Happy 90th, Coco... and Hans

Published: 2014-01-15

Johann Breyer and Heinz Jacob “Coco” Schumann were at Auschwitz together in 1944, although they presumably never met. Coco Schumann was a German, the son of a World War I veteran, and Hans Breyer’s native country of Czechoslovakia had become a German “protectorate” while he was a child. Coco was a member of one of the facility’s many inmate bands and orchestras—he was a guitarist, and spent much of his time entertaining not only his fellow inmates, but his captors as well, often enough in the same performances, at which captors and inmates both were present to enjoy the music.

Hans took up duties that were rather less-lively, at least during his duty hours, which he spent tramping along the facility’s fence lines, or shivering in the dank cold of a guard tower. His “instrument,” it might be said, was a rifle, though Hans, unlike Coco, never “played” his instrument—that is, there is no record of his ever having fired a shot with his rifle, even on the marches on which he accompanied his charges through morning mists and evening snowfalls to and from their work assignments.

Everyone—including the SS guards—seemed to like Coco’s artful strummings, which they were in a much-better position to enjoy than they were to appreciate (or curse) the vigilance of Hans out in the darkness and cold that often surrounded the facility—a vigilance, of course, not protective of the facility’s inmates, but directed toward keeping them in. While Hans enjoyed the occasional leave, and presumably better rations and sleeping accommodations, Coco’s own circumstances may have been little worse, depending on what he was able to arrange for himself, of course.

Coco, who says his mother was Jewish, likely faced no threat of gas chambers or other horrors widely attributed to Jewish inmates at Auschwitz by latter-day “historians.” As for Hans, a draftee, he faced assignment to the dreaded Eastern Front, there to face the onrushing hordes of the Red Army, should he express any reluctance to perform the easier duties of a “guard” who confined people to a facility in which they were fed and housed in exchange for their labor, which in some cases was that of strumming a guitar.

Coco probably faced the same option. In 1943 he received “a letter” from the government instructing him to report to the Alexanderplatz police station in his native Berlin. At the time, he was a very conspicuous creature on the streets of a country that had just been decimated by the loss of almost a million of Germany’s finest young men at Stalingrad: an able-bodied 19-year-old male. Although he implies otherwise, the letter he received was probably a draft notice, which typically instructed its recipient to report to a local police station[i]. Coco has never displayed this letter, nor quite fully described it beyond noting that it stated no crime that he was suspected of having committed.

There is no report of Coco’s (fully) Jewish mother having received any ill attentions from the authorities. Meantime, it is quite possible that the notice was sent without regard to or even awareness of his mother’s racial/religious identification, a matter the Schumanns might even have managed to keep to themselves until that time.

If it was a draft notice, Mischling Schumann must either have disqualified himself or refused to enlist—a wise choice in the light of hindsight apparent today. Whatever the case, he was consigned to the artists’ colony/old-age home of Theresienstadt, to which privileged victims of Germany’s National Socialist regime were routinely sent. His (Aryan) father’s service in World War I may have figured into this decision. When Theresienstadt was closed (“liquidated”), he was sent, together with many of its other inmates, to Auschwitz, where his contemporary Hans Breyer was already on duty.

Hans, who also received a draft notice from the Wehrmacht, suffered a fate that was manifestly less pleasant. In the course of his efforts to defend Coco’s native country against Soviet invasion toward the end of the war, he ultimately was captured by the Red Army and put in one of their infamous POW camps. There, he fared considerably better than many Germans by somehow attaining release after five months, at the end of which he reports his weight to have been 98 pounds. Release for him, as for Coco, involved “liberation” into postwar Germany, a scorched landscape as far as the eye could see, all of it ruled by the vengeful victors of World War II.

That was all too much for Coco Schumann, who, with his wife, emigrated to unscathed Australia very shortly after the war. Hans Breyer seems to have remained somewhere between Germany and his native Czechoslovakia until 1951, shortly after the Communists’ successful takeover of that country, at which time he managed to emigrate to the United States, where he met and married his wife, there to become a toolmaker and to raise children who in their turn have given him a number of grandchildren, Americans all.

Coco, for his part, found insufficient welcome in Australia for his particular flavor of music (jazz guitar), and returned to his native (West) Berlin with his wife in the mid-Fifties, after matters there had settled down enough. There, he plied his craft successfully to the point at which, these seventy years hence, he enjoys the attentions of a fawning press every five years or so on his birthdays, of which he celebrated his ninetieth on May 14.

Hans, for his part, ground along in a machine shop in Philadelphia until 1991, when he retired from that dreary, dirty trade. And that is about when his troubles began. By 1992, he fell victim to an attempt of the US Office of Special Investigations to cancel his American citizenship because of his record of having served as a guard at Auschwitz. Some federal judge, who remains nameless, seems to have ruled that he is a “native-born” US citizen because his mother was born in the United States in New Jersey, and that, as a minor of 17, he could not be held responsible for having joined the SS.

That was a long time ago, as these things go—and I mean 1992, not 1943. Since then, an enterprising retired German prosecutor named Thomas Walther has found generous clients to fund his persecution of old men who, entirely by circumstance as in Breyer’s case, could be ensnared in the “common purpose” dragnet invented for the post-war vengeance “trials” at Nuremberg under which anyone having had any supporting role in the vast deportment/concentration/enslavement enterprise that ultimately came to provide the doomed Third Reich’s last resource of labor for its crippled war industries, could be found guilty of every crime alleged to have been committed there. In this post-war equivalent of carpet-bombing, Walther has made a good living digging up records to show that people like Hans Breyer were outside in the cold while Coco Schumann was snug inside entertaining Hans’s bosses with his music. He does not seem yet to have ensnared Coco for having set the facility’s evil doings to music. Perhaps Coco is next.

Having been targeted by Thomas Walther’s persecution machine, former guard Breyer met his end behind bars at Philadelphia’s Correctional Center awaiting his extradition hearing to Germany while his wife, children and grandchildren flittered outside the bars like moths around a flame behind glass. Hans’s ninetieth birthday would have been May 30 of next year. On the day he died, Judge Timothy Rice, who ordered Hans Breyer confined without bail, issued orders for his elder countryman to be extradited to Germany down the path blazed by John Demjanjuk and many others, both past and future.

Coco Schumann, Hans’s erstwhile cohabitant of Auschwitz, still steps out now and then to play a gig in one of Berlin’s many jazz locales. He continues to inhabit a “modest bungalow” in a suburb of his native city with his wife, who became a fan of his music at Theresienstadt.

Hans Breyer, the son of a farmer, didn’t play the guitar. And his mother, though a native-born American, wasn’t Jewish. Too bad for Hans.

[i] US War Department. Handbook on German Military Forces. March 15, 1945, p. I-56.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Jett Rucker
Title: Happy 90th, Coco... and Hans
Published: 2014-01-15
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 8, 2015, 6:27 a.m.
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