Remembering Jana Šedová

Prepared by Naomi Patz

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 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.

Jana Šedová (Photograph by Elena Makarova)

Photograph by Elena Makarova

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.