The Jewish Trumpeter Who Survived the Holocaust by Playing Jazz for the Nazis

April 29, 2019 | Amanda Petrusich
About the author:

Born in the Czech city of Brno in 1918, where he lived until the beginning of World War II, Eric Vogel was a jazz enthusiast and accomplished amateur trumpet player. Although official Nazi propaganda denounced jazz as a degenerate art form associated with Jews and blacks, a number of SS officers nonetheless were avid listeners. One such officer had encountered Vogel at a jazz club and, after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, took him under his protection. Amanda Petrusich describes what followed:

While Vogel was imprisoned by the Nazis—first in the so-called model camp, Theresienstadt, [designed entirely for foreign consumption], 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 SS. . . . .

The Ghetto Swingers were being compelled to participate in what was, by all accounts, a hideous charade, but the music that they played was real—which means that, for the players, it still offered a brief, guilty kind of solace, a bit of “joy and pleasure,” as Vogel wrote. . . . Vogel was able to recruit some of the best European players of the interwar era, including the clarinetist Fritz Weiss, and he soon found himself a little out of his league, musically. . . .

On June 23, 1944, delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived to inspect Theresienstadt in person. The Ghetto Swingers set up and played in the band shell. . . . The Red Cross accepted the display, and, three months after its representatives left, on September 28th, the Nazis began emptying the camp.

The Ghetto Swingers were sent to Auschwitz, every member aside from Vogel on the first transport train. Some of them, including Fritz Weiss, were marched from the train directly into a gas chamber. . . . Vogel was eventually reunited with a few surviving members of the band. At Auschwitz, 30 or so musicians were selected to entertain the Nazis; they were assigned to a special barracks, and dressed in “sharp-looking” band uniforms. “We had to play from early in the morning until late in the evening for the German SS, who came in flocks to our barracks,” Vogel wrote. But, after four weeks, the Nazis disassembled the band and loaded its members onto a train. . . .

Vogel survived by jumping off that train, which was bound for Dachau, in 1945, as the Nazis rushed to cover up their crimes and eliminate the remaining Jews before succumbing to the Allies.

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