Karel Švenk, born Schwenk (1907-1945), was active in Prague and other Czech towns as actor, director, writer, and composer before the war. One of the prime initiators of Terezín's cultural activities, he crated the cabaret, or variety show, becoming Terezín's most popular theatre producer.
On December 28, 1941, the Nazis sanctioned performances in Terezín, reasoning that the prisoners would cause less trouble. These Kameradschaftsabende (evenings of fellowship) then sprang up rapidly in succession. Svenk joined forces with pianist/conductor Rafael Schächter, who was involved in Terezín's choral activities, and in early 1942, presented the first all-male cabaret, called "The Lost Food Card," for men living in the "Sudeten" barracks. At this time, Czech inhabitants were still in the city and the camp's prisoners were forbidden to leave their barracks.
Švenk wrote the text as well as the music, and besides being director and producer, he participated in the performance as an actor. Besides being amusing, the cabaret had a more important mission: to strengthen the morale of the prisoners. The show's success was instantaneous, especially when the final song, the Terezín Hymn [also called the Terezín March], sung only in Czech, reached the ears of the listeners. Its refrain expressed the cruel present and hope for the future. Svenk incorporated the hymn into all his subsequent cabarets.
Cabarets were easy to assemble, and with small groups the show could move from one attic to another and be performed in modest accommodations for limited audiences. The gates of the barracks eventually opened, and people could attend cultural activities of their own choice, thus enabling the women to see and also participate. Women took part in Švenk's third and most important cabaret his only Terezín play "The Last Cyclist," but it was immediately censored after the dress-rehearsal. Švenk put together several more or less improvised shows before being sent to Auschwitz in September, 1944. About a month later, he was selected to go as a laborer to a factory in Menselwitz near Leipzig. The heavy work, long hours and insufficient food caused a rapid deterioration of his already weakened health and he died in April, 1945. Only six songs from his Terezín output have been preserved. "The Last Cyclist" was performed in Prague following the war.
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