T erezín is situated 40 miles from Prague. It was built as a walled garrison town and fortress in the 18th century by the Hapsburg monarchy. During World War II, the Nazis evicted the civilian population and forced the first transports of Jews to reconfigure it into a prison. It was not a death camp, although the death rate there was comparable to that of Buchenwald and Dachau. All six Nazi death camps – Auschwitz, Chelmno, Treblinka, Maidanek, Sobibor and Belzec – were located in “the east,” in Poland. Terezín was a work camp and transit point for the more than 141,000 Jews who were imprisoned there between 1941- 1945. Only 15 percent of them survived the war.
Terezín was a dreadful place, although practically paradise compared to the camps on Polish soil. At its most crowded, some 60,000 prisoners were crammed into a walled town – an area approximately five by eight city blocks — meant to hold 6,000 people. And escape was virtually impossible.
Families were divided. There were separate barracks for men, women and children. Approximately 60 people slept crowded into three tiers of bunks in each poorly heated dormitory room. The prisoners had no privacy, no modesty, no personal space. Three or four hundred people, many of them suffering from dysentery and other stomach ailments, shared a single toilet and more often than not the toilets were backed up and overflowing. Their food ration consisted mainly of stale bread, potatoes and a watery soup of cabbage and turnips. There was virtually no protein in their diet. People lined up for these bare-subsistence meals holding their personal spoon and mug – vital necessities – and stood to eat whatever was ladled out to them. (Read More)
The Last Cyclist was a fierce, perhaps even dangerously overt satire of the Nazis. The Jewish Council of Elders, the internal puppet government chosen and controlled by the SS, fearful of SS reprisals, forbade further performances after the night of the dress rehearsal. (The opening and closing scenes of Patz’s script reference these events.) It was one of the only two of the many hundreds of operas, plays and cabarets performed in Terezín thus banned; the other was the opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, by Viktor Ullmann.
Karel Švenk’s name was twice on transport lists to the east. The first time, he gave all of his writings to his girlfriend for safekeeping, but then was not deported. For whatever reason, he did not do the same thing the second time his name was listed, and he apparently took his papers with him. Švenk was not murdered at Birkenau but instead was part of a work group transferred to Meuselwitz, a subcamp of Buchenwald. There, he deteriorated rapidly. When the Nazis sent the starving, exhausted, barefoot prisoners on a forced march westward in the vain hope of hiding the evidence of their crimes from the advancing Red Army, Švenk was unable to keep up. He was 28 years old when he died just weeks before the end of the war in Europe. Everything he had with him was irrevocably lost.
The Last Cyclist, too, might have died then were it not for an actress’s devotion. Jana Šedová, probably the only survivor of the Cyclist cast, recreated the play from memory seventeen years later for a production in Prague and then featured it in an essay on theater and cabaret in Terezín four years later. In 1995, Naomi Patz read about her efforts and was inspired to reconstruct the work Šedová called “our most courageous production.”
REMEMBERING JANA ŠEDOVÁ
WHO WAS ŠEDOVÁ?
She was born Gertruda (Trude) Skallova on February 26, 1920 in Chrudim, Czechoslovakia. Although her family was registered with the Jewish community, they were apparently not very observant. In November 1941 she married Otto Popper, who was shortly thereafter deported to Terezín. On December 14, she too was sent to Terezín. From April to June 1942 she was part of a labor brigade of some 100 women sent from the ghetto to work in a forest. While there, she began creating cabaret-style programs to entertain the women, and when she returned to Terezín, became involved with the theatrical activities that took place in the camp after the grueling workday. Because Šedová’s job was splitting mica, which was needed for the optical equipment the Germans deemed vital to their war industry, she remained in Terezín throughout the war. After liberation, she learned that her parents and her husband had been murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After the war, Trude Popper did not register with the Jewish community. Nor did she ever remarry. She took the stage name Jana Šedová and, as she phrased it, “chose the stage for her life career” as a professional actress. In 1961, she rewrote The Last Cyclist from memory, and mounted it at the Rokoko Theater together with Darek Vostřel, the theater’s director. It was part of that theater’s repertoire for a year.
This experimental theater had been opened in 1957 in a converted basement in the center of Prague. Vostřel (1929-1992) was a writer, comic actor and the first director of Rokoko. He and his closest collaborator, Jiří Šašek, who was a member of the Rokoko troupe, established a kind of satire loosely following the humor of the most famous vaudeville duo in interwar Czechoslovakia, Jiři Voskovec and Jan Werich , which they performed in radio and television shows. (Years earlier, this duo had inspired Karel Švenk.)
With the onset of “normalization,” the repressive atmosphere following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR in 1968 and continuing on, Vostřel was blacklisted. In the following years he continued to write scripts and radio shows using as pseudonyms the names of a number of willing friends. The Rokoko Theater itself declined. In 1975, it became one of the Municipal Theatres of Prague; a theater bearing that name still exists in Prague.
In 1965, 1968 and again in 1993, Šedová gave testimony about her experiences in the camp. The Holocaust scholar, Elena Makarova, who interviewed her in the 1990s, described her as tiny, energetic, feisty and never without a cigarette in her hand.
Trude Popper – Jana Šedová – died on September 15, 1995.
Jana Šedová (1920-1995) acted in The Last Cyclist in Terezín and was the initiator and coauthor of the 1961 production of The Last Cyclist. She also wrote an essay on “Theatre and Cabaret in the Ghetto of Terezín” in the “Culture on the Threshold of Death” section of Terezín, a book published by the Council of Jewish Communities in the Czech Lands in 1965. In her essay, she talks about Švenk and gives a summary of the plot of The Last Cyclist. The second act of the play, as she describes it in her essay, is markedly different from that of the script she wrote four years earlier, which gave Naomi Patz an intriguing challenge in creating her adaptation of the play.
Rabbi Erich Weiner was the first director of the Administration of Free Time Activities of the Council of Jewish Elders (also known as the Jüdische Selbstverwaltung – the Jewish Self-Government). He documented as much as he could of what went on in his department. In his report, “Freizeitgestaltung in Theresienstadt,” Weiner praises “a noteworthy ensemble formed under the direction of Trude Popper.” He writes: “Popper’s cabaret met with the most approval: It was full of ideas and comic in its makeup. Popper’s group presented guest performances in all of the barracks.”
In her 1965 essay, Šedová talks about her growing love for theater and describes the impact of The Lost Food Card, Švenk’s first cabaret:
Applause was strictly forbidden. It was not advisable to make unnecessary noise…. It was the year 1942. Only a few weeks before, the Nazis had begun to send Jewish transports to the barracks of Terezín. And in a camp that was just a transit station on the way to the Auschwitz gas chambers, the prisoners had little hope…. Švenk’s cabaret was satire in the true sense of the word. No misbehavior in the camp escaped his biting wit. And the Nazi overlords were ridiculed in the same bold manner…. Švenk’s cabaret … improved not only the mood in general, but also morale, so easily undermined in camp. … However… the men’s barracks, only a few blocks away, were as inaccessible for us women at that time as if they had been situated at the other end of the world. There was nothing left for us to do but to start our own … women’s cabaret…. It was impossible for us, however much we tried, to attain the high professional level of Karel Švenk’s experienced ensemble. Fortunately, in one thing at least, we did not lag behind: in speaking openly on the stage about the most burning problems in camp…. I remember the sketch about little Sarah who, after the liberation, was put into a mental home because she had brought all her good “camp habits” back into civilized life.
- Terezín is located about 40 miles from Prague. It was built in the mid-19th century as an Austro-Hungarian garrison town meant for 6,000 people.
- Between 1941 and 1945, almost 140,000 Jews were imprisoned in Terezín. Nazi records show that 33,450 of them died there.
- Some 88,000 of the Jews who passed through Terezín were sent to the death camps in the east, most of them to Auschwitz. Only 3,000 of them survived.
- Approximately 10,500 children 15 years and younger were among the Jews imprisoned in Terezín. According to Nazi records, 400 of the children died there.
- More than 7,500 children were sent from Terezín on transports to the east (to Auschwitz, Treblinka and the other death camps). Only 245 of them were alive at the end of the war.
- When Terezín was liberated by the Russians in May 1945, there were about 2,000 children under 15 in the camp, the majority of whom had just arrived on “evacuation” transports from the death camps being liquidated by the retreating Nazis.
- Some of the children who were alive at liberation died of disease and the effects of malnourishment within the first days, weeks and months after the war.
Why were six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators? They died because they were not allowed to live. (Ruth Bondy, in Elder of the Jews)