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Ghetto Swingers and Concentration Camp Jazzmen: Fritz Weiss, Jazz and the Nazis

By Jspace Staff on 10/17/2013 at 5:08 PM

Categories: History, Features

Ghetto Swingers and Concentration Camp Jazzmen: Fritz Weiss, Jazz and the Nazis

Reactionaries tend not to like modernity. It affronts them somehow. And of course politics doesn’t get much more militantly and murderously reactionary than Nazism, which saw any art or culture that did not conform to its worldview (or weltanschauung) as a subversive threat to its authority. So the Nazis burned books, banished Bauhaus architects and designers and decried what they called “degenerate art.”

Among all their hatreds, they also had a problem with jazz music, which was profoundly modern in the first half of the 20th century and often associated with Jews in Europe and America. And this is the story of one jazzman in Europe who, despite Nazism’s war on Jews and jazz, had a talent that even concentration camp walls could not restrain.

His name is Fritz Weiss, and he was born in Prague in 1919. Weiss’ parents were German-speaking Jews, professionals who were part of the city’s educated bourgeoisie. They sent Weiss to Prague’s international English Grammar School, where Czech, German and Jewish children all learned together in English. Weiss joined the school orchestra where he played trumpet, later switching to the saxophone and clarinet. He was a huge fan of American swing music and jazz, and music became his passion.

At about the same time Weiss graduated high school Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. And once the Nazis had completed their occupation of the country in 1939, they banned performances of jazz. Nazism considered jazz to a music played by black people and Jews and therefore inferior. It was also, of course, a vibrant and loud product of modernity, which was anathema to Nazi Germany, which saw modernity as the enemy and replaced it with a mystical, supposedly traditional Teutonism. So jazz players like Weiss, who had joined a big band led by Emil Ludvik, had to perform in secret as if they were members of an underground political organization—which, because Nazism politicized religion, ethnicity and culture, in a way of course they were.

Ludvik recognized Weiss’ talent and soon appointed him as the band’s musical manager and arranger in addition to its lead trumpet. Weiss therefore became a leader of the band. But when racial laws heavily restricted many of the rights of Jews, it became impossible for him to perform with the band on stage. Yet no law could restrict his passion for jazz and swing and Weiss managed to arrange the band’s performances in secret. These included performances and rehearsals at the Jewish orphanage in Prague, where the band also recorded. In fact despite the climate under Nazi occupation, they managed to record around 30 works at the orphanage in 1940 and 1941. And some 60 years later, the Jewish Museum in Prague released a CD of the recordings: jazz pieces by Czech composers, jazz arrangements of Czech songs and a few popular American swing tunes, all arranged by Weiss.

Then in 1942, the Nazis began deporting Czech Jews to Theresienstadt, also known as Terezin, a concentration camp about 40 miles north of Prague. Weiss and his family were sent there, along with about 150,000 others. From there, Jews would be sent by rail to the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka, although tens of thousands would not make the trip having already perished from malnutrition and disease at Theresienstadt. Clearly, the conditions at the camp were awful. Yet Weiss took part in musical events at Theresienstadt and even managed to continue to collaborate with jazz musicians beyond its walls thanks to the help of a Czech guard who would help him to smuggle material in and out of the camp. In this way he kept in touch with the band and received score music from them that he would arrange at Theresienstadt and send back to them. Weiss also founded his own band, a quintet, at the camp and became the artistic leader and arranger of a Theresienstadt Dixieland ensemble called the Ghetto Swingers. Here, perhaps, it is worth explaining a bit about Theresienstadt, which was not a typical concentration camp.

While, as noted, conditions at Theresienstadt were bad enough that tens of thousands of people died there, it was not a death camp at which Jews were gassed. Rather it was designated as a concentration camp for (generally) middle and upper-middle class Jews, often professionals like doctors, lawyers, academics, scientists and businessmen from Central Europe. They were mainly German-speaking Jews from Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany—Jews like Fritz Weiss and his family. Because so many of the inmates were so cultured and educated, Nazi Germany used the camp as a propaganda tool: Rather than try to deny its existence, they publicized Theresienstadt and its rich cultural life in an attempt to fool the West and anyone who might care about the fate of Europe’s Jews into believing it was somehow a place that Jews enjoyed being in.

This is how there could be jazz groups and other orchestras at the same time as sadistic guards, malnutrition and disease (most notably a typhus epidemic) that killed 33,000 inmates, around a quarter of the approximately 144,000 Jews sent to Theresienstadt. The Nazis even shot film of Jewish inmates listening to Jewish musicians perform at the camp’s café, where they sat rigid and applauded the music. This propaganda film included shots of the Ghetto Swingers and was designed to show that life at camp was normal, fun even.

So Weiss continued to play and to smuggle his arrangements out of the camp, and his old band in Prague would remarkably perform the arrangements of a man imprisoned in a concentration camp. Yet Weiss’s quintet and the Ghetto Swingers were just a small, jazzy part of the diverse musical activity at Theresienstadt. There were also concert performances of works by composers confined to the camp such as Viktor Ulllmann, Hans Krása, Gideon Klein and Pavel Haas. Had Gustav Mahler been born a generation later or had Arnold Schoenberg not escaped to the United States, they too would likely have been interned at, composed at and transported to their deaths from Theresienstadt. As it was, the music in the camp offered some brief respite from the reality of life there, which in addition to hunger and disease included harsh physical labor and absolute uncertainty as to what the future held.

Then in September 1944, the Nazis began to liquidate the camp, deporting more and more prisoners to death camps in Poland to the east. In one month alone that fall, 24,000 Jews at Theresienstadt were sent to the killing center at Auschwitz. Fritz Weiss and his father were among those sent in the September transport to Auschwitz, where on arrival Jews were divided by selection into those who would survive temporarily and work until their murder and those who were too old to work and would go directly to the gas chambers. But of course none of those arriving could know that this was the selection and when his father was assigned as too old to work, Fritz stayed alongside him. Both men were sent to the gas chambers, where Fritz Weiss was murdered on his 25th birthday—September 28, 1944.

Thankfully, in some hearts and minds at least, Fritz Weiss’ name and music lives on and exactly 69 years after his death, on September 28 of this year, an Israeli jazz saxophonist named Shai Brenner put on a concert of Weiss’ work in Tel Aviv. The son of Holocaust survivors, Brenner wanted both to honor the memory of the thousands of Jewish jazz musicians murdered by the Nazis and to salute Weiss’ unique talent and passion. This was a talent and passion that by being audible to this day escaped the walls of Theresienstadt and the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Similarly European jazz outlived Nazism and in his book “La Tristesse de Saint Louis: Swing Under the Nazis” jazz critic Mike Zwerin explored how despite Nazis’ attempts to ban it jazz survived “as a metaphor for freedom.” In it Zwerin writes simply of “our beloved and wonderfully gifted Fritz Weiss. One of the best jazz players Europe ever had.''