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The fascinating story of an Irish jazz sensation who witnessed the Nazis come to power

Josephine Alexandra Mitchell, or Zandra, was the country’s first female saxophonist.

JOSEPHINE ALEXANDRA MITCHELL was born in 1903 in Dublin.

As a young girl in Phibsborough she developed a passion deemed unusual for a female at the time: the saxophone.

Zandra 1

She played her first gig in Dublin at the age of 11.

A few years later her brother Eddie, also a musician, brought her along as a ‘novelty act’ while playing a series of shows in London.

Jospehine, or Zandra – as she was known on stage, was spotted and joined a jazz band. She toured in Switzerland and Germany, settling in Berlin in her early 20s. She played with jazz legends Coleman Hawkins and Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt.

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While in Berlin she gave birth to a daughter outside of wedlock whom she gave to a Russian couple. This was the start of a very difficult period in her life.

She witnessed firsthand the transition from the artistic freedom of the Weimar Republic, to the cruelest excesses of the Nazi regime – from Kristallnacht to Hitler’s public speeches.

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Writing to her Irish parents in 1935, she spoke of the government closing down dance halls and banning music. She was one of only 40 Irish citizens who remained in Germany during the World War II.

She wed a Belgian man in a marriage of convenience to get out of Germany.

queens A letter from Zandra to her mother

Marc Mc Menamin found out about Zandra’s story through a postmaster in his native Donegal: Michael Gallagher, who is also a musician.

When Zandra returned to Ireland she ended up in Rossnowlagh in Donegal, where her family had a holiday home. She played some gigs in Donegal and Sligo in the ’60s and ’70s and is still fondly remembered by local musicians who also played at the time.

IMG_20150817_0012 Her home in Rossnowlagh

Marc has made a radio documentary about Zandra’s incredible story. While researching the piece he unsuccessfully attempted to find Zandra’s daughter. However, he believes she survived the war.

Zandra never attempted to find her daughter, whom she named Constance Alexandra, but left her about £3,000-4,000 in her will when she died on 23 November 1995. She is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

Marc said that Zandra ended up as a recluse, living in the basement of her house. She told Michael she didn’t want her story to be told until after she died.

People will finally get to hear it today. Zandra: A Sentimental Journey will air on RTÉ Radio’s Lyric Fm at 7pm. You can also listen to the documentary on Soundcloud.


Source: The Lyric Feature/SoundCloud

All images c/o Marc Mc Menamin 

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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