What You Need to Know about Terezín to Enrich Your Understanding of This Play
by Naomi Patz

Terezín (Theresienstadt, in German) is located 40 miles from Prague. It was built as a walled garrison town and fortress in the 18th century by the Hapsburg monarchy. During the Second World War, the Nazis evicted the civilian population and created the concentration camp they called the “Theresienstadt Ghetto.” Terezin was not a death camp (all six death camps – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Maidanek, Chelmno, Sobibor and Belzec – were located in Poland) but, rather, a work camp and transit point for the nearly 140,000 Jews who passed through the camp between 1941- 1945.

It was a dreadful place, although a virtual paradise compared to the camps in Poland (“in the east”). At its most crowded, 50,000 prisoners were crammed into a place meant to hold 6,000 people. Families were divided; there were barracks for men, barracks for women and barracks for children. Approximately 60 people slept crowded into three tiers of bunks in each poorly heated dormitory room. There was no privacy, no modesty, no personal space. Three to four hundred people shared a single toilet, and more often than not the toilets were backed up and overflowing.

Sketch of Terezin
Sketch of Terezin by Bedrich Fritta

They were given very little food – mainly bread, potatoes, cabbage and turnips. There was virtually no protein in the diet. People lined up for these bare-subsistence meals holding their plate and mug and then ate whatever was ladled out standing up.

The situation was particularly desperate for the elderly, many of whom died of starvation because the Jewish Council of Elders1 ordered that they be given the smallest rations in order to have enough food to keep the children and working people alive.

Hunger, exhaustion and disease were a permanent feature of daily life for everyone in the camp.

Despite the meager rations, the camp inmates were forced to work long hours every day of the week. Some were assigned to assembly lines producing items deemed essential to the German war effort; others were set to meaningless hard labor. Many draftsmen, designers, artists and accountants worked on reports for the SS, who endlessly documented what was happening in the camp (and everywhere else under their control as well) with graphs, detailed statistics, surveys and lavishly illustrated reports. Each camp inmate was registered in at least 17 files. This work was fraught with tension: mistakes as simple as a typographical or clerical error would result in immediate, drastic punishment, even death.

Workers at Terezin
Workers at Terezin - Source: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

The Jewish Council of Elders organized the worked in the kitchens, the hospitals and the schools that were set up for the children2. After a while, there was even a department within the Council charged with organizing “leisure time activities.”

In this environment, what would under normal conditions be insignificant assumed overwhelming importance: breaking a shoelace or losing a spoon was nearly catastrophic. In this way, Terezin was like the other camps.

But Terezin was also unique. Much of the intellectual Jewish cream of European society – painters, writers, composers, musicians and scholars, and their families – passed through the camp, and most of them contributed in one way or another to the extraordinary flourishing of culture in this most unlikely of places. In the bizarre environment of the concentration camp, they managed to have “an artistic and intellectual life so fierce, so determined, so vibrant, so fertile as to be almost unimaginable.”3

The Holocaust scholar Rebecca Rovit writes, “It defies our understanding to imagine concentration camp inmates singing, playing classical music, and dancing on makeshift stages or in crowded barracks at the same time that cattle cars transported their fellow inmates [and, sooner or later, most of them] toward Auschwitz. The grotesquerie of such events suggests frivolity and even sacrilege. If people could act in plays and create art while facing death, that would have to mean that life in the camps could not have been so desperate. But the inmates knew that the camps were evil. And we know that they were very evil. And we now know that people sang and danced in spite of and because of the Nazi hell and the murderous ‘Final Solution’. ” 4

Norbert Frýd, a Czech theater director who was deported to Terezín in August 1943 and survived the war, expressed it this way: “If Terezín was not hell itself, like Auschwitz, it was the anteroom to hell. But culture was still possible, and for many this frenetic clinging to an almost hypertrophy of culture was the final assurance. We are human beings and we remain human beings, they were saying in this way, despite everything! And if we must perish, the sacrifice must not have been made in vain. We must give it some meaning!”5 Mirko Tuma wrote, “The ghetto, since its beginning, was filled with people who were professional artists or dabbled in the arts as dilettantes – all of them knowing that the only means to survive, if at all, was for the spirit to transcend the pain of the body… . Heroism was in the will to create, to paint, to write, to perform and to compose in hell.”6

For Viktor Ullman,7 a pianist, music critic and composer who was interned in Terezín, it was a sacred mission: “We did not simply sit down by the waters of Babylon and weep, but evinced a desire to produce art that was entirely commensurate with our will to live.” Ullman, who wrote the daring opera The Emperor of Atlantis in Terezín, was sent on a transport to Auschwitz on October 14, 1944 and to the gas chamber immediately upon arrival.

As Ludek Eliash, a theater director who acted in productions in Terezín, describes it: “… People were dying, transports were departing … if an actor didn’t turn up for a rehearsal, he was gone [on a transport to Auschwitz or another of the death camps in the east]…. But whatever we were doing, we were stubbornly connecting it with some happy future. Reality and theater were completely different things.”8

And Jana Šedová, coauthor of the 1961 version of The Last Cyclist, wrote: “Hardly anywhere in the world was there such a grateful audience as in the attics of Terezín. Hardly a single actor anywhere else has ever been rewarded for his endeavours by such love from his public. … a great hunger for culture in a place where there was not even enough bread to eat.”9

The commitment by the professionals and amateurs who took part in the theatrical productions was astounding. Performances took place in the evening, after everyone – including all of the performers – had completed an exhausting day’s work on meager food rations. Rehearsals, critiques of the performances and even a theater workshop for aspiring actors were held even later, well into the night.

Still Life by Bedrick Fritta
Still Life - wash and ink on paper - Bedrich Fritta, 1943

Although at first the plays, concerts, lectures and paintings were done secretly, they were later tolerated and then encouraged by the Council of Elders. After a while, the Nazis cynically exploited the cultural and artistic activities for their own ends. There are two particularly egregious examples of this:

One: The Danish government maintained active concern throughout the war for Danish Jewish citizens interned by the Nazis. To that end, in 1944 they requested a visit to the camp to be conducted under the auspices of the Swiss Red Cross. The SS undertook a vast “beautification” campaign which involved a physical upgrading of the facilities that the delegation would be taken to see – cafes, sports fields, a bandstand, a merry-go-round, and even the printing of fake currency – as well as the deportation of the sick and elderly to reduce overcrowding and increase the “healthy appearance” of the prisoners who would become performers in this Potemkin village-like travesty. The visit was so successful and the deception so complete that the delegation decided not to continue on to inspect Auschwitz, which was part of its original plan. (Whether or not it would have been allowed to happen is another matter.)

Two: The Red Cross visit was followed by the creation of a propaganda film. One of the most accomplished of the theater people interned in Terezín, Kurt Gerron, was forced to be its director. The film came to be called “The Fuhrer Gives a Town to the Jews.” It presented a totally whitewashed portrait of the camp and completely concealed the deplorable conditions in which the prisoners lived. Virtually everyone involved in producing, directing, filming and acting in the movie was sent immediately afterward to transports to Auschwitz. A fragment of the film is preserved in the archives of the Ghetto Museum at Terezín.

A true picture of conditions at Terezín is starkly revealed in the drawings and paintings made secretly by some of the artists in the camp.10

Sketch of Terezin
Sketch of Terezin by Bedrich Fritta

The Last Cyclist was written and directed by Karel Švenk in Terezín in 1943.

Some Statistics
Terezin is located 65 kilometers from Prague. It was built as an Austro-Hungarian garrison town meant for 6,000 people.

Map of Terezin

Between 1941 and 1945, almost 140,000 Jews were prisoners in Terezin. 33,430 of them died there.

Approximately 88,000 of the Jews who passed through Terezin were sent to the death camps in the east, most of them to Auschwitz. Only 3,000 of them survived.

Approximately 10,500 children 15 years and younger were among the Jews imprisoned in Terezin. According to Nazi records, 400 of them died there.

More than 7,500 children were sent from Terezin on transports to the east. Only 245 of these children were alive at the end of the war.

When Terezin was liberated by the Russians in May 1945, there were 1,633 children under 15 years old in the camp, more than half of them having just arrived on “evacuation” transports” from the death camps being liquidated by the retreating Nazis.

Some of the adults and children who were alive at liberation died of disease and the effects of malnourishment within the first weeks and months after the war.

Why were six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators? They died because they were not allowed to live.11

Karel Švenk

Karel Svenk

Karel Švenk12 was a hero to the Jews in the Terezín Ghetto. Lovingly remembered as “a sad clown with extremely expressive eyes” 13 and a biting wit, “inexhaustibly inventive, always up to practical jokes and improvisations,”14 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.”15

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. There, and in towns throughout Czechoslovakia, he honed his skills as an actor, director, writer and composer working with 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 (perhaps a card-carrying Communist, although opinion differs on this), 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 yet 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.”16 The cabaret he built up in the camp “reflected all the irony, all the mockery, all the distortion of ghetto life.” 17

Švenk and Rafael Schächter18 are credited with beginning the cultural activities at Terezín. Early in 1942, they produced their first cabaret, The Lost Food Card – an all-male variety show (because at that time men and women were not permitted to associate with one another in the camp). 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, and became the unofficial anthem of the camp, reprised in all of Švenk’s later productions and on every other possible occasion.

Performance in the Ghetto by Bedrich Fritta
Performance in the Ghetto - Wash and ink on paper - Bedrich Fritta, circa 1944

Elena Makarova writes that “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.”

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.”19

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.

Arnost Lustig wrote: “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.” Immediately after the war, a lifelong friend 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’.”20

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.

Jana Šedová

Jana Sedova

Jana Šedová acted in The Last Cyclist in Terezín and was the initiator and coauthor of the 1961 The Last Cyclist script. She also wrote an essay on “Theatre and Cabaret in the Ghetto of Terezín” in the “Culture on the Threshold of Death” section of Terezin, a book published by the Council of Jewish Communities in the Czech Lands, 1965. In the essay, she talks about Švenk and gives a summary of the plot of “The Last Cyclist.” The second act of the play, as she describes it in her essay, is markedly different from that of her script of 1961, which gave Naomi Patz an intriguing challenge in creating her adaptation of the play.

Who was Šedová? According to a short biographical entry in Terezín, she was born on February 26, 1920 in Chrudim, Czechoslovakia. Her first name was Trude (Gertruda); her maiden name is not mentioned. In November, 1941 she married Otto Popper, a technical employee, and shortly thereafter – on December 14 – was sent to Terezín in one of the earliest transports (designation “M”). She remained in the camp throughout the war. After liberation, she learned that her parents and her husband had been killed.

In Terezín, Šedová worked as a manual laborer during the day, but in the evening devoted herself to the theatrical activities of the camp. It was her first encounter with theater. The following excerpt comes from her essay, where she talks about her evolving role and describes the impact of The Lost Food Card, Švenk’s first cabaret:

The festive first night took place in the cellar of the “Sudeten” barracks. There were no plush stalls. The audience did not wear formal dress. There was no rustling of candy paper bags. No refreshments were to be had in the buffet. Applause was strictly forbidden. It was not advisable to make unnecessary noise…. It was the year 1942. Only a few weeks before, the Nazis had begun to send Jewish transports to the barracks of Terezín. And in a camp that was just a transit station on the way to the Auschwitz gas chambers, the prisoners had little hope…. Švenk’s cabaret was satire in the true sense of the word. No misbehavior in the camp escaped his biting wit. And the Nazi overlords were ridiculed in the same bold manner…. Švenk’s cabaret … improved not only the mood in general, but also morale, so easily undermined in camp. The rumor about the success of the first Terezin premiere penetrated through the thick walls of the barracks into the women’s prison in the “Dresden” barracks… However… the “Sudeten”
barracks, only a few blocks away, were as inaccessible for us women at that time as if they had been situated at the other end of the world. There was nothing left for us to do but to start our own … women’s cabaret…. We played without costumes or stage so that no traces of our secret activities might be left behind. I was in charge of it, which was pure cheek on my part, for I had never seen a cabaret in my life. There had always been someone who forbade me to go. First, I had been too young, then my race not pure enough. And the same held true for my cast…. It was impossible for us, however much we tried, to attain the high professional level of Karel Švenk’s experienced ensemble. Fortunately, in one thing at least, we did not lag behind: in speaking openly on the stage about the most burning problems in camp…. I remember the sketch about little Sarah who, after the liberation, was put into a mental home because she had brought all her good “camp habits” back into civilized life.21

Šedová put together several shows, which were very well received.

Then “the gates of the barracks opened” – after all the non-Jews had been evacuated from the ghetto – and men and women were permitted to associate freely with one another. At that point, which essentially coincided with the creation of the Freizeitgestaltung – the “Administration of Free Time Activities” – women could act in and attend the productions mounted by the experienced (male) playwrights and directors. Rabbi Erich Weiner, the first director of the “Administration of Free Time Activities” was one of the camp elders who documented as much as he could of what went on in his department. In his report, “Freizeitgestaltung in Theresienstadt,”22 Weiner praises “a noteworthy ensemble formed under the direction of Trude Popper.… Popper’s cabaret met with the most approval: It was full of ideas and comic in its makeup. Popper’s group presented
guest performances in all of the barracks.”

After the war, Trude Popper took the stage name Jana Šedová and, as she phrased it, “chose the stage for her life career,” primarily as a professional actress but also as the coauthor of the 1961 Rokoko Theater production of The Last Cyclist, which was part of that theater’s repertoire for a year. In 1965, 1968 and again in 1993, Šedová testified about her experiences in the camp. Lena Makarova, who interviewed her in the 1990s, described her as tiny, energetic, feisty and never without a cigarette in her hand. Trude Popper - Jana Šedová died a few years after that interview.

1 Judenaeltesten, in German; a puppet self-government appointed by the Nazis to administer the internal functioning of the camp.
2 Friedl Dicker Brandeis, an artist and master teacher, was responsible for the incredible outpouring of artwork by children in Terezín, a small selection of which was reproduced in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly.
3 Cara DaSilva, In Memory’s Kitchen, p. xxxiv.
4 Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust, p. 4.
5 From “Culture in the Anteroom to Hell,” the chapter he contributed to Terezín (Prague: Council of Jewish Communities in the Czech Lands, 1965).
6 “Memories of Theresienstadt,” in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, August 1976; Tuma spent three and a half years in Terezín where he wrote numerous poems, translated Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (presumably from English into Czech), and was one of the editors of the magazine Shalom on Friday, one of several magazines and newspapers produced by adult and teenage prisoners in the camp. He survived the war and came to the United States in 1951.
7 Viktor Ullman had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna. According to an essay by Aaron Kramer entitled “Creation in a Death Camp,” Terezín was a transformative experience for Ullman, who composed prolifically in the camp: “seven piano sonatas, a string quartet, songs and choruses, and a melodrama based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke…..“Here is a composer of depth and imagination, whose powerful musical and dramatic technique never masks his humanity…. The roles and the instrumental parts are extremely demanding; only an exceptional group of professionals could have coped with them…” The Emperor of Atlantis, which – like The Last Cyclist -- was forbidden to be performed – was his crowning achievement.
8 Quoted by Elena Makarova in an online entry called “Czech Theater in Terezín.”
9 “The Theatre and Cabaret in the Ghetto of Terezín,” in Terezín.
10 For a very moving fictionalized account, see Gerald Green, The Artists of Terezin, Hawthorn Books, 1969.
11 Ruth Bondy, “Elder of the Jews” - Jakob Edelstein of Theresienstadt, trans. Evelyn Abel. New York Grove Press, 1989.
12 “Schwenk,” in German
13 Joža Karas, Music in Terezín, 1941-1945
14 Elena Makarova, “The Theater of Needless Talents by Karel Schwenk”
15 Jana Šedová, in Terezín
16 Osnat Greenbaum, unpublished M.A. thesis on Karel Švenk
17 Ruth Bondy, Elder of the Jews

18 Schächter was born in Rumania, but moved to Brno in Czechoslovakia after World War I and then to Prague. In 1937 he established own ensemble, Komorní opera, where he performed lesser known chamber music. On November 30, 1941, he was sent on a transport to Terezín. In Terezín, he began a male choir and even managed to sneak into the woman's barracks to assemble a female choir there as well. When men and women were allowed to associate together, he created – with his choir of more than 200 members – productions of famous operas and works of classical music, often working from a single score. The first opera performed – with his decrepit restored piano as the only instrument – under his direction was The Bartered Bride, by Bedrich Smetana. It premiered on November 25, 1942 and was performed many times.

Shortly after he arrived in the camp, Schächter had already become obsessed with the idea of performing the Verdi requiem. Again working from a single score, he had the singers memorize the Latin lyrics, learn the translation, and taught them the music. Although the Nazis resumed deporting prisoners to Auschwitz, and choir members were constantly being lost to the transports, Schächter refused to perform the requiem until it satisfied his professional requirements. Between 1943 and 1944, some 150 prisoners performed the Verdi "Requiem" 16 times. Finally, when only 60 members of the choir remained, Schächter retired the piece. It was reprised, however, when Schächter was ordered by the SS to mount a performance of the “Requiem” for the infamous Red Cross visit of June 1944. A few weeks later, Schächter was loaded into a cattle car with approximately 1,000 other prisoners and transported on the 3 day journey to Auschwitz. He died on a death march during the evacuation of Auschwitz in the face of the advancing Soviet army.

19 H.G. Adler, Theresienstadt, 1941-1945: The Face of a Forced Society, quoted in University Over the Abyss: The story behind 520 lecturers and 2,430 lectures in KZ Theresienstadt 1942-1944 by Elena Makarova, Sergei Makarov and Victor Kuperman

20 From letters by Vili and Jiri (Cajlais) Suessland, quoted by Greenbaum; Jiri died in a hospital shortly after liberation. His brother died soon after writing the letter from which this quote is taken (6/9/1945).

21 “Theatre and Cabaret in the Ghetto of Terezín,” in Terezín,1965.

22 In Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs, edited by Rebecca Rovit and Alvin Goldfarb (Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 209-230. According to Rovit, “In the ghettos’ early years, the move toward legalizing concerts and plays, and engaging inmates to lecture and perform appear to have been well-meaning attempts on the part of the ghetto’s Jewish administrators to provide emotional and intellectual respite for inmates…. To ‘camouflage’ its purpose from the Nazis, the administration appointed a young rabbi, German-born Erich Weiner, to direct cultural activities. Weiner was responsible for prayers and leisure activities. But as is evident in Weiner’s report … the Jews were more experienced in artistic fields than in Jewish religious matters; this was apparently typical of the Czech Protectorate Jews who made up the majority of the ghetto” (page 171).

Weiner’s report is very poignant. Let me share with you just one paragraph that gives a graphic insight into what was involved in the first years of the ghetto in making the cultural events possible. “It is now time for me to also speak about a big secret in Theresienstadt: about our first piano. A piano torso was found somewhere after the town was evacuated by the Aryans [summer of 1942]. Through his skill, Mg. Pick properly reassembled it and art enthusiasts brought the piano secretly to the attic of the youth home L 417. We were not allowed to own instruments. Although one could not refer to a piano torso as an instrument, one did not want to come forward with it publicly. And so there were small concerts in those days…. Schächter used this piano for exercises and after laborious month-long work, produced the concert performance of The Bartered Bride. That was a great art event…,” (page 224).

Return to The Last Cyclist home page

Last updated: 4/27/2009