Then the Holocaust began and Švenk was deported by the Nazis to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto-concentration camp in November 1941. Despite intolerable living conditions, cultural life thrived among the Terezin inmates. Theater and cabaret were a crucial part of this, and the well-liked Švenk was a leader.
He wrote six cabarets that were performed in the camp dozens of times each. “Terezin March,” his song for the finale of the first of these shows, became an unofficial anthem of hope among the inmates.
A seventh cabaret, “The Last Cyclist,” did not make it past its dress rehearsal when the camp’s Nazi-appointed Jewish leadership, the Council of Elders, banned it because of its explicit allegory to the Nazi regime and its agenda. The inmates could often get away with humor and satire, but this was a step too far, and the council members — who answered to the Nazis but sought above all to keep their Jewish brethren safe — feared a Nazi reprisal were the play to be staged.
Švenk’s original scripts and notes for all his Terezin cabarets were lost when he took them with him upon his deportation to Auschwitz on October 1, 1944. He died at age 28 on a death march from a slave labor sub-camp of Buchenwald in April 1945, just a few weeks before the war’s end.
However, thanks to the dedicated research and creativity of author, editor, and playwright Naomi Patz, “The Last Cyclist” eventually made it onto the stage in front of audiences around the United States and Mexico City. A filmed version of a New York production has been screened at film festivals and will be aired in the New York tri-state area on THIRTEEN’s Theater Close-Up on August 16 and 21.
“The project grabbed me and I stuck with it for years,” the New Jersey-based Patz said about resurrecting the cabaret.
“It is so captivating. It’s a hilarious comedy that makes people laugh, and it is disarming to the point of your forgetting where this was meant to be performed,” she said.
“The Last Cyclist” is about a group of patients in an insane asylum who escape and take over the world. Because they don’t like their bike-riding doctor at the asylum, they blame all cyclists for the world’s problems. The chief lunatic extends the persecution to anyone who has a cyclist in their family going generations back or has any association with cyclists. The lunatics’ victims are deported to Horror Island, where they are starved to death.
The antihero is the none-too-bright shopkeeper Bořivoj Abeles (the name is a humorous combination of the mythic ancestor of the Czech people and a Jewish last name). He chooses the absolute worst time to buy a bike to impress his girlfriend. The titular “last cyclist,” he ends up the final target of the chief lunatic’s thugs.
The title of the play is inspired by a joke that was reportedly a cynical joke popular among Jews in Western and Central Europe in the interwar period. Three Jews have a conversation about the political situation:
The first says, “The Jews and the cyclists are responsible for all our misfortunes!”
The second asks, “Why the cyclists?”
And the third, “Why the Jews?”
The plot ends with the hapless Abeles miraculously escaping the lunatics and the lunatics getting their comeuppance.
In reality, when the satire was written, the defeat of the Nazis by the Allies was years away, and the Holocaust was at the height of destroying European Jewry. The cast, crew, and intended audience at Terezin were still imprisoned and suffering.
“I decided I needed to give this historical context to the play,” Patz said.
She did this by adding opening and closing scenes that have the actors breaking character and breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience.
Edward Einhorn directed a 2013 production of “The Last Cyclist” at New York’s West End Theater and returned in 2017 to help Patz create this version filmed in front of a live audience at the La Mama experimental theater club.
The Manhattan-based Einhorn said that the film genre allowed him to use camera angles to create for the viewers the feeling that they are right there watching that dress rehearsal in Terezin.
He agreed with Patz’s idea to also give the audience an emotional gut punch after becoming wrapped up in the slapstick comedy.
“I wanted to bring people enough into that world that although they know where they are, they forget. Then we bring them up short,” he said.
Putting the pieces back together
The journey of “The Last Cyclist” from the dress rehearsal in Terezin to stage and film in North America many decades later began in 1995 when Patz came across an essay by Holocaust survivor actress Jana Šedová (the post-war stage name of Gertruda Skallova Popper), who was active in the cabaret scene at Terezin.
“She called it ‘our most courageous production,'” Patz said.
In the 1965 essay, Šedová summarized the plot of Švenk’s “The Last Cyclist.” She had reconstructed the script from memory and mounted a production of it at an experimental theater in Prague in 1961.
With the help of a Prague-based researcher, Patz tracked down the script for the 1961 production and discovered inconsistencies between this and how Šedová described the cabaret in her essay. The 1961 script had a second act that appeared to have little to do with what would have been Švenk’s original play. Rather, it equated antisemitism and racism and used this idea to promote Communism to recently decolonized countries around the globe.
“Švenk had leftist leanings, but this was about Šedová and her colleagues finding a way to make the play palatable to the Communist authorities in Czechoslovakia. The Communists weren’t interested in Jewish suffering during the war,” Patz said.
Determined to reconstruct Švenk’s original comedic script as accurately as possible, Patz turned to other sources to fill in the blanks. She used surviving drawings by Terezin inmate František Zelenka, who did sets and costumes for productions at the camp. She also relied on the testimonies and memoirs of Holocaust survivors who remembered the lively and talented Švenk and his work.
Einhorn turned to examples of stage makeup and visuals of Czech vaudeville of the 1930s as inspiration for his productions.
Lisa Peschel, a theater professor at the University of York in the UK, praised Patz and Einhorn for their reimagining Švenk’s original play as accurately as possible while at the same time making it relevant to today’s audiences.
Peschel, who has researched theater in the Terezin ghetto since 1998, pointed out the difficulty in this given that “The Last Cyclist” is the only Terezin play she is familiar with to be recreated without access to even a fragment of its original script.
“Other Terezin plays have been resurrected and performed, but from complete or partial texts that surfaced,” Peschel said.
Both Patz and Einhorn noted that the mostly non-Jewish cast members of the 2013 and 2017 productions were extremely moved by their participation in “The Last Cyclist,” which inspired them to learn more about the Holocaust.
Patz recalled being touched by one actress who told her about feeling a sense of responsibility toward the original “The Last Cyclist” actors, all but one of whom were killed.
“We have to get this right for them,” the actress said.
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