunger, poor sanitation, very cramped conditions, and various diseases such as typhus which wiped out about a fourth of the ghetto population. Imagine now that with all this, the happy, optimistic, humane sounds of the wonderful Jewish jazz orchestra, the Ghetto Swingers.

Eric Vogel wrote: “The Ghetto Swingers was a good jazz orchestra which played swing. When I close my eyes, I can still hear the Benny Goodman-style tunes coming out of Weiss’ clarinet.”

The music won’t save me, but it will save today

On 28 September, 1944, the Ghetto Swingers participated in the Nazi propaganda film “Theresienstadt”. The Jews in the camp cynically called the film “The Fuehrer gave the Jews a city.” The jazz orchestra played with white shirts before an audience in the camp. “It looked like a regular summer jazz festival,” Vogel wrote.

Immediately after the Red Cross left and the film finished, the band members were sent to the Auschwitz death camp. When they arrived there, Weiss was chosen to work in the camp as a young, healthy worker, but he chose to change lanes to be with his elderly father. They were both gassed to death. He was only 25 years old.

Michael Zwerin described in his book Swing Under the Nazis: “Our talented and beloved Fritz Weiss, one of the best jazz players Europe had…”

Of the Ghetto Swingers musicians, the only one who survived Auschwitz and is still alive is 90 year old Heinz Yakob ‘Coco’ Schumann, who played the guitar as the Jews entered the gas chambers. Schuman relates: “Every day I told myself that music will not save me from the situation. It doesn’t save your life, it saves today. The sights I saw every day were unbearable. We played music in Hell!”

Fritz Weiss’ story is one of a lifelong dedication to jazz: the dedication of a young and talented jazz musician under the Nazi regime, who in spite of the inhuman conditions and at risk to his own life fought to fulfill his lifelong love of jazz music.

On 26 September 2014, 70 years to the day since their death, my jazz ensemble will put on a show which salutes the dedication and artistry of the Ghetto Swingers and Fritz Weiss. The show will include unique pieces from rare recordings preserved from Weiss’ jazz arrangements from 1940-1, and original pieces. Additional details here.

English translation by Avi Woolf.

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