Naomi Patz and her husband, Norman — the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove — have long been involved with the Czech Jewish community. In the 1970s, the congregation received a Czech Holocaust Torah. Rabbi Patz researched the history of the scroll and the couple made a number of contacts in the intervening years.
In 1995, the synagogue sponsored an arts festival weekend with the JIFY youth movement focusing on the Jews of Czechoslovakia. The rabbi gave his wife — an author of several books on Judaism — a brief description of a play in a 1965 book titled Terazin to put together a script for the kids to work on for the program.
This led to a long but ultimately satisfying project. The following year, she wrote a one-act play based on the description of The Last Cyclist, written by Karel Svenk in the Terezin concentration camp in 1943.
The play will be performed at the synagogue on May 1 and 2.
Many of the most famous Jewish painters, writers, composers, musicians, and scholars in Europe passed through Terezin, and, according to a background piece written by Patz, “most of them contributed in one way or another to the extraordinary flourishing of culture in this most unlikely of places.”
Despite the constant degradations of camp life, the inmates produced theatrical performances that were held in secret after dark. Intrigued by the story and its importance to the Jews imprisoned in Terezin, Patz searched for the original script only to learn that it had been lost during the war. She later discovered that a version of the play existed, rewritten from memory by Jana Sedova, who had played the female lead opposite Svenk in Terezin. A Czech friend of Patz located a typed copy of the script; a colleague volunteered to make a rough translation of the play.
“The idea that this was going to reach an American audience was so moving to her that she took no money for doing the translation, which was very impressive, but I couldn’t hurry her. That took another couple of years,” Patz told NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview.
Patz edited and adapted her version of The Last Cyclist from that translation, rewriting much of the second act to “restore” Svenk’s original ending.
“The original play had never been performed because the Jewish Council of Elders decided it was too dangerous. The allegory was too specific,” Patz said, describing the original as based on an old local joke that “the Jews and the cyclists are responsible for all our misfortunes. The question becomes, ‘why the cyclists?’ to which the answer is, ‘Why the Jews?’”
Despite the obvious message, the play did not overtly refer to the Holocaust, Patz said. “The writer, the actors, the audience all were [in] Terezin; they knew what the situation was. There are joking allusions, but there’s nothing intrinsic to it. So what I did was to create a framework in which the play The Last Cyclist is set at the dress rehearsal for the production, with an introduction.”
The Temple Sholom production — featuring and directed by members of the congregation — will be performed as a staged reading. Although this is the New Jersey “premiere,” The Last Bicyclist was performed last June by a community theater group in St. Paul, Minn. — with Patz’s input.
“It was amazingly moving to hear Svenk’s words, to see the interaction, and to see audience reaction,” Patz said. She was unable to attend any of the rehearsals; instead she had an extensive conference call conversation with the cast, listening to the actors go through their lines and making comments. “As they moved forward with rehearsals, the director would either call me or e-mail me with questions…. It was an excellent collaboration.”
Patz, 69, has master’s degrees in Jewish studies and English literature and an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College in Manhattan. She has written several books and is the author of Temple Sholom’s prayer book, Siddur Netivot Sholom, and the editor of Obligations of the Heart, a book of High Holy Day sermons by her husband. She is an author of six other books, the most recent of which is The Jewish Holiday Treasure Trail published by Behrman House. She also spent several years working in the Jewish communal field.
Having her husband as a member of the cast has its own benefits. “I get to criticize him,” she said. “As he says, he’s been a ham on and off the pulpit for all his life. It’s something he enjoys doing and it’s fun having him in the cast.”