The Jewish Trumpeter Who Entertained Nazis to Survive the Holocaust

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tags: Holocaust, Nazis, Jewish history, music history

In 1961, sixteen years after Eric Vogel leaped from a transport train headed toward the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, he recounted his escape for Downbeat, an American jazz magazine: “This is a story of horror, terror, and death but also of joy and pleasure, the history of a jazz band whose members were doomed to die.” English wasn’t Vogel’s first language—he was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1896—but it’s hard to imagine a more gripping opening line. Downbeat ran his story in three parts, each with the title “Jazz in a Nazi Concentration Camp.”

While Vogel was imprisoned by the Nazis—first in the so-called model camp, Theresienstadt, and then later at the Auschwitz death camp—he and a dozen or so others played in a jazz band called the Ghetto Swingers. There were similar groups at many camps throughout Nazi-controlled Europe: musicians who were forced to perform, on command and under inconceivable duress, for the S.S. The particular cruelty of this—desecrating and corrupting the creative impulse that fuels and sustains art—remains wildly perverse, though Vogel was nonetheless grateful for any chance, however grim, to make the music that he loved.

The Nazis officially condemned jazz as “jungle music,” identifying it with blacks and Jews, but a hunger for it remained, both in the camps and elsewhere in Europe. A widely distributed Nazi poster denouncing entartete (or “decadent”) music featured a man with exaggerated features playing a saxophone and wearing a top hat, tails, and a six-pointed gold star. The journalist Mike Zwerin, a trombonist from Queens who covered jazz for the International Herald Tribune, later wrote about the Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, who published a secret newsletter about jazz in occupied Europe, using the pen name Dr. Jazz. “If anybody who loved jazz could not be a Nazi, there seem to have been quite a few close calls,” Zwerin noted. For a while, jazz kept Vogel useful to the Nazis—and therefore alive. According to Vogel, the Ghetto Swingers did very good arrangements of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” (“I got rhythm / I got music / I got my man / who could ask for anything more?”) and, incredibly, Georges Boulanger’s “Avant de Mourir,” or “Before Dying.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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