Reviving a Comedy Written in Terezín in 1944
By Naomi Patz
I’ve been obsessed with the cabaret called THE LAST CYCLIST for the past twenty years. Here’s how my involvement began: I had come home on a wintery Thursday morning in 1995 from meetings in Israel, jet-lagged and tired. My husband, Norman, who was for many years the rabbi of a synagogue in New Jersey, met me at the airport and told me he needed a big favor. Every four years our congregation hosted “Hagigah,” a regional creative arts weekend for high school students in the Reform Movement, and the conclave was beginning the next day. This year’s theme was to be the Jews of Czechoslovakia: the medieval period, especially stories of Rabbi Loew and the Golem, and the Holocaust years, with a particular emphasis on the unique creativity that took place in the Nazi concentration camp they named the Theresienstadt Ghetto, located in the Czech fortress town called Terezín.
A large part of the Hagigah program would focus on the production of a play to be performed by the drama workshop, with other workshops responsible for scenery, costumes, music and playbill and publicity. The difficulty was that the planners had expected to have a writing workshop create the play on which the rest would be working – which wouldn’t work, of course, because the other groups couldn’t begin until they had a script in hand. So what was the favor? Would I write the script – immediately? After being momentarily taken aback, I said yes.
Norman showed me the essay on theater in the concentration camp in the cultural arts section of book called Terezín, published in 1965 by the Jewish Communities of the Czech Lands (Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech part of what was for many years known as Czechoslovakia). The essay included a one-paragraph description of THE LAST CYCLIST, a cabaret written and directed by and starring Karel Švenk in the Terezín Ghetto in 1944. The author of the essay called it “undoubtedly our most courageous play.”
THE LAST CYCLIST is based on a dark joke that made the rounds of the Jewish communities of Europe between the First and Second World Wars:
“The Jews and the cyclists are responsible for all our misfortunes.”
“Why the cyclists?”
“Why the Jews?”
After a while, it became a well-known cynical allusion: “… and the cyclists!”
Švenk took the joke to its illogical extreme, creating a dark, absurdist comedy in which lunatics – read “Nazis” – escape from an asylum and take over the country. Because Ma’am, the craziest and wiliest of the lunatics, hates the doctor who administers her electric shock therapy – and he rides a bicycle – she convinces the others to help her get rid of everyone who rides or has ever ridden a bike or sold bicycles or had a grandparent or great grandparent or cousin or uncle or aunt who rode a bicycle (= “Jews”). With the cyclists gone, Ma’am says, all the problems of the world will be solved. The lunatics bully the citizenry into helping or at least not hindering them as they go about capturing cyclists and sending them to Horror Island where they are forced to work as slaves while being slowly starved to death.
The hero, a good-natured schliemiel named Abeles, over and over again accidentally escapes the traps the lunatics have set for him. Finally, when he has become the very last cyclist neither deported nor dead, the lunatics capture him and put him on public display because, as one of them says, “Cyclists have always made the best scapegoats.” But people are still poor and hungry and have no jobs. Even the lunatics are increasingly angry and disaffected. The wonderful society Ma’am promised is a disaster. To stop everyone from thinking about their troubles, Ma’am (who describes herself as “the Fuhrer”) and her henchman, Rat, come up with a fittingly lunatic scheme: They are going to send Abeles on a rocket ship to the moon. Granted a final wish, he asks for a cigarette. “While he smokes his cigarette,” Ma’am says, “we will inspect the rocket ship.” As the lunatics crowd on board, Abeles strikes a match to light his cigarette, inadvertently igniting the fuse of the rocket ship which blasts off with all the lunatics aboard. Abeles runs to the front of the stage and shouts to the audience, “Go home! You are free! The rule of lunacy is over!” But his girlfriend – of course there’s a girlfriend, in fact it’s because of her that he’s bought a bike in the first place – knows better. “No,” she says sadly, “only here on the stage have we been freed. Out there, where you are, the rule of madness continues.”
THE LAST CYCLIST is funny. It’s silly funny, slapstick funny, slyly and wickedly and mockingly funny, with commedia dell’arte-type characters – a daring comedy written in a concentration camp.
For that 1995 Hagigah weekend, I put together a short script, primarily narration, based on the paragraph I had in hand. The art workshop built a wonderful rocket ship and we ended the play with the kids in the music workshop movingly performing the Terezín March (as it came to be known), a song Švenk wrote for THE LOST FOOD CARD, the cabaret he created shortly after arriving in Terezín on the very first transport sent to set up the camp in 1941. It has a simple, catchy melody and lyrics that spoke to the prisoners’ situation and their hopes for a brighter future.i
Although I used only the main story line for the teenage production, and the roles are very much stock figures (“Rich,” “Red,” “Rat,” “Mr. Opportunist,” etc.), the contrast between Švenk’s zany play and the existential situation of its concentration camp performers had an electrifying impact on both actors and audience – and on me. An adult cast performed my script for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) that spring and then I put the script away. But I couldn’t get the story out of my head and I attempted to track down the original.
In 1999, Dr. Jiřina Šedinová, a Czech friend who was then teaching at Charles University, found a hand-typed copy of the play in the library of the Theater Institute in Prague. She also found a Czech translator, Zdenka Marečková, who volunteered her time to make a rough translation because she was so moved by what she read and excited by the possibility of its reaching an English-speaking audience. When I read her translation, I was shocked to see that the second act of the script in front of me was very different from the description in the 1965 essay.
After some frenzied research, I learned that the translated script now in my hands was not Švenk’s original, lost forever when he was sent to Auschwitz, but was instead a version of the play recreated from memory in 1961 by Jana Šedová, the woman who later wrote the essay on theater for the 1965 Terezín volume, herself probably the only member of the original CYCLIST cast to have survived.
It took me a while to decide what to do once I knew there was no longer an original script. Ultimately I decided that the play needed to be performed, that it had become enormously important to me to preserve Karel Švenk’s memory by bringing to the stage the best representation of this “most courageous” play that I could create. I edited, reconstructed and reimagined my version of The Last Cyclist using both Šedova’s 1961 adaptation and her later description of the 1944 cabaret, a close examination of the drawings František Zelenka made in Terezín for the costumes and sets for the original production, and from mentions of the play I found in books on the period. As all the survivor memoirs and testimony reference Šedová as the source of their information, there were no other independent primary citations for me to consult.
I radically revised the translation to turn it into colloquial American English, and removed the in-jokes and other camp-specific references that no one would understand today. Then I rewrote the second act to restore what I believe were the plot and spirit of Švenk’s original. Although I initially followed the two-act format of the 1961 version, I have since revised my script to be performed without intermission.
After comparing the 1961 text with Šedová 1965 description of the original, I deleted or adapted what seem to be the 1961 innovations, among them: In Act 2, after Abeles has been arrested, tried and condemned to Horror Island, he is accidentally dropped from an airplane onto the very mountaintop where legend places the roots of Czech nationalism. There, he encounters a lion and is found by Manicka, his girlfriend, who has come looking for him. In my version, there is no airplane; Abeles and Manicka do meet “in the middle of nowhere” and Abeles is later imprisoned in the zoo, but the lion – which I had for a long time included as a character – no longer appears because I realized that I was inadvertently memorializing some of the Communist dialogue of the 1961 version.
In the oddest sequence of the 1961 adaptation, when the populace complains that severe food shortages, unemployment and other ills continue even though every bike rider except Abeles has been killed or deported, they are told that the hated and abhorrent circles represented by the bicycles are still present in the form of the sun and the vowel “o” in the alphabet. In what is virtually a throwaway line, never followed up on, Ma’am suggests putting Abeles into a rocket ship that will both get rid of him and also shoot down the sun. There then follow several pages of silly dialogue in the form of o-less gibberish. I have made the rocket ship central to the climax of the play, as I believe it was in the original 1944 version. In the final 1961 scene, absent from my version, all of the bad guys begin to fight with one another. There is an explosion, the entire lunatic asylum and everyone in it are gone. In my version, the lunatics and their followers are blasted off in the rocket ship and Abeles is saved. Šedova and Voštrel have him say, “I’m not accustomed to such happy endings. This isn’t the end, mark my words,” after which he is hit by a shard from Ma’am’s magic mirror which has shattered during the explosion. “So many shards,” he continues, “and they are everywhere.” A voiceover says: “The Jews are to blame!” Other voices follow with prejudiced remarks about various racial groups. The play ends with Abeles addressing the audience: “Do you also have a shard in your eye? Say what you may, but I was imprisoned for four years. So why have I told you all this? Because I don’t want anyone to have to go through it again.”
To the best of my understanding, that version ended with the cast mouthing the words of the Communist “Internationale” while the melody was played on a piano.
At least two scenes, now lost forever, are neither in Šedová’s 1961 play nor in her plot summary of the 1944 original. However, they are clearly the subject of drawings for sets and costumes by František Zelenka all specifically labeled as being for THE LAST CYCLIST.ii One scene apparently involved the last boatload of prisoners being sent to Horror Island, the ship from which Abeles accidentally falls overboard. The other seems to have involved a scientist who is trying to invent something that will turn cyclists into pedestrians; Zelenka’s drawing of a laboratory must have been for this scene. Šedová mentioned the laboratory scene in one of her three meetings in the 1990s with Terezín scholar Elena Makarovaiii, calling it an “excellent” part of the original cabaret. But since she did not describe it further or include it either in her 1961 script or in the later plot summary, there was no way for me to reconstruct it with any faithfulness to the original; in homage to the original and because it is a charming – if very sad – idea, I referenced it in my script as a wistful pipedream.
In February 2008, through the wise “matchmaking” of Dr. Vojtech Blodig, Deputy Director of the Ghetto Museum in Terezín, I met in Prague with Lisa Peschel, there on a Fulbright doing research for her doctoral dissertation on theatrical performance in Terezín. I described to her what I had discovered: that Jana Šedová had recreated THE LAST CYCLIST from memory 17 years after she had rehearsed the cabaret in Terezín, radically revising the second act, together with her collaborator, Dařek Vostrel, a comic actor who was head of the avant-garde Rokoko Theater in Prague, for a production there in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Czech Communist Party. Their new second act speaks unmistakably in the ideologically acceptable language of a totalitarian society.
Peschel was intrigued. She translated for me what Jana Šedová herself wrote in the Rokoko Theater program notes:
Based on the outline of thoughts and actions of the original cabaret, we tried to write a new play that would – as far as possible – just as thoroughly recall the senselessness and danger of all kinds of racism to people of the year 1961 as Karel Švenk achieved with his group of prisoners in 1944 there – in the Terezín attic.
She went to the library of the Theater Institute, where she found and translated for me reviews of the 1961 performance. As Peschel wrote, these “revealed how important the topic of racism was in 1961, as Czechoslovakia and other countries of the Eastern Bloc tried to win over newly independent African countries to Communism. The 1961 ending of the play focused on this danger of racism…. By creating an ending that supported the Communist Party’s focus on fighting racism, and presenting the play as a gift to the Party, Šedová and Vostřel were also able to bring the story of the Terezín ghetto’s cultural life back onto the stage.”iv At the time this production was mounted, Czech Jews were looking for ways to bring Holocaust consciousness into public discourse. During the previous decade, there had been an official policy of anti-Zionism, and many Jews prominent in the Czech Communist Party were purged (eight of the eleven Party members executed for treason following the notorious Slansky trials in 1952 were Jewish); it was forbidden in those years to portray Jews in a sympathetic light. Peschel notes: “With her revisions, Šedová may have been trying to create a place for this topic within larger Czech society by fitting the play inside the framework of acceptable Communist rhetoric about race and class,” which, with Švenk’s work may not have been a great distortion since he himself was a committed leftist. Šedová’s script implicitly – if mildly— criticizes fellow Czechs for wartime collaboration, but also criticizes the Jews themselves for not being more politically engaged. One of the critics whose review Peschel translated suggests that Jews were “firing into their own ranks.” Šedová’s script seems to have worked well, at least for some of the reviewers, one of whom described the Terezín inmates as “our people.” According to Peschel, “The critics’ interpretation and description of Abeles as an apolitical petit-bourgeoisie who didn’t do anything about the fascists until they came to get him seems startlingly brutal to us, yet the same reviewer continues, Abeles is ‘in the end a person who recognizes, understands, knows and sounds the alarm even today’.”
It is possible that Šedová herself may have still been a “true believer,” despite everything, and presented the Communist ideology that appears in the second act of the play with no cynicism. Hard as it is to comprehend now, many Jews continued to wholeheartedly espouse the Communist ideology even after the Slansky trials.
Despite the generally favorable reviews, this was apparently the only time the Šedová-Voštrel play was performed.
When I showed the script to the director of a local theater company, he said, “I thought this was a Holocaust play. There’s nothing about the Holocaust here!” And of course there wasn’t. The prisoners in Terezín didn’t need to be reminded of the conditions under which they were living. They knew their miseries and fears all too well. And it was important for the 1961 production in Communist Prague to keep the plot universal.
But the concentration camp is the context in which both the humor and the implicit horror of THE LAST CYCLIST become understandable to us. For the play to make sense to American audiences today, I needed to find a way to express the hopes and fears and coping mechanisms that the prisoners in the Terezín Ghetto used to maintain their self-respect and humanity despite the indignities and deprivations they were forced to suffer and the constant uncertainties with which they lived.
So I wrote opening and closing scenes, setting my version of the Švenk/Šedová script on the night of its dress rehearsal.
My play begins with a brief introduction in which Jana Šedová, now an elderly survivor, reminisces about her beloved Karel Švenk. Then the actors –Terezín inmates – come onstage tired and dispirited at the end of their long day’s work but happy to be rehearsing together. Jokingly, they complain about overcrowding in the barracks (Elena: “I would like to have my own bed instead of being crowded into the middle tier of bunks with women next to me, over me and under me.” Jiří, leering: “I, on the other hand, would be most happy to share that space with you even with all 59 of your roommates watching.”) They complain about their bare subsistence diet (“The bread’s not always moldy. Sometimes it’s hard as a rock.”) That three or four hundred people, many suffering from dysentery and other stomach ailments, share a single toilet, and that more often than not the toilets are backed up and overflowing. (“Eau de Terezín, an artful distillation compounded of the mingled aromas of overflowing toilets … rotting garbage … unwashed bodies … disinfectant … festering sores … fear.”)
In terms of deprivation, Terezín was like other concentration camps, but that is far from the whole story of Terezín, which was utterly unique, and I had to make sure my audiences would understand this as well. The Terezín Ghetto was a transit camp – a gathering point on the way to the death camps in Poland. Although it was not a death camp (i.e., the six concentration camps in Poland specifically designed for mass murder), 33,000 Jews died there of starvation and disease. It was a transit point for nearly 144,000 Jews, including 15,000 children. Over four years, some 88,000 Jews were sent from Terezín to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Treblinka and the other death camps. Only 17,247 people who came through Terezín, including fewer than 200 children, survived the war.
The Nazis cruelly, cynically and systematically deceived the Jews imprisoned in Terezín. Because the Terezín inmates had no idea what the Nazis had planned for the Jews of Europe – the Final Solution – they followed the strategy that had worked for Jews over the centuries: Stay quiet, don’t make trouble and most of us will survive. They thought they would be going home soon, and for many of them, home – the beautiful, cultured Central European city of Prague – was barely 40 miles away! Had they known the truth, I believe they would have responded very differently.
A remarkably large percentage of the cultural elite of the Jews of Western and Central Europe were interned in Terezín: writers, artists, cinematographers, musicians, actors, university professors, scientists and rabbis. It was an unlikely setting for the rich creative life they established: a remarkable number of theatrical performances, concerts, operas, recitals and more than 2,400 documented lecturesv to boost their own morale and that of their fellow prisoners. They refused to surrender their humanity despite the degradations they were forced to endure.
It was critically important to me to convey as much of this information as possible without sounding didactic or making the actors say what camp inmates wouldn’t have needed to be saying to each other, and at the same time make clear to audiences the extraordinary resilience displayed by the concentration camp inmates for whom performing – and watching! – this play in an attic theater was an act of spiritual resistance.
I wanted my script to honor all of them, and especially the memory of Karel Švenk, who is lovingly described by survivors as a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Švenk had arrived in Terezín in 1941, on the first transport. On October 1, 1944 he was among the thousands of people deported to Auschwitz. From there, he was transferred to a slave labor sub-camp of Buchenwald. In April of 1945, Švenk was among the prisoners sent barefoot and starving on a long death march as the Nazis retreated in the face of the advancing Allied armies. His spirit was broken, his energy was gone. He couldn’t keep up with the other marchers. This man, who inspired and gave hope, at the end of his very short life had none left for himself. Disoriented and fatally exhausted, he died at the age of 28, just a few weeks before the end of the war in Europe.
When my script was performed in St. Paul, MN in 2009, its first full production, I was thrilled and moved that in the weeks between the beginning of rehearsals and the mounting of the production – and even during the three weeks of performances – cast members, musicians and members of the crew continued to research and share with me and with each other information about Terezín that they found on the internet. Their engagement with the script and their commitment to making themselves spokespeople for the Terezín inmates whom they were bringing to life on the stage – and the nameless others who died in the Shoah – was deeply moving. The following June, the Ad Hoc Players of my synagogue mounted a staged reading of the script. At the end of each performance, the audience sat in stunned silence for the entire two minutes it took for the cast to leave the stage and exit through the hall. Here too, cast members told me that they felt a deep sense of obligation to the memory of the Terezín inmates whose roles they were replicating, whom they were, in effect, bringing to life through the play. “We had to get it right,” they said, “not just for ourselves or for you, but for them.” And so it has continued in the years since with both adult and high school productions.
The youngest survivors of the Holocaust are turning 70. Those who remember the horrors are much older. Soon, they will be gone. It is more critical than ever for their testimony to be heard and their spirit invoked. Every time my play is performed – most recently in December 2014 at the University of Kansas – I am gratified to hear from people involved in the production and members of the audience that they feel a direct connection to Švenk and his actors and, through them, to all of the other victims of Nazi oppression.
There is a further level on which THE LAST CYCLIST resonates with audiences. Because Švenk’s play is an allegory that talks only about lunatics and cyclists and there is no mention of Jews or Nazis, this comedy written in a concentration camp speaks unequivocally to the need to fight against irrational hatred, prejudice and all kinds of bullying and, in so doing, has a universal appeal that goes far beyond what I anticipated when I first began crafting my version of the script.
I hope both Karel Švenk and Jana Šedová would be pleased.
i Karel Švenk wrote many songs for his theatrical productions in Prague before the war and for the cabarets he created at Terezín. Only thirteen songs have survived,1 among them the most famous and memorable “Terezin March.” The others include “We Are Urging Time Forward,” “There is a Gaping Hole in Science,” “Lullaby” (“…One day all sorrow will disappear/One day you will remember/What went before/And laugh not only in your dreams./All sad things will end/And good times will yet return.”), “The Ballad of the Hungry Belly”; and songs that I believe derive from his years in Prague: “Black Jim,” “Les Cinq Etages,” “Diomed” (from F. Villon’s Le Testament), and “The Heroic Gunner Jabürek,” a powerful anti-war ballad.
Although the original script has been lost forever, love song – “Farewell” – that he wrote for The Last Cyclist remains. Here is a rough translation of the lyrics, sung by the female lead to Abeles:
You’ve often told me that love is not enough, that it’s also important not to go hungry. Perhaps what you say is true. You are a wise, brave man. How could I have explained to you that women have more modest needs, that we are satisfied with a handful of downy feathers we can embrace [instead of food??]. But today it doesn’t matter anymore; today all of that is so far away. Why, oh why does spring blow into our lives on the wind only to have the wind carry it away again? Why, oh why, do we no longer have even the little that remained to us? Why are we losing everything? I do not know. I do not know.
I have chosen not to use it in the play – although I was very tempted to do so since it is a true “relic” of the original – for two reasons: I felt it would be jarring and perhaps distracting to suddenly introduce one essentially irrelevant song, however poignant, into the climactic scene, and It also seemed less “necessary” to me – i.e., as entertainment in a bitter time and place – for today’s audiences than it was for Švenk and his audience.
My script does include the “Terezín March,” written for The Lost Food Card, Švenk’s first production in the camp. This song was so upbeat and energizing that it captured the hopes of people living with a sense of numbing despair; it became the unofficial “anthem” of the prisoners in Terezín, reprised again and again to conclude Švenk’s cabarets, sung spontaneously by the audience at the end of other camp productions, and is cited repeatedly and even reproduced word for word in memoirs and other descriptions of the camp written by survivors. The version in my play is the chorus, modified to omit a now-obscure reference to the number of words inmates were allowed to write on the heavily censored, optimistic postcards they were compelled to send home, and incorporating instead some of the text from one of the verses. Here is my version:
Where there’s a will there’s a way.
We’ll survive another day,
And together, hand in hand,
We’ll laugh at hardship.
Don’t despair, still believe
That the sun will shine again
And we’ll live to turn our backs on Terezín.
Soon we will be homeward bound,
Our lives will start again.
And tomorrow we will pack our bags,
Free women and free men.
Where there’s a will there’s a way.
We will live to see that day.
On the ruins of the ghetto
We will laugh!
In Švenk’s song, the chorus is in a major key and the stanzas in minor key.
Although I always intended to incorporate the “Terezín March” into my script, I didn’t realize the need for incidental music, both an overture and as interludes between scenes, until the cast began rehearsals in St. Paul. Happily, Jack Rose, Associate Producer of the Lex-Ham Theater in St. Paul,who is also a gifted improvisational pianist, created the first incidental music for my play, scored for piano and clarinet, much of it with a klezmer feel.
The following year, for the Ad Hoc Players’ performances at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, NJ, I engaged the very talented Charles Greenberg. Charlie Greenberg adapted, arranged and performed Rose’s music for the 2010 production and his version was used for the other NJ productions that followed.
In 2012, I commissioned a new score for the play under the auspices of the Terezín Music Foundation. Stephen Feigenbaum is an award-winning composer of music for the concert hall and the theater. Feigenbaum’s incidental music for the play has been recorded by Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) members Si-Jing Huang, violin; Sati Knudsen, cello; and Thomas Martin, clarinet. Won-Hee An, piano, also performs with the BSO. Jim Gwin, percussion, is a member of the Boston Pops. Mark Ludwig, conductor, and director of the Terezín Music Foundation, is a violist with the BSO. He, Ludwig, Won-Hee An and Si-Jing Huang are all members of the Hawthorne String Quartet, a group that has distinguished itself internationally by championing the works of composers persecuted by the Nazis, with an emphasis on the Czech composers incarcerated in Terezín.
Feigenbaum’s piano reduction of the score, designed especially for use in high school productions of the play, has been recorded by Allison Brewster Franzetti, a multiple Grammy nominee.
ii Zelenka’s drawings are part of the collection of the National Museum in Prague; some also appear in the theater exhibit in the Magdeburg Barracks in the Ghetto Museum in Terezín.
iii I am indebted to Elena Makarova for a great many insights into Karel Švenk’s personality as well as for her description of Jana Šedová (small, energetic, feisty and never without a cigarette in her mouth) and for letting me use the photograph Makarova took of her a few years before Šedová’s death.
iv Lisa Peschel, “The Last Cyclist in Minnesota,” article by Naomi Patz and Lisa Peschel in Beit Theresienstadt online, 2010.
v Elena Makarova, Sergei Makarov & Victor Kuperman. University Over The Abyss. The story behind 520 lecturers and 2,430 lectures in KZ Theresienstadt 1942-1944. Verba Publishers Ltd. Jerusalem, Israel.