Remembering Karel Švenk

Prepared by Naomi Patz

“Theater Rehearsal,” pen and wash drawing by Franz Peter Kien [xi]

“Theater Rehearsal,” pen and wash drawing by Franz Peter Kien [xi]

Karel Švenk (1917-1945) 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.”

Karel Švenk

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.
Don’t despair,
still believe
that the sun will shine again
and we’ll live to turn our backs on Terezín.

Listen!

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.