Through a remarkable process of cultural anthropology that began in 1995, Naomi Patz was able to reconstruct the play based primarily on two sources, first in a 1965 essay about theater in Terezín by Jana Šedová, a well-known post-war Czech theater and film actress who was probably the only survivor of the original Cyclist cast. In that essay, Šedová called the play “our most courageous production.” That description motivated Patz to search for what turned out to be the very elusive original. Some years later, a Czech friend finally found a typescript copy of The Last Cyclist in the library of the Theater Institute in Prague. When Patz had the Czech script translated into English, she was shocked to discover that the second act of the play was very different from the description in Šedová’s 1965 essay. It turned out that, in 1961, Šedová had recreated the original Cyclist from memory. Her adaptation was staged at the avant-garde Rokoko Theater in Prague in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Czech communist party, and the changes were necessary to speak to the communist ideology of that era. The 1965 description of Švenk’s original, augmented by Šedová’s 1961 script, guided Patz in her quest to faithfully salvage Švenk’s original. (More about the Czech Script)
A searing critique of Holocaust lunacy, “The Last Cyclist” offers powerful, poignant evidence of the resistance to the Nazis by Jewish inmates under horrific circumstances.
Švenk almost certainly was inspired to use as the basis for his plot a cynical joke that was very popular in the Jewish communities of Western and Central Europe between the First and Second World Wars. The joke is referenced by Bertolt Brecht in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and is cited by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Survivors have told Patz that their parents used to say “… and the cyclists” as a shoulder-shrugging response to troubles that were being blamed on the Jews.
It went something like this: Three men are having a discussion about the political situation. The first exclaims:
“The Jews and the cyclists are responsible for all our misfortunes!”
The second asks, “Why the cyclists?”
And the third, “Why the Jews?”
Naomi Patz uses the joke to set the tone for the play the prisoners are rehearsing.
Švenk’s sense of humor is also evident in a quirky in-joke that needs explanation for non-Czech audiences. Švenk named his schleppy schlemiel of an anti-hero Bořivoj Abeles. The name is a logical absurdity, joining the mythic ancestor of the Czech people to a Jewish-sounding, biblically-based surname (Abel, son of Adam and Eve and brother of Cain). Czechs who hear this composite name spontaneously burst into laughter. It is a delicious example of Švenk’s exquisitely refined, sly Czech sense of humor.
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.
Although the original Cyclist script and all of the other songs for that cabaret composed in Terezín have been lost forever, a love song – “Farewell” – is extant. Patz chose not to use it in the play, although she 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 a single song, however poignant, into the climactic scene of the play, especially since the play is no longer a cabaret. Perhaps someday I will still find a way to appropriately adapt the lyrics and include the melody, but omitting it still feels ‘right’ to me.”
Patz’s script includes Švenk’s most famous and memorable song, known as the “Terezín March.” This song was so energizing and electrifying, it so captured the hopes of people living with a sense of numbing despair, that it became the unofficial “anthem” of the prisoners in Terezín. It was 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 Patz wrote for her adaptation is the chorus, modified to omit a reference to the number of words the prisoners were allowed to write on the heavily censored, optimistic postcards they were compelled to send to friends and neighbors back home; it would have had no meaning for audiences today and including it would have required too much explanation. Instead, she incorporated into the chorus some of the text from one of the verses.
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 a minor key. Švenk’s melody is strongly referenced in the edgy, exciting original music for the play that Stephen Feigenbaum composed in 2011. Feigenbaum’s score is in two formats: full orchestration for six instruments (violin, viola, cello, clarinet, piano and percussion), and a reduction for solo piano. A recording of the score for “The Last Cyclist,” composed by Stephen Feigenbaum, and including portions of two unpublished songs by Karel Švenk, is part of the rights package for the production. A piano version for student productions is recorded by Allison Brewster Franzetti. The music for each and CDs of both can be accessed by contacting Naomi Patz (email@example.com).
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.”
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.” (Ruth Bondy)
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 “Terezín March,” had a simple, catchy melody. It spoke to the prisoners’ situation in the camp, and to their hopes for a brighter future. It became the unofficial anthem of the camp and was reprised by demand in all of Švenk’s later productions and sung or hummed or whistled by prisoners on every other possible occasion. The lyrics are cited and sometimes quoted in full in many survivor memoirs.
“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.” (Elana Makarova)
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.” (Arnost Lustig)
Immediately after the war, lifelong friends and fellow actors who were deported with him to Auschwitz and then to Meuselwitz, wrote about those days, “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’.” (Vili and Jiří [Calais] Suessland) (A few weeks after these words were written, both brothers were among the many seeming-survivors who died in the first days after liberation.)
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.
THE BACK STORY
I first encountered The Last Cyclist in 1995, at which time I wrote a playlet for a regional high school youth group event based on the description of The Last Cyclist in Šedová‘s essay, “Theater and Cabaret in the Ghetto of Terezín.” I couldn’t get the story out of my head. Moved and intrigued by Šedová’s description of the impact of The Last Cyclist on the Jews who saw it during rehearsals in Terezín – she called it “undoubtedly our most courageous production” – I attempted to track down the original script.
In 1999, a Czech friend, Dr. Jiřina Šedinová, found for me a typescript of Šedová’s 1961 version of the play in the library of the Theater Institute in Prague. The script had never been published. She also found a Czech translator, Zdenka Marečková, who – extraordinarily and unexpectedly – volunteered her time to make a rough translation of the play because she was so moved by what she read and excited by the possibility of it reaching an English-speaking audience. Not until I read this translation did I discover that the second act of Šedová‘s 1961 adaptation was markedly different from her later description of the original play. I have edited, reconstructed and reimagined my version of The Last Cyclist from this translation of the 1961 adaptation of the 1944 cabaret, from the description of the original script, from illustrations made in Terezín for costumes and sets for the original production and from hints and allusions in memoirs by survivors.
However, for the play to make sense to American audiences today, it was necessary to express the hopes, fears and coping mechanisms employed by the prisoners in the camp to maintain their self respect and their humanity despite hunger and disease, the indignities they were forced to suffer and the constant uncertainties with which they lived.
To achieve that, I have made the language and references accessible to contemporary American audiences. Then, using the description of The Last Cyclist in Šedová’s 1965 essay as my guide, I rewrote the second act to accord with what I believe is both the sense and the spirit of Švenk’s original play. Finally, because there is nothing in the original that mentions Terezín or the appalling conditions there – the context in which both the humor and the implicit horror of the play become understandable to us – I created new beginning and ending scenes in which Jana Šedová “remembers” back to the night of the dress rehearsal, and Švenk’s cabaret becomes a play-within-a-play. In my adaptation, the open dress rehearsal ends abruptly with the announcement of an impending deportation.
The Last Cyclist opens a window onto a little-known aspect of “spiritual resistance” to the Nazis during the Holocaust. Despite the harrowing conditions under which they were forced to live and work, Jews in Terezín created a remarkable wealth of cultural offerings, including theatrical performances, concerts, recitals, paintings and drawings, and thousands of lectures that gave solace and a boost in morale to this humiliated and disheartened group of highly educated, civilized and cultured urban people who, despite dire rumors, still hoped that they would soon be going home, and who certainly had no idea of the mass murder that awaited them.
For many years after the Holocaust, there was a sense that the Jews of Europe who were rounded up, put into transit camps and then deported to death camps went “like sheep to the slaughter.” People saw the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and isolated acts of resistance such as that of the Bielski brothers (Defiance) as anomalies, remarkable exceptions that proved the rule. Now we know better. Memoirs, historical accounts, novels and films delineate myriad instances of bravery, of physical and spiritual resistance to the Nazis.
The Last Cyclist is an example of the extraordinary resilience displayed by concentration camp inmates. Incredibly, Švenk’s play is funny and was meant to be funny. The audiences at Terezín that attended the open rehearsals of The Last Cyclist laughed and today’s audiences are meant to laugh too. But ours is uncomfortable laughter: first because we realize that the play is not a joke but a brave protest against totalitarianism; and, second, because we know the fate of the cast and the rest of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The play, in a non- confrontational way, makes clear to today’s audiences that it is the personal responsibility of every human being to fight intolerance, prejudice, bullying and racism.