The Significance of a Play about the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia under Communism
The Šedová-Vostřel script for The Last Cyclist was written 17 years after the original script was written, rehearsed and lost forever. Their version was created for a production in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Czech Communist Party. It is based on Šedová’s memories and the need to adapt the second act to appeal to a Czech communist audience. In her introduction to the 1961 version, Jana Šedová wrote, “Based on the outline of thoughts and actions of the original cabaret we tried to write a new play that would – as far as possible – just as thoroughly recall the senselessness and danger of all kinds of racism to people of the year 1961 as Karel Švenk achieved with his group of prisoners in 1944 there – in the Terezín attic.” The 1961 production needed to speak in ideologically acceptable language in a totalitarian society as much as to invoke memories of Terezín and the Holocaust, the latter in itself very daring in Communist Czechoslovakia.
Lisa Peschel speculates that “in the early 1960s, Czech Jews were searching for a way to bring the ghetto back into the realm of public discussion. During the 1950s, because of official ‘anti-Zionism’ and political purges that targeted Jews prominent in the Czech Communist party (eight of the eleven party members executed for treason following the notorious Slansky trials in 1952 were Jewish), topics that might portray Jews in a sympathetic light were taboo. With her revisions, Šedová may have been trying to create a place for this topic within larger Czech society by fitting the play inside the framework of acceptable Communist rhetoric about race and class (which, with Švenk’s work, may not have been a great distortion, since he himself was a committed leftist): mildly criticizing fellow Czechs for wartime collaboration, but also criticizing the Jews themselves for not being more politically engaged (for ‘firing into their own ranks,’ as a critic who reviewed the production at the Rokoko Theater put it). And to some extent it seemed to work: One reviewer claimed the Terezín prisoners as ‘our people.’ The critics interpretation and description of Bořivoj Abeles as an apolitical petit-bourgeoisie who didn’t do anything about the fascists until they came to get him seems startlingly brutal to us, yet the same reviewer continues, Abeles is ‘in the end a person who recognizes, understands, knows and sounds the alarm even today.’ In 1961, a lot of Czechs, including Jews, who had been young and idealistic leftists during the war, were still ‘true believers,’ so not all of this Communist rhetoric is empty ideology. Šedová herself might have felt the same way.”
It is hard now to comprehend, but true, that many Jews continued to believe wholeheartedly in the Communist ideology even after the Slansky trials.