Articles & Essays

Jazz and Popular Music in Terezín

By Harald Kisiedu

At Terezín, in what is now in the Czech Republic, opportunities for the performance of jazz and other forms of popular music - operettas, revues and cabaret music, for instance - emerged in the wake of the SS's decision to turn the concentration camp into a “model ghetto.” Throughout its existence, Terezín served a dual function within National Socialist policies - and specifically, those of Heinrich Himmler. Although it was originally conceived as a transit camp for Bohemian and Moravian Jews on their way to extermination camps in the General Government area, Terezín also fulfilled the propagandistic function of keeping up the appearance of Jewish autonomy and the “normality” of ghetto life. But this make-believe autonomy of the Jewish administration, presided over by the Jewish Council of Elders, was entirely subservient to the SS's dictatorship over Terezín and its prisoners.

Until the end of 1942 musical instruments were banned in Terezín, thus only vocal music was performed during that period. In the wake of the establishment of the nominal Jüdische Selbstverwaltung (Jewish self-government), musical instruments were smuggled in by incoming transports. Since every form of entertainment was strictly forbidden, any music performed had to be muted. The situation suddenly changed toward the end of 1942, when the Stadtverschönerung (town beautification) programs began to be carried out: “Terezín was destined to be a model ghetto, to be shown to a commission of the International Red Cross as proof that everything written in the enemy press about concentration camps, with gas chambers, forced labor and killing, was a lie.”1 Of major significance in the evolution of Terezín's cultural output was the so-called Freizeitgestaltung (Administration of Free Time Activities), founded in 1942 as an “autonomous” cultural department of the Jewish self-governing body, which promoted and enabled both private and public cultural life. In the course of the SS's endeavor to “normalize” the camp, musical instruments, previously banned, were now allowed and even encouraged, and this made possible the establishment of an orchestra and various bands.

A crucial figure in the evolution of Terezín's musical activities was Eric Vogel, a Czech amateur jazz trumpeter and arranger. Having lost his job as an engineer after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Vogel was forced to survive by relying on his skills as an arranger for jazz ensembles. He took a job with the Jewish community in Brno - under the direct supervision of the Gestapo - where he gave vocational retraining courses in which he lectured to classically trained musicians on the theory, history and other aspects of jazz. Vogel eventually formed a jazz band called the Kille Dillers, a name derived from Kehila, Brno's Jewish community. Vogel was sent to Terezín in March 1942, and on January 8, 1943, he requested permission to form a jazz ensemble. The personnel proposed by Vogel consisted of Dr. Brammer, piano; Dr. Kurt Bauer, percussion; Franta Goldschmidt, guitar; Fasal, bass; Langer, tenor sax and clarinet; Fr. Mautner, trombone; and himself playing trumpet.2 Permission was granted a few days later, and Vogel organized a jazz orchestra modeled on the American big bands of the swing era. It was called the The Ghetto Swingers.

Another jazz group active in Terezín was the Jazz-Quintet Weiss, which had been formed in Prague in 1940 by clarinetist Fritz Weiss, one of prewar Europe's most renowned jazz musicians. Although changes in personnel resulted from deportations of band members to death camps, the group achieved its highest caliber with Weiss, clarinet; Wolfi Lederer, piano; Paul Libensky, double bass; Coco Schumann, percussion (although he was a guitarist); and Franta Goldschmidt, guitar. Like many other musicians at Terezín, Weiss was a member of the camp's fifty-piece symphony orchestra, directed by the Danish conductor Peter Deutsch, and he participated in performances of Hans Krása's children's opera, Brundibár. Both the Ghetto Swingers and the Jazz-Quintet Weiss performed frequently at Terezín's “café”. Opened in December 1942 by the Freizeitgestaltung, this coffee house was not freely accessible: admission was limited to ticket-holders, who were allowed to stay there for two hours.

Another venue for jazz performances was a wooden pavilion built on Terezín's main square as part of the “town beautification” program that began in December 1943. The Ghetto Swingers had to perform at both venues for many hours every day.

In January 1944, the German pianist Martin Roman arrived in Terezín. Roman had worked with Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt and had been a member of two of Germany's foremost jazz ensembles, the Weintraub Syncopators and the Marek Weber Band. Shortly after his arrival, Roman was asked by Ghetto Swingers' member Pavel Libensky, who also worked as a coordinator for the Freizeitgestaltung, to take over leadership of the orchestra. Under Roman, the Ghetto Swingers included three violins, three saxophones, four trumpets, guitar, accordion, bass and drums. Roman composed original compositions for the orchestra, conducted the band and occasionally played piano solos; Fritz Weiss also contributed his own compositions as well as arrangements. Occasionally, the tenor Fredy Haber and a trio of female vocalists singing in the style of the Andrews Sisters were added to the Ghetto Swingers.3

Avant de mourir” (“Before Dying”), a tango by Georges Boulanger, was the group's most popular arrangement, but George Gershwin's “I Got Rhythm” was its theme song. The Ghetto Swingers' repertory comprised twenty to thirty pieces, drawn mostly from Tin Pan Alley songs by Irving Berlin, a collection of Benny Goodman's band's repertory and music by Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Among the pieces performed by the Swingers, whose members also played in the symphony orchestra, was a jazz arrangement of Krása's Brundibár. Another jazz ensemble active in Terezín was a trio that consisted of Fritz Weiss, Martin Roman and guitarist Coco Schumann.4

The Ghetto Swingers had to participate in the propagandistic, “Terezín, a Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement”, directed by the famous German actor, singer and director Kurt Gerron; he was ordered to create the film early in 1944, shortly after having been deported to Terezín,. Produced in connection with the visit of the International Red Cross Committee on June 22, 1944, the film gave the appearance of concentration camp life as recreational and spa-like at a time when German troops were making “heroic sacrifices” for their fatherland. Music played a prominent role in the film, which showed prisoners dancing to the tunes of the Ghetto Swingers - who were ordered to sound American. The Swingers appeared several times in the movie and provided portions of the soundtrack, among them a performance of the Yiddish song “Bei Mir Bist Du Schaynn.” In September 1944, after the movie was completed, all members of the Ghetto Swingers were deported to Auschwitz. Some, including Fritz Weiss, went directly from the train to the gas chambers. Of the original members of the Ghetto Swingers only Eric Vogel, Martin Roman, and Coco Schumann survived.

Cabaret was another of Terezín's thriving popular music genres. Under the aegis of the Freizeitgestaltung, artists such as Karel Svenk, Leo Strauss, Hans Hofer, Bobby John, Trude Popper and Egon Thorn contributed to the camp's cultural life by performing in an idiom that had been systematically suppressed in Germany since the Nazis' accession to power in 1933. Embraced by the Freizeitgestaltung's head Erich Weiner - for their allegedly “therapeutical” function - cabaret performances essentially played a dual role: some of the songs reflected the conditions of life in Terezín in satirical and ironic terms, whereas others “made serious attempts to alleviate the situation of the prisoners” by trying to “correct modes of behavior whereby the inmates hurt each other and themselves.” The performances often contained medleys of well-known Viennese waltzes such as the “Blue Danube” and “Viennese Blood” together with popular themes from operas such as Der Rosenkavalier and operettas such as Die Fledermaus. Most cabaret shows were in German, but some were in Czech.

Terezín's most popular cabaret was the Carousel, the outcome of an interdisciplinary collaboration among several artists under the direction of Kurt Gerron, who had been approached by SS Kommandant Karl Rahm and asked to take charge. Set designs were provided by František Zelenka, who had worked for Prague's Czech National Theatre, but most of the music was composed, arranged and performed by Martin Roman, with whom Gerron had worked during the Weimar Republic in the 1920s.5 The repertoire drew upon material written in the '20s, but performances also included songs written by Terezín prisoners - songs that described life under concentration camp conditions. Carousel's two main poets were Leo Strauss and Martin Greiffenhagen, but Frieda Rosenthal, Theodor Otto Beer, Hans Hofer and Walter Lindenbaum also provided lyrics. Admission to Carousel performances was limited to the camp's elite: capos, block wardens and the like. The Carousel performed over fifty times, most frequently during June and July 1944, the period during which the International Red Cross Delegations visit took place. All the artists who worked for Carousel were among the approximately twenty thousand Terezín prisoners who were deported to Auschwitz in September and October 1944. Gerron and Strauss were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz; Greiffenhagen died in Dachau in January 1945.

Selected Bibliography

Jelavich, Peter. “Cabaret in Concentration Camps,” in Theatre and War 1933-1945: Performance in Extremis, ed. Michael Balfour, New York: Berghahn Books, 2001, 137-163.

Karas, Joža. Music in Terezín 1941-1945, New York: Beaufort Books Publishers, 1985.

Kater, Michael H. Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Migdal, Ulrike (ed.), Und die Musik spielt dazu: Chansons und Satiren aus dem KZ Theresienstadt, München: Piper, 1986.

Muth, Wolfgang. “Musik hinter Stacheldraht: Swing in Ghetto und KZ,” in Swing Heil: Jazz im Nationalsozialismus, ed. Bernd Polster, Berlin: Transit Buchverlag, 1989, 211-220.

Schumann, Coco: Der Ghetto-Swinger: Eine Jazzlegende erzählt, München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1998.

Vogel, Eric T. “Jazz in a Nazi Concentration Camp: Part 1,” Down Beat, 7 December 1961, 20-22.

----------------. “Jazz in a Nazi Concentration Camp: Part 2,” Down Beat, 21 December 1961, 16-17.

----------------. “Jazz in a Nazi Concentration Camp: Part 2,” Down Beat, 4 January 1961, 20-21.

Zwerin, Mike. Swing under the Nazis: Jazz as Metaphor for Freedom, New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.


  • Eric T. Vogel, “Jazz in a Nazi Concentration Camp: Part 2,” Down Beat, 21 December 1961, 16.
  • See Joža Karas, Music in Terezín 1941-1945, New York: Beaufort Books Publishers, 1985, 151.
  • See Coco Schumann, Der Ghetto-Swinger: Eine Jazzlegende erzählt, München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1998, 67.
  • Peter Jelavich, “Cabaret in Concentration Camps,” in Theatre and War 1933-1945: Performance in Extremis, ed. Michael Balfour, New York: Berghahn Books, 2001, 157.
  • See Joža Karas, Music in Terezín 1941-1945, New York: Beaufort Books Publishers, 1985, 147.
  • Articles & Essays