On the stage of the Black Box Theater at Columbia High School on the Maplewood-South Orange border, a group of students attack a bicycle lying on the floor, shouting “death to cyclists” as they flail away.
They are rehearsing a scene from a play called The Last Cyclist. It is based on an original work written in 1944 in Theresienstadt — the garrison town some 30 miles from Prague that the Nazis used as a concentration camp. The author was Karel Svenk, a Czech-Jewish actor and playwright who was one of the 50,000 people incarcerated there.
No script of the original version of The Last Cyclist survived. But Jana Sedova — a Theresienstadt survivor who was in rehearsals for a planned show in the camp that was canceled (perhaps the only surviving cast member) — reconstructed the play in 1961 for a Prague theater on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Czech Communist Party.
Naomi Patz of West Caldwell is the author of the adaptation being performed by the Columbia students.
The play’s title refers to a joke that was told by prisoners in the camp.
“The Jews and the cyclists are responsible for all of our misfortunes,” complains a Nazi captor.
“Why the cyclists?” someone asks.
“Why the Jews?” answers someone else.
In the inverted world of the concentration camp, imprisoned Jewish artists, performers, and writers were permitted to practice their crafts.
Svenk, who was interned in Auschwitz and died on a forced march, was described as having an acting style that was a combination of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In Theresienstadt, he created The Last Cyclist as an allegory about oppression.
Much of it takes place in what the author called a “lunatic asylum,” where people who ride bicycles are made the scapegoats of a brutal oppressor called “Ma’am.” At her command, the “lunatics,” who are her blind followers, attack the bicycles and their owners.
The play was rehearsed but never actually performed at Theresienstadt, but 68 years later, its bitter message resonates with members of the young multiracial cast at the high school.
“I think the part is really powerful, and I like playing evil characters,” said Tai Wosokan, the young African-American student who plays the Hitler-like figure called “Ma’am.”
The play, by demonstrating the absurdity and the cruelty of the tyrannical leader’s irrational hatred, “shows how Hitler had no basis as to why he targeted Jews,” Tai told NJ Jewish News. “I portray the character by going back and forth between being lucid and screaming and shouting.”
Kyle Basedow plays the part of Abeles, a confused man who is persecuted for owning a bicycle shop. “Abeles is like a poor fool who gets caught in the middle and doesn’t know what is really going on,” said Kyle. “I relate to Abeles because it is not hard for me to play someone who is so confused about why anyone would want to do these things to anyone else. His confusion is also my confusion,” he told NJJN after the rehearsal on March 13.
“We take orders from Ma’am,” said Lorraine Wright, who portrays one of the lunatics. “The play is powerful,” she said, “because it describes how people were taken from their homes and placed in these concentration camps. They didn’t know where their families were or whether they would be transported to this horrible place where they would be killed. It shows people trying to have a good time, even though they know the next day is not guaranteed.”
The young actors “are great,” said drama teacher, Stacey Lawrence, “even though they may not have a first-hand connection with the Jewish Holocaust experience.”
To supplement their knowledge, Lawrence showed cast members documentaries on the Holocaust, had them interact with survivors, and discussed the relationship of the Shoa to such other atrocities as American slavery and genocide in Darfur.
Those lessons have had a big impact on Marcus McNeil. He is an African-American who plays the head physician, a bike rider who becomes the object of Ma’am’s obsessive hatred.
“I can relate other parts of history to it, like slavery, where people were taken from their homes to other countries. I feel there is a big parallel,” said McNeil.
“It is very exciting and very rewarding to watch these kids,” said Patz, after watching the rehearsal.
Patz readapted the work because the 1961 version had been altered for propaganda purposes in the anti-Semitic climate of communist Czechoslovakia.
She is the wife of Rabbi Norman Patz, who is now retired from the pulpit of Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, where Lawrence directed an abbreviated version of The Last Cyclist in 1995.
Patz said her version “speaks to universal concerns rather than particular Jewish concerns. In the original script, the word ‘Jew’ is not mentioned. There is nothing in it about Jews. It is an allegory about bicyclists. Therefore, it can be understood and adapted.
“It very much addresses concerns about bullying in schools and how to deal with bullies and the bad things that can happen if you don’t stand up to them,” she said.
“The themes in this are timeless,” said Lawrence. “To see this done by a group of kids who aren’t Jewish all these years later is extraordinary. I think the kids understand that, too — that this man’s message in 2012 at Columbia High School is still meaningful.”
In addition to performances at Columbia on March 23 and 24, The Last Cyclist will be presented at Cedar Grove High School on May 15.
A workshop production of Patz’s adaptation of The Last Cyclist, directed by Edward Einhorn and sponsored by the Czech Center New York, the Consulate General of the Czech Republic in New York, and the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews, will be presented on April 29 at the center’s Bohemian National Hall in Manhattan.
Patz is currently working with Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, to bring the play to the stages of other NJ high schools.