The original The Last Cyclist was written and directed by Karel Švenk in 1943 in the Nazi concentration camp known as the Terezín (Theresienstadt, in German) Ghetto.
Terezín is located 40 miles from Prague. It was built as a walled garrison town and fortress in the 18th century by the Hapsburg monarchy. During the Second World War, the Nazis evicted the civilian population and created the concentration camp they called the “Theresienstadt Ghetto.” Terezín was not a death camp (all six death camps – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Maidanek, Chelmno, Sobibor and Belzec – were located in “the east,” in Poland) but, rather, a work camp and transit point for the nearly 140,000 Jews who passed through the camp between 1941- 1945.
“It defies our understanding to imagine concentration camp inmates singing, playing classical music, and dancing on makeshift stages or in crowded barracks at the same time that cattle cars transported their fellow inmates [and, sooner or later, most of them] toward Auschwitz. The grotesquerie of such events suggests frivolity and even sacrilege. If people could act in plays and create art while facing death, that would have to mean that life in the camps could not have been so desperate. But the inmates knew that the camps were evil. And we know that they were very evil. And we now know that people sang and danced in spite of and because of the Nazi hell and the murderous ‘Final Solution’. ” [ii]
Terezín was a dreadful place, although a virtual paradise compared to the camps in Poland. At its most crowded, 50,000 Jews were crammed into a walled town meant to hold 6,000 people.
Families were divided: there were barracks for men, barracks for women and barracks for children. Approximately 60 people slept crowded into three tiers of bunks in each poorly heated dormitory room. There was no privacy, no modesty, no personal space. Three or four hundred people, many suffering from dysentery and other stomach ailments, shared a single toilet, and more often than not the toilets were backed up and overflowing.
The prisoners were given very little food – mainly bread, potatoes, cabbage and turnips. There was virtually no protein in the diet. People lined up for these bare-subsistence meals holding their plate and mug and then ate whatever was ladled out standing up.
The situation was particularly desperate for the elderly, many of whom died of starvation because their rations were limited by the Jewish Council of Elders, who organized the work in the kitchens, the hospitals and the schools that were set up for the children, in order to have enough food to keep the children and working people alive. Despite their meager rations, camp inmates were forced to work long hours every day of the week. Some were assigned to assembly lines producing items deemed essential to the German war effort; others did the jobs necessary to keep the camp functioning.
Many draftsmen, designers, artists and accountants worked on reports for the SS, who endlessly documented everything under their control with graphs, detailed statistics, surveys and lavishly illustrated documents. Each camp inmate was registered in at least 17 files. This work was fraught with tension: mistakes as simple as a typographical or clerical error would result in immediate, drastic punishment, even death.
Hunger, exhaustion and disease were a permanent feature of daily life for everyone in the camp. In such an environment, what would under normal conditions be insignificant assumed overwhelming importance: breaking a shoelace or losing a spoon was nearly catastrophic. In this way, Terezin was like the other camps.
Yet Terezin was unique. Much of the intellectual Jewish cream of European society – painters, writers, composers, musicians and scholars, and their families – passed through the camp, and most of them contributed in one way or another to the extraordinary flourishing of culture in this most unlikely of places. In the bizarre environment of the concentration camp, they managed to have “an artistic and intellectual life so fierce, so determined, so vibrant, so fertile as to be almost unimaginable.” [v]
A Czech theater director who was deported to Terezín in August 1943 and survived the war, expressed it this way: “If Terezín was not hell itself, like Auschwitz, it was the anteroom to hell. But culture was still possible, and for many this … was the final assurance. We are human beings and we remain human beings, they were saying in this way, despite everything! And if we must perish, the sacrifice must not have been made in vain. We must give it some meaning!” [vi] And another survivor wrote, “… the only means to survive, if at all, was for the spirit to transcend the pain of the body…. Heroism was in the will to create, to paint, to write, to perform and to compose in hell.” [vii]
“Hardly anywhere in the world was there such a grateful audience as in the attics of Terezín. Hardly a single actor anywhere else has ever been rewarded for his endeavours by such love from his public. … a great hunger for culture in a place where there was not even enough bread to eat.” [viii]
“… People were dying, transports were departing … if an actor didn’t turn up for a rehearsal, he was gone [on a transport to Auschwitz or another of the death camps in the east]…. But whatever we were doing, we were stubbornly connecting it with some happy future. Reality and theater were completely different things.” [ix]
The commitment by the professionals and amateurs who took part in the theatrical productions was astounding. Performances took place in the evening, after everyone – including all of the performers – had completed an exhausting day’s work on meager food rations. Rehearsals, critiques of the performances and a theater workshop for aspiring actors were held even later, well into the night.
Although at first the plays, concerts, lectures and paintings were done secretly, the Nazis ultimately cynically exploited these cultural and artistic activities for their own ends.
The notorious Red Cross visit was a particularly egregious example. The Danish government, which maintained active concern throughout the war for Danish Jewish citizens interned by the Nazis, in 1944 requested a visit to the camp to be conducted under the auspices of the Swiss Red Cross. The SS undertook a vast “beautification” campaign which involved a physical upgrading of the facilities that the delegation would be taken to see – cafes, sports fields, a bandstand, a merry-go-round, and even the printing of fake currency – as well as the deportation of the sick and elderly to reduce overcrowding and increase the “healthy appearance” of the prisoners who would become performers in this Potemkin village-like travesty.
The visit was so successful and the deception so complete that the delegation decided not to continue on to inspect Auschwitz, which had been part of its original plan. (Whether or not it would have been allowed to happen is another matter.)
The Red Cross visit was followed by the creation of a propaganda film. One of the most accomplished of the theater people interned in Terezín, Kurt Gerron, was forced to be its director.
The film came to be called “The Fuhrer Gives a Town to the Jews.” It presented a fraudulent portrait of the camp and hid its deplorable conditions. Virtually everyone involved in producing, directing, filming and acting in the movie was deported immediately afterward to Auschwitz. Only a fragment of the film, remains, preserved in the archives of the Ghetto Museum at Terezín.
The true picture of Terezín is starkly revealed in the drawings and paintings made secretly by artists in the camp, and by the statistics.
Terezin is located 65 kilometers from Prague. It was built as an Austro-Hungarian garrison town meant for 6,000 people. Between 1941 and 1945, almost 140,000 Jews were prisoners in Terezin. 33,430 of them died there.
Approximately 88,000 of the Jews who passed through Terezin 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 Terezin. According to Nazi records, 400 of them died there.
More than 7,500 children were sent from Terezin on transports to the east. Only 245 of these children were alive at the end of the war.
When Terezin was liberated by the Russians in May 1945, there were 1,633 children under 15 years old in the camp, more than half of them having just arrived on “evacuation” transports” from the death camps being liquidated by the retreating Nazis.
Some of the adults and children who were alive at liberation died of disease and the effects of malnourishment within the first 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.
Remembering Karel Švenk
Karel Švenk was a hero to the Jews in the Terezín Ghetto. Lovingly remembered as “a sad clown with extremely expressive eyes”and a biting wit, “inexhaustibly inventive, always up to practical jokes and improvisations,” he is described again and again as Chaplinesque and reminiscent of Buster Keaton, “a born comic, an unlucky fellow tripping over his own legs but always coming out on top in the end.”
Švenk was born in Prague on March 17, 1917. In his late teens and early 20s, he was one of the pioneers of the avant garde theater in Prague. He honed his skills as an actor, director, writer and composer working as part of a theater group whose name is variously translated as the Club of Wasted Talents, the Theater of Needless Talents, or the Theater of Lost/Superfluous or Useless Talents. An ardent leftist, he early on introduced political commentary into his work. He was deported to Terezín on November 24, 1941, on the very first transport – designation “Ak” – one of 342 young men sent to ready the camp for the prisoners to come. He brought with him an anthology of poetry and the resolve to strengthen and raise the morale of the prisoners. Which he did, using laughter and satire as his most potent weapons. His humor was “subversive, witty and bold.” The cabaret he built up in the camp “reflected all the irony, all the mockery, all the distortion of ghetto life.”
Švenk and Rafael Schächter (the conductor who led the performances of the Verdi Requiem in Terezín) are credited with beginning the cultural activities in the camp. Early in 1942, they produced their first cabaret, The Lost Food Card. The program’s finale, the “Terezin March,” had a simple, catchy melody. It spoke to the prisoner’ current situation in the camp, and to their hopes for a brighter future. It became the unofficial anthem of the camp and was reprised in all of Švenk’s later productions and on every other possible occasion.
My version of The Last Cyclist includes an adapted chorus of “The Terezín March”:
Where there’s a will there’s a way.
We’ll survive another day.
And together, hand in hand,
we’ll laugh at hardship.
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!
“Parody, jokes, improvisation – all this attracted hundreds of people to the attic where Švenk’s cabaret was performed. When watching … people forgot, albeit for a short moment, the surrounding reality – death, hunger, deportations to the East…. The house was always full; people resorted to various tricks to get the tickets.” [xii]
The composer and music critic Viktor Ullman, who even in the concentration camp did not compromise his strict standards of professional excellence, called Švenk “our Terezín Aristophanes” who can himself “hardly imagine just how much material, talent and inventiveness he has in stock. ‘Shake before using’ – but this time it is the patient himself, not the medicine, that gets shaken. Having laughed for two hours, you feel simply incapable of criticizing the show.”
Švenk wrote a number of other cabarets at Terezín in addition to The Lost Food Card and The Last Cyclist: Anything Goes had 42 performances, Ghetto in Itself (38 performances), Long Live Life, or Dance Around a Skeleton (20 performances), and his last cabaret, The Same But Different, staged in March, 1944 (29 performances).
On October 1, 1944, Karel Švenk was among the hundreds of people sent to Auschwitz on transport “Em.” From there he was sent to Meuselwitz, a slave labor sub-camp of Buchenwald.
In the words of a survivor: “I was with Karel Schwenk in Meuselwitz. Many had only rags on their feet. Nobody had warm clothes for protection from the piercing cold. And we were working with steel sheets…. We collected bread as much as we could, and persuaded Schwenk to sing ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way… On the ruins of the ghetto we will laugh!’ Schwenk was waning before our eyes. It was his last entrance. His song meant more to us than bread.” [xiii]
Immediately after the war, a lifelong friend and fellow actor who was deported with him to Auschwitz and then to Meuselwitz, wrote that Švenk, “a man who was ‘so immensely popular … overwhelmingly interesting… a legendary person’ now ‘bears hunger with difficulty and above all he is freezing during work that is too hard for him. He is quarrelsome, hysterical and rather unpopular’.” [xiv] Švenk and his friends were among the prisoners sent, barefoot and starving, on a long “death march” in April of 1945, when the Nazis evacuated Meuselwitz in the face of the advancing Allied armies. Švenk’s spirit was broken, his energy was gone. He could not keep up with the marchers. His friends hid him under some straw in a barn and left him there. This man, who inspired so many and gave them hope, at the end had none left for himself. Disoriented and fatally exhausted, he died just a few weeks before the end of the war in Europe.
Remembering Jana Šedová
Jana Šedová 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 Terezin, a book published by the Council of Jewish Communities in the Czech Lands, 1965. In that 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.
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 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.
In her 1965 essay, she 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.
Rabbi Erich Weiner, the first director of the “Administration of Free Time Activities,” 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.… 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.”
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 and as writer of the 1961 Rokoko Theater production of The Last Cyclist, which was part of that theater’s repertoire for a year. In 1965, 1968 and again in 1993, Šedová gave testimony about her experiences in the camp. 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.
What You Need to Know about Terezin to Enrich Your Understanding of This Play
Prepared by Naomi Patz
[i] Bedřich Fritta died November 5, 1944 in Auschwitz at the age of 38
[ii] Rebecca Rovit
[iii] Leo Haas was deported to Auschwitz with Fritta on October 26, 1944; he survived the war and died August 13, 1983
[iv] Karel Fleischmann was 47 years old when he was deported to October 23, 1944 in Auschwitz; he did not survive
[v] Cara DaSilva, In Memory’s Kitchen
[vi] Norbert Frýd
[vii] Mirko Tuma
[viii] Jana Šedová
[ix] Ludek Eliash
[x] Kantor’s watercolor was made after the war, based on a pencil sketch he drew while interned in Terezín; his book of watercolors was published in 1971. Kantor died in 2003
[xi] Peter Kien was deported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944 at the age of 25 and did not survive
[xii] Elena Makarova
[xiii] Arnost Lustig
[xiv] From letters by Vili and Jiři (Cajais) Suessland, quoted by Osnat Greenbaum; Jiři died in a hospital shortly after liberation. His brother died a short time after writing the letter from which this quote is taken (June 9, 1945).