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Singing duo Johnny and Jones remembered in Holocaust exhibit

Bijenkorf employees died in Nazi camp

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

AMSTERDAM - A new display at the Amsterdam Historical Museum pays tribute to the singing duo of ‘Johnny and Jones,’ the first teen idols in the Netherlands. The two young Jews had great success in the immediate pre-war years. They died in 1945, in the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.

Johnny, born Nol van Wesel, and Jones, whose name was Max Kannewasser, specialized in self-written Dutch-language swing tunes, set to music by Joop de Leur, which they sang with an ‘American’ accent. Their first record - ‘Meneer Dinges weet niet was swing is’ (freely translated as ‘Mister So-and-So and swing he doesn’t know’) - appeared in 1938 and was a great success. It still is considered a milestones in Dutch light music. Six more record albums followed with the same Panachord label. In the text they always played on words, while using current events and larding it with Jewish jokes and famed Amsterdam humour.

The duo had met while working for the Amsterdam department store De Bijenkorf. They first performed in a four-man group called the Bijko Rhythm Stompers, at a staff party in 1934 and two years later, they went into music fulltime, singing in a variety of weekly radio broadcasts - among others with the Ramblers orchestra of Theo Uden Masman - and in live performances, for example in the Louis Davids cabaret in Scheveningen.

Their performances for a general public ended soon after the Nazis had occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, when they began to isolate the Jewish community. Johnny and Jones from then on only could perform for Jewish audiences. In 1943, Van Wesel and Kannewasser, together with their wives, were rounded-up in the last Nazi dragnet (in Dutch known as razzia) in the country, and transported to the notorious holding camp at the northeastern village of Westerbork. Their fame brought them to the attention of the camp commander who allowed them to participate in a revue, provided they ‘spoke’ German only.

Perhaps because of their fame, Van Wesel and Kannewasser were part of a detail, which was dispatched once in a while to collect useable parts of warplane wreckage. On such errands, they visited Amsterdam a few times. At one of these occasions, as late as 1944, Johnny and Jones reportedly recorded a number of songs, in part about their life in the camp.

Eventually, they were sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, from there to Auschwitz, and on to Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, to wind up in Bergen-Belsen. Van Wesel and Kannewasser died shortly after arriving there in 1945, Kannewasser on March 20 and Van Wesel on April 15, the day the camp was liberated by the Allies. Johnny was 26 years of age, Jones 28.

The special display at the Historical Museum contains copies of most of their records, and photographs, as well as a program guide of the Westerbork performance. Excerpts from their songs can be heard, including numbers they adapted and sang at a Jewish wedding for a former Bijenkorf colleague in the town of Naarden in 1942. A short film clip also can be viewed.