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Hitler Youth to American Jazz

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Lennie Cuje
Jazz Musician
Thursday, August 18, 2005; 2:00 PM

Lennie Cuje was supposed to have been the future of Adolf Hitler's "Thousand-year-Reich" when he was born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. But Germany's defeat in World War II changed everything. U.S. soldiers arrived, bringing with them a type of music that had been banned under Hitler's regime. And Cuje, a former Hitler Youth, found himself transfixed by American Jazz.

At the age of 72, Cuje lives in Arlington and plays vibraphone each week at Baltimore's Harbour Court Hotel. He played in U-Street jazz clubs in the early '60s and eventually performed for jazz-loving president Bill Clinton.

Earlier this year, Cuje returned to Germany for a reunion with former classmates from a Nazi-run music school. The trip coincided with the 60-year anniversary of the end of World War II and the defeat of Hilter. A washingtonpost.com video by Christina Pino-Marina documented the journey.

Cuje was online Thursday, Aug. 18, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his life's journey.

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Lennie Cuje: What a great pleasure to meet the world via the Washington Post here in Arlington, Virginia. I hope I can answer some the questions you may have about my story. But don't forget, I will answer them as a jazz musician, not a politician.

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Alexandria, Va.: How old were you when you joined the Hitler Youth, and did your parents force you into it? Also, how old were you when you started to play Jazz?

Lennie Cuje: Every boy had to join Hitler Youth. You were automatically drafted at the age of 10. It was mandatory and it led to the army at 18. In my case, it lasted until the age of 12, until the year 1945.

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Washington, D.C.: I need some clarification. The article on your life talks about you being a former Hitler Youth. What was a Hitler Youth? I would think this is not something one would want to mention or boast about. I was kind of taken aback by this.

Lennie Cuje: It was just part of the upbringing at the time. I didn't choose to be in it but the motto was we were "born to die" for Germany under Hitler. Nobody is boasting. It is just living with reality.

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Washington, D.C.: Lennie:

Did the rest of your family survive WWII, and did they also leave Germany or are they still there?

Lennie Cuje: We all survived. We were separated during the end of the war because all the children in the music school were taken out of Frankfurt during the bombings. But my younger brother and mother stayed in Frankfurt during the air war. I was surprised to find our house was still standing at the end of all the bombings. My father was drafted and sent to the Italian front. He was able to join the Italian resistance and fight the German occupation. He was taken prisoner by the British until 1946.

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Herndon, Va.: Did any of your classmates try to play any jazz during the Nazi era? I assume that would have been very dangerous.

Lennie Cuje: Jazz was unknown to us since it was forbidden in Germany. I didn't encounter it until after the capitulation of Germany in 1945. It changed my life and made me follow it to the source.

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Bethesda, Md.: Lenny,

Wonderful story. Obviously, you should feel no guilt at all for what you did as a child with Hitler youth. You were a kid and unable to comprehend what was happening. But I have a slightly different question for you. Do you think that the German people should, as a people, feel guilt for the sins committed during that terrible time?

Lennie Cuje: Should Americans feel guilty because African Americans were lynched? Should we feel guilty about Native American Indians being killed and displaced? No. I don't believe we should feel guilty. I believe we should learn and gain wisdom from it. Sadly, history keeps being repeated.

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Augusta, Ga.: What an inspiring story! Do you have vivid recollections from the Battle of the Bulge?

Lennie Cuje: I do remember the Battle of the Bulge. Despite the propaganda, I personally felt that the war was lost for Germany. I was punished at my school for saying so. I had to sound the rooftop air raid siren for one week as punishment.

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Washington D.C.: What was it like to be back in Germany? Is it difficult having a "Nazi" past when you go there?

Lennie Cuje: I went back to play jazz. My Nazi past doesn't bother me one bit because as a musician, I think there is always cause and effect. Without the past, there wouldn't be a present. My past gave me a foundation and strength to become a jazz musician.

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W. Collingswood, N.J.: Lennie, I didn't catch who sponsored you to come to the U.S., or maybe it went by too fast. Can you say something about your aunt and how it all worked out?

Lennie Cuje: My sponsor was my aunt, Dr. Magdalena Schoch, who was head of the anti-trust division of the Department of Justice. She lived in Arlington and I came to live with her.

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Baltimore, Md.: What do you think attracted you to jazz initially that caused it to have such a large impact upon your life?

Lennie Cuje: The true feeling of freedom and democracy is what I found in jazz and in a jazz band. We are definitely individuals that come together as a unit and produce that "happening."

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Seattle, Wash.: Who are some of your jazz influences?

Lennie Cuje: Lionel Hampton, of course. Milt Jackson. Dizzy Gillespie. Charlie Parker. John Coltrane. Arnett Coleman.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have any albums or CDs out?

Lennie Cuje: Yes. I have several collections. But you'd have to contact me personally and I can send you one. (lenniecuje@comcast.net) _______________________

Mike from Brooklyn, N.Y.: Were you ever able to meet Lionel Hampton?

Lennie Cuje: Yes! I got to meet "Hamp" several times and was invited to his 90th birthday party at the Kennedy Center. I took the opportunity to let him know that the one thing I never learned from him was that becoming a jazz musician was such a long, rocky country road. He answered: "Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah."

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Beltsville, Md.: Hello Mr. Cuje, I have enjoyed your music for some time. Thanks for keeping the music alive here in D.C. I was wondering if you could talk about any experiences you may have had with the late Ketter Betts.

Lennie Cuje: Thanks for your message. We were long-time friends and played together on several occasions over the years. I'm sorry about his passing.

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Wetzlar, Germany: Hallo Lennie,

I hope you soon will come again to Wetzlar, Germany! I've`never heard such a vibraphonist in this little town. When will we meet again in the "Harlekin" or must we comm to Washington? By the way: Where can I see the video from your journey? Your friend, Alois

Lennie Cuje: I'll be in Germany next May, 2006. We'll visit you in Wetzlar you can see the video here on washingtonpost.com/liveonline. Hope you are doing well and looking forward to seeing you. Bis bald gruesse, Lennie.

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Rockville, Md.: Hello,

I was interested to hear that even in your high school in America, there were few jazz lovers (most people were square!). How have you seen the jazz audience change over the years, both in terms of people's response to your playing as a performer, and in terms of the business opportunities to find musicians and venues that allow you to perform?

Lennie Cuje: Nothing has changed since 1956 -- almost 50 years. It is the same response, or no response, and the same money, or no money! We jazz musicians are used to that. Hopefully it will continue like this. At least it keeps us alive.

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washingtonpost.com: Video: A Life Lived in 4/4 Time

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Mt. Vernon, Va.: Weren't your mother and father musicians? Did your inclination toward music start with them?

Lennie Cuje: Yes. Definitely. My father was a concert pianist and the conductor of the Frankfurt Symphony until 1941. My mother was an opera singer in Wuerzburg, where they met. So I grew up with music. Even before that, my grandfather played in the infantry band of 1915 and my great grandfather was in the Prussian band of Aachen, on the border of Belgium and Germany (the Cuje family actually came from Belgium into Germany).

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Herndon, Va.: I hope I'm not being insulting when I say that "Cuje" doesn't sound particularly "German." Is it common there?

Lennie Cuje: Not insulting at all. It is a French name by way of Belgium.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm so happy to see that you and Rene are well and so pleased to see your story so well presented. Have returned from Paris and will give you a call. Parsifal.

Lennie Cuje: Parsifal, Siegfried welcomes you back.

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Cambridge, Mass.: Dear Mr. Cuje,

what a great story! It was great to see you and Michael Wilner talk about your friendship. We ought to never forget our common humanity!

Best regards, Tim

Lennie Cuje: Thank you for your thoughts. It is nice to know you feel that way about it.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the new Pope, who was also in the Hitler Youth?

Lennie Cuje: That's probably about all we have in common.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Are young artists/musicians today as motivated as they were when you were growing up?

Lennie Cuje: It is different. They are motivated by different circumstances. They never faced the same obstacles, such as freedom of movement, freedom of playing together. When I was younger, it was socially unacceptable for blacks, Jews and whites to perform together freely. There were only a few places where we could comfortably socialize and play music together.

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Washington: Lennie:

What particular style or styles of jazz are your favorite? Do you find that your classical music background has influenced your jazz music preferences?

Lennie Cuje: I come out of the straight-ahead and be-bop era and experienced Charlie Parker and Coltrane live. I experienced 52nd Street in New York.

Of course, classical music has an influence on me. It gives you a complete spectrum, an understanding. As for jazz, the influence of classical music is there, but indirect.

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Brooklyn,N.Y.: No question here, I just wanted to say hello to Lennie and tell him how much I enjoyed playing with him in NYC last month. I hope you can keep playing for another 72 years. God bless you -- Brian Floody

Lennie Cuje: Brian, same goes for me. Thank you.

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Mt. Vernon, Va.: I know your brother, Peter, is also a musician. Are your other siblings also musically inclined?

Lennie Cuje: Yes. Pete is a bassist with the Milwaukee Symphony. My brother John was a drummer.

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Fairfax, Va.: Did you participate in the defense of Berlin?

Lennie Cuje: Nein. I was in Ulm, in Southern Germany at that time.

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New York City: Please tell us about Smalls and Spike Wilner.

Lennie Cuje: It's great.

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Alexandria, Va.: Who were the participants in Pat Conte's basement session? The video went by too fast for identification.

Lennie Cuje: Pat Conte on piano. Vince Conte, sax. Ralph Minor, guitar. Lennie, trumpet (that was about the last time I played the trumpet).

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Arlington, Va.: What was it like playing for President Clinton?

Lennie Cuje: A lot of fun.

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Arlington, Va.: Interesting story. The video said you play in Baltimore now. Do you also play in Washington any more?

Lennie Cuje: I play at the Harbour Court Hotel on Friday and Saturday evenings. Sometimes I play concerts in Washington at the Corcoran and at the Kennedy Center. I hope to play there again this fall.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you still enjoy classical music, or did the Nazi experience make you dislike that discipline?

Lennie Cuje: I never liked discipline!. Only musical discipline. I still like classical music.

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Lennie Cuje: Thanks to all of you for your questions. I hope I have answered them to a certain degree of satisfaction. I want to thank Washingtonpost.com for their involvement in my personal story. A special thanks to Christina Pino-Marina for her dedication to the video.

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washingtonpost.com: Video: A Life Lived in 4/4 Time

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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