Johnny & Jones (1916-1945, 1918-1945), Singing Carefree Songs at Westerbork

Johnny & Jones, “two kids and a guitar” (Johnny “Max” Salomon Meyer Kannewasser, b. 1916, and Jones “Nol” Arnold Siméon van Wesel, b. 1918) were Dutch pop idols of the late 1930s. They had become very popular before the war with their upbeat songs inspired by American jazz. They also performed cheerful music in the camp cafe at Westerbork almost every day as a symbol of their trust in the future. Unfortunately, however, that trust would ultimately prove to be an illusion. 

Affiche Johnny & Jones (bron: NIOD/Beeldbank WO2)
Affiche Johnny & Jones (bron: NIOD/Beeldbank WO2)

Since their breakthrough on the Cabaret der Onbekenden [“Cabaret of the Unknown”] program in 1936, Johnny & Jones were welcome guests of the VARA Dutch radio network. They released seven hit records, of which the best-known is Mijnheer Dinges weet niet wat swing is [“Mr. What’s-His-Name Doesn’t Know What Swing Is”]. They owed their enormous popularity to new lyrics set to existing swing melodies, rhythmic jokes, and the pseudo-American accents in which they sang.

Success at the Beginning of the War
Early on, the influence of the war on the success that Johnny & Jones enjoyed was negligible, and the duo simply went on working. In an era when no commentary on current events was allowed, they were able in some small way to incorporate current events into the nonsense lyrics of their songs, as can be heard in Maak het donker in het donker [“Turn off the Lights in the Dark”]. But gradually, the scope of their work became increasingly restricted. Despite having married in the hope that they would be given a temporary reprieve from deportation, Max and Nol were unable to escape the clutches of the Nazis. On the night of October 9, 1943, they arrived with their wives at Westerbork.

Performing at the Camp Cafe
Westerbork was always rife with rumors - rumors about the approach of the Allied forces, anticipated punishments enforced by the camp commandant, and the possible platzen [eradication] of the lists of names offering protection against deportation. The rumor about the arrival of Johnny & Jones also spread like wildfire through Westerbork, and both were enthusiastically welcomed into the camp. Rather than thinking, “How terrible for them,” the inmates thought, “We’ll have an even better revue.”

As in the performances put on at the Hollandsche Schouwburg [Dutch Theater], however, the duo hardly participated in the German-language revues at Westerbork, which were largely dominated by German refugees. Singer Jetty Cantor, who had toured with both the boys during the first years of the war, recounts, “Their German wasn’t very good. The boys were totally focused on English, and that obviously wasn’t allowed. [...] They couldn’t hold their own during the cabaret evenings.” Their Dutch songs could not be included in the revue repertoire either, since camp commandant Gemmeker had banned Dutch onstage.

But Johnny & Jones did perform in the camp, mainly at the Kaffeehaus in the evenings, as well as in the barracks. The songs they wrote at Westerbork were swinging numbers that focused on the cheerful side of everyday life in the camp. Existence at the transit camp and the misery it brought played no role in their lyrics. The strength of their songs was, in fact, that they inspired happiness whenever people simply wanted to forget how hard times were.

A Trip to Amsterdam in 1944
During the day, Johnny & Jones both worked at the camp’s airplane scrapyard. Camp inmates also had to help transport planes that had crashed. Nol and Max traveled to Amsterdam in the summer of 1944, although the reason for their trip is not entirely clear. We do know, however, that they wore the Star of David on their chests, walked around the city some, and met Henk van Zoelen, their former Decca producer. That night, van Zoelen took them to the Nekos recording studio in P.C. Hooftstraat where they recorded six songs in their Westerbork repertoire, an assortment of songs from the revue written by Willy Rosen and sung in German, as well as five songs of their own, including Wij slopen met muziek [“We Scrap with Music”] and the Westerbork-serenade.


I sing my Westerbork serenade
Along the railroad tracks,
And a little silver moon shines
On the heath.
I sing my Westerbork serenade
With eine schöne Dame,
And we walk together
Side by side.
And my heart burns like the boiler
In the boiler house.
I never felt that way at
My mother’s house.
I sing my Westerbork serenade
Between the barracks.
I felt like that for the first time
On the heath.
Diese Westerbork Liebelei.

The Illusion of Hope
Johnny & Jones were offered many a hiding place in Amsterdam. But they refused, convinced that little could happen to them at Westerbork. The fact that their wives had stayed behind at the camp undoubtedly influenced their decision. Not returning meant that one’s family members would be deported. Nevertheless, they were unable to avoid deportation. On September 4, 1944, Johnny & Jones were deported along with their spouses. They were sent first to Theresienstadt, then to Auschwitz, and finally to Bergen-Belsen. They died there outside their barracks shortly before liberation - Max on March 20, 1945, and Nol on April 15, 1945.

Authors: Dirk Mulder, Ben Prinsen