Prague's Jewish Museum recently released a CD that is nothing short of miraculous. At the height of the Nazi occupation of Prague during the Second World War, the Czech Jewish jazz musician, Fritz Weiss, made nearly thirty recordings with the Emil Ludvik Orchestra. Weiss was musical leader of the band and also made all the arrangements. Amazingly, he continued to work with the band even after he was sent to the Terezin ghetto. In Encore today, we'll be telling the story of these extraordinary swing recordings, made literally in the shadow of the swastika.
Fritz Weiss was born into a middle-class Prague family that had little interest in music, but like so many of his generation, he grew up with a passion for swing, and would regularly buy the latest jazz records at the famous Koruna record-shop, where - if you were lucky - you could find the latest recordings for a crown a piece. From the start his huge musical talent was evident. He started playing the trumpet as a teenager, when he was a pupil at Prague's international English Grammar school. As the jazz historian and Weiss's contemporary Lubomir Doruzka recalls, the school was an oasis of international understanding, while so much of Central Europe was being eaten up by national and racial prejudice.
"Czech, German and Jewish students learned in that school English together. There common language was English, of course. And they had their own orchestra too. In the orchestra Czech, German and Jewish musicians played together."
But this came to an abrupt end with the German occupation in March 1939. From Prague Castle Hitler declared the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The international band that had emerged from the English Grammar School was doomed.
"Some of the Germans refused to play either with Czechs or with Jewish musicians and the band broke. Of course the musicians continued to play, and one of the successors of this band was the Emil Ludvik Band, composed mostly of students. As a matter of fact, one of the things which Hitler did, had rather a beneficial effect on Czech jazz. While jazz at that time was played mostly by high-school or university students, and when the universities were closed a lot of students, who considered jazz as their hobby, turned to it as their profession, because they had to do something. And one of these bands was the Emil Ludvik Band. Fritz Weiss played trumpet with them and arranged and was practically a sort of musical leader of the band. He led rehearsals and prepared all the musicians. That was only until the time that it was prohibited for Jewish artists to appear on stage. So he couldn't play with the band any more."
For Jewish musicians the situation gradually became intolerable, and Fritz Weiss had to work with the band more or less in secret. But right under the Gestapo's nose, the Emil Ludvik Orchestra managed to produce a whole string of recordings, all of them arranged by Weiss.
"It was impossible for Jewish musicians to record and Fritz Weiss ordinarily didn't play on them - or on most of them - but of course he did the arrangements, rehearsed the band and prepared them for recording. They were mostly Czech titles, some were American titles, because until America entered the war, it was possible to play American titles as well. They were even played later, only it was said that they were written by fictitious Czech authors, who didn't exist at all. One of the composers in Emil Ludvik's band was Emil Ludvik, the pianist and leader himself, and there was a new generation of young Czech musicians and swing composers, led by Kamil Behounek an accordion player - a "hot" accordion player as he was called at that time - or Jiri Traxler, who were very prolific composers, and they really created a new Czech swing music which didn't exist before."
In 1942 the transport of Czech Jews to the Terezin ghetto began, and it was not long before Fritz Weiss himself was sent to Terezin. But almost unbelievably he managed to keep in touch with the band, by getting a Czech guard to help him smuggle material in and out of the camp.
"When he was sent to the Jewish concentration camp in Terezin, he even found a way how to smuggle ready arrangements from Terezin back to Prague. He received from Prague themes and the score music paper, which was very important for him and he did his arrangements in Terezin. He founded his own band in Terezin also, and it's even documented on a film, which the Nazi propaganda ministry produced at the time under the title 'The Fuhrer Gave the Jews a City'. So the band of Fritz Weiss plays in that film as well."
In Prague the Emil Ludvik Orchestra continued to play and record Weiss's arrangements as he sent them from Terezin. Their audiences and the Nazi rulers of the occupied Czech lands were of course completely unaware where this music was coming from.
After two years in Terezin, Fritz Weiss was sent to Auschwitz.
"There is a story, which is told by some of the musicians who survived at that time. He was sent to Auschwitz together with his father. His father was old. When they came to Auschwitz, the Germans divided all those new arrivals into two sections - those who could survive and those who were too old and who had to go straight to the gas. Nobody knew that of course. Fritz's father was sent to the second group. Fritz himself as a young boy was sent to the first group, but he left his line and he went over to his father. And he just died with him."
Fritz Weiss's music survived. His legacy was to influence two generations of post-war jazz musicians. Now, thanks to a group of enthusiasts, his music is again available on a CD released under the title "In Defiance of Fate".
"There was a club which collected practically all the music which was produced on old records. And they have a very rich collection. They have practically everything which was released until the arrival of the LP record. And one of them is Mr Gössel, who knows a lot of details, and I think he might have been the one, who suggested to the Jewish State Museum that it might be a very interesting project to feature one of the Jewish musicians with a very special fate."
If Fritz Weiss and the thousands of other talented musicians who perished in the Nazi camps had survived, we can only guess at the huge contribution they would have continued to make to music in Europe. Instead we are left with a handful of extraordinary recordings that speak through the generations.
See also The History of Music
Czech PM at centre of new scandal over his son’s shocking revelations
November 17 – The Czech Republic’s unofficial protest day?
Embattled Czech prime minister fighting for his political future
PM's son claims he was forcibly detained in Crimea by his father’s associates
Czech men drinking less beer