The Last Cyclist in Minnesota
by Naomi Patz and Lisa Peschel
A dark joke that made the rounds in Europe between the First and Second World Wars –
“The Jews and the cyclists are responsible for all of our misfortunes!”
“Why the cyclists?”
“Why the Jews?”
– was the inspiration for Karel Švenk’s cabaret, The Last Cyclist, written and rehearsed in the Terezín Ghetto in 1943, but banned before its first performance.
On June 5th, 2009, an English-language adaptation of The Last Cyclist premiered on the stage of the Sokol Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota, the first of ten performances in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Written by Naomi Patz, and performed by actors and musicians of a local community theater, Švenk’s allegory, and the circumstances in which it was written, came to life again before audiences avidly interested in the history of Terezín, the fate of the prisoners, and the story of Karel Švenk and his fellow performers. In this article, Naomi Patz and Lisa Peschel tell about how a play based on the work of this brilliant playwright came to be performed halfway around the globe.
I first encountered The Last Cyclist in 1996. My husband, Norman, was for a great many years the rabbi of a synagogue in New Jersey, and during that time our congregation hosted a series of arts weekend for Jewish high school students from the youth groups in our state. Each of these weekends was devoted to the Jews of a different country, and in 1996, the subject was the Jews of Czechoslovakia over the centuries, and especially during the Holocaust and under Communist rule. At Norman’s request, I wrote a one-act play based on a description of The Last Cyclist he had read in an essay called “Theater and Cabaret in the Ghetto of Terezín.” The essay, written by Jana Šedová (Truda Popperová), was one chapter of the book Terezín published in 1965 by the Council of Jewish Communities in the Czech Lands.
The Last Cyclist
is a daring, gallows-humor, avant-garde comedy that expands on the “Jews and the cyclists” joke: The inmates of a mental asylum, led by “Ma’am” (Pani
) and “Rat” (Krysa
), escape from the asylum and take over the outside world. They hound, oppress, exile and kill everyone who rides a bicycle and anyone who has ever had anything to do with cyclists for many generations back. In the original cabaret, Švenk played the Chaplinesque schlimazel
named Bořivoj Abeles
who, after a series of absurd misadventures, defeats the lunatics by accidentally shooting them to the moon on the rocket ship they themselves had built to finally get rid of him, the last cyclist. Bořivoj tells the audience, “Go home! You are free!” but his girlfriend, Manicka, objects: "Only on the stage is there a happy ending. Out there, where you are, our troubles continue." The explicitness of the satire and its references to the irrational behavior of dictators and their followers, led the Jewish Council of Elders to ban the play; they were afraid of what the SS would do if they learned of it.
Although I used only the main story line for the teenage production, the impact on the group was electric. Švenk’s play is funny as well as horrifying and, despite its zaniness, it somehow made the prisoners in Terezín – and, through them, the faceless, nameless abstract number six million – into real people. The cast and the chorus that accompanied them sang with gusto Švenk’s “Terezín March” (also sometimes known as the “Terezín Hymn,” which Švenk wrote for his first production, The Lost Food Card, and which became the unofficial “anthem” of the camp) at the end of the performance.
My one-act play was performed again onYom HaShoah in 1997, and then set aside. But I couldn’t get the story out of my head. Moved and intrigued by Šedová’s description of The Last Cyclist as “undoubtedly our most courageous” production in Terezín, Norman and I attempted to track down the original script. I didn’t know then if I wanted to recreate it as a play for an American audience or perhaps turn it into a graphic novel (something I am still tempted to do!)
We learned that, although Švenk’s play has been lost forever, Jana Šedová (as far as I know, the only member of the original Terezín production of The Last Cyclist who survived the Holocaust) had rewritten the play from memory and adapted it with a coauthor, Darek Vostřel (a comic actor and director of the avant garde Rokoko Theater in Prague), for a production that opened on June 7th of that year at the Rokoko in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Czech Communist Party.
In 1999, our friend Dr. Jiřina Šedinová found for me a typescript copy of that 1961 script, which has never been published, in the library of the Theater Institute in Prague. She also found a translator, Zdenka Marečková, who – extraordinarily and unexpectedly – volunteered her time to make a rough translation of the play because, according to Jiřina, Ms. Marečková was so moved by what she read and excited by the possibility of it reaching an English-speaking audience.
When I read the translation, I realized that the second act of Šedová and Vostřel’s adaptation was markedly different from the original play as Šedová describes it in her 1965 essay in Terezín. (See Lisa’s remarks, below.) It makes sense, of course, because the 1961 production needed to speak in ideologically acceptable language as much as to invoke memories of Terezín and the Holocaust, in itself a daring act at that time.
But what “worked” for a Czech audience in the Communist years was not the script I wanted, which was a play that would come as close as possible to the mood and plot line of Švenk’s original. To achieve that, I first edited and adapted the text to make the language and references accessible to American audiences today. 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. And finally, because there is nothing in The Last Cyclist that mentions Terezín or the appalling conditions in which the prisoners lived, the context in which the humor as well as the implicit horror of the play becomes understandable, I created a framework: a new beginning and ending in which Jana Šedová “remembers” back to the night of the dress rehearsal and Švenk’s play becomes a play-within-a-play, with the cast gathering for and then performing the dress rehearsal. In my adaptation, the rehearsal ends abruptly with the announcement of an impending deportation and the play ends with Šedová reminding us that Švenk, the other actors and virtually everyone in the audience were deported over the next months, most to Auschwitz.
The script had taken shape. It was ready to try out on the stage. The challenge was to find a theater company that would be willing to perform a story that, because it is indeed laugh-out-loud funny, lies very far outside “conventional” U.S. narratives of the Holocaust.
Thanks to Dr. Vojtěch Blodig, Naomi and I met in Prague in February of 2008, while I was doing research for my dissertation on theatrical performance in Terezín. Her description of Šedová and Vostřel's revised ending inspired me to go to the Theater Institute and look for a program and reviews from the 1961 performance. These reviews provided insight into the changes; as Šedová herself wrote in the program notes, “Based on the outline of thoughts and actions of the original cabaret we tried to write a new play that would – as much 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 1943 there – in the Terezín attic.” [Na myšlenkové a dějové kostře původného kabaretu pokusili jsme se napsat novou hru, keterá by -- pokud možná -- stejně důrazně připomněla nesmyslnost a nebezpečnost každého rasismu lidem r. 1961, jak to kdysi dokázal Karel Švenk se svou skupinou vězňům ve čtyřiaštyřicátém roce tam -- na terezínských půdách.] The reviews revealed how important the topic of racism was in 1961, as Czechoslovakia and other countries of the Eastern Bloc tried to win over newly independent African countries to Communism.
The 1961 ending of the play focused on this danger of racism. Bořivoj, instead of shooting the lunatics into space, is captured and stays in his cage in the zoo. The lunatics, who become insanely distracted by the evil “circles” they see not only on bicycles but everwhere – in the sun, in the letter “o” that they try to omit from the alphabet, begin to fight with one another. There is an explosion. Bořivoj, hit by a shard from paní's broken mirror, reacts: “… so many shards. And they are everywhere.” [Abeles: Au! … Střípek z Narcisčina zrcadla. Jejej, to je střepů. A rozlítly se -- támhle je jeden -- ] A voice says, “The Jews are to blame!” [Hlas: A stejně všechno zavinili židi!] Other voices follow with racist remarks about the Chinese, Negroes [negří], and Mongolians. The play ends with Bořivoj addressing the audience: “Do you also have a shard in your eye? Say what you may, but I was imprisoned for four years. So why have I told you all this? Because I don’t want anyone to have to go through it again.” [Abeles: Neuvízla vám náhodou taky střepinka v oku? Srandičky, srandičky a já jsem kvůli takový šaškárně seděl 4 roky. A proč jsem to vypravoval? Já jen že bych nepřál nikomu, aby se to opakovalo.] By creating an ending that supported the Communist Party's focus on fighting racism, and presenting the play as a gift to the Party, Šedová and Vostřel were also able to bring the story of the Terezín ghetto's cultural life back onto the stage.
Naomi's approach to the project interested me so much that I began to look for opportunities for the play to be performed. Soon one arose right in the city where I live: St. Paul, Minnesota. John Moravec, the head of the Czech and Slovak Cultural Center of Minnesota, told me that the Center was looking for a script to perform for their annual play. For the past three years the Center has worked with with Sokol Minnesota, which since 1887 has had its home in the historic Česko-Slovanský Podporující Spolek (C.S.P.S.) Hall in St. Paul, andwith an amateur theater group from the same neighborhood, the Lex-Ham Players (named after two streets near the C.S.P.S. hall, Lexington and Hamline), to perform works such as Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum [Vyrozumění] and Pavel Kohout's Fire in the Basement [Požár v suterénu]. When I told him about The Last Cyclist he was immediately enthusiastic; he and Naomi soon began to work together on plans for a production.
More from Naomi
And so, almost magically, the American premiere of my version of The Last Cyclist
, based on Karel Švenk’s original and Jana Šedová and Darek Vostřel’s adaptation, became reality. Although I was unable to go to St. Paul until the night of the dress rehearsal, I did “meet” with the cast in a conference call that lasted nearly two hours. I first told them how I became involved with the play and then gave them
background on the Holocaust and on the unique nature of Terezín as a “show camp.” Then I answered their very astute and penetrating questions. I followed that up by sending them links to many sites online. I was thrilled and moved that in the weeks between the beginning of rehearsals and the mounting of the production – and even during the three weeks during which the performances took place – cast members, musicians and members of the crew continued to research and share with me and with one another information about Terezín that they found on the internet. Their engagement with the script and their commitment to making themselves spokespeople for these victims – and the nameless others – whom they were bringing to life on the stage was extraordinary.
In two speaking engagements during the time I was in Minnesota, and at question and answer sessions following each performance, I was able to respond to similar searching questions from the large numbers of audience members who stayed to participate.
Jack Rose, the music director, created wonderful incidental music, largely based on the “Terezín March” and set in klezmer mode for piano and two clarinets, to be played between scenes.
Adam Arnold, the play’s sensitive and insightful director, consulted with me by telephone and email throughout the rehearsal period. The result of our collaboration was the addition of a number of stage directions that I have permanently incorporated into the script. I would like to share with you one in particular. Adam decided that it felt wrong to have curtain calls at the end of the play; he wanted the actors simply to disappear and the stage be left in silence. But we both felt that it wasn’t fair to deny the actors their due. So this is what we worked out: The cast took their bows during the joyous singing of the “Terezín March” that seemed to be the ending of the play. When the singing was interrupted by news that a new deportation list had been posted, the cast slowly left the stage – angry, frightened, confused – and, finally, the last cast member onstage delivered the closing lines:
But there was no next performance. The Jewish Council of Elders forbade the play, terrified by the thought of what would happen if the SS learned about it. The Last Cyclist was too dangerous, its allegory too explicit. Over the next months, Karel Švenk and other members of the cast were among the many Terezín inmates transported to the east, most of them to Auschwitz.
May their memory be for blessing.
It was powerfully, chillingly effective.
On June 1-2, 2010, Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, NJ mounted a
“staged reading” of the play. At the end of each performance, the audience sat in stunned silence for the entire two minutes it took for the cast to leave the stage and exit through the hall. Here, too, as in St. Paul, the cast members told me that they felt a deep sense of obligation to the memory of the Terezín inmates whose roles they were replicating, whom they were, in effect, bringing to life through the play. “We had to get it right,” they said, “not just for ourselves or for you, but for them.
I am now working with a children’s theater company and with the New Jersey State Commission on Holocaust Education to create a version of the play to bring into high schools in New Jersey; I am hoping to commission an overture and incidental music uniquely suited to the edgy, satiric style of Karel Švenk and other composers who were imprisoned in Terezín; I am looking for other venues for the play; and anticipating the translation of the script into Spanish.
The Last Cyclist is an amazing example of the extraordinary spiritual resistance and resilience displayed by concentration camp inmates. For me, it is still a work in progress. I have continued to reshape the play based on seeing it in performance, and I am still looking for new information that will help me truly understand the differences between the 1943 and 1961 productions, the impact of each on its audience, and to learn if there were underlying subversive messages or implications in the 1961 play. Perhaps you remember! If you do, or know anyone who does, Lisa and I would love to hear from you!
* * *
The photographs were taken at rehearsals for the NJ production.
Naomi Patz and Lisa Peschel can be reached at:
 The protagonist’s name is itself a logical absurdity, joining a mythic ancestor of the Czech people to a Jewish-sounding, biblically-based surname (Abel, son of Adam and brother of Cain).