Mourning a failed escape from history for assimilated Jews

Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” is a brilliant depiction of a Viennese family lost to the Holocaust and a personal reckoning for an author trying to live without links to the past.

A scene from the play "Leopoldstadt," which opens in 1899 at a family Christmas party, where one of the children places a large Star of David atop the tree. Credit: "Leopoldstadt."
A scene from the play "Leopoldstadt," which opens in 1899 at a family Christmas party, where one of the children places a large Star of David atop the tree. Credit: "Leopoldstadt."
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Tom Stoppard has been an intellectual celebrity since he first came to prominence with his Tony Award-winning 1966 existential play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” In the decades since then, the British playwright has had many other successes and penned a number of pieces, such as the screenplay for the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare In Love,” aimed at popular audiences. But Stoppard’s stock in trade has always been an ability to blend comedy and philosophy with a healthy dose of witty repartee.

Yet it is only with his latest play, “Leopoldstadt,” that the 85-year-old, who was knighted by the late Queen Elizabeth II in 1997, has finally addressed a topic that was not only largely ignored by his previous work, but which constitutes a crucial element of his biography that both he and his audiences had never seriously considered. How is it that a man who began life as a two-year-old Jewish boy named Tomas Straussler, whose family escaped Czechoslovakia the day that the Nazis invaded in 1939, has only recently attempted to come to terms with happened to the rest of his relatives or with what it means to be a Jew in a world in which anti-Semitism remains a virulent and dangerous force?

“Leopoldstadt,” which premiered in London in 2020 before its initial run was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, finally had its long-postponed Broadway opening this week in a limited engagement at the Longacre Theater that is scheduled to end in January. Any play with the kind of buzz that preceded this one, marking it as the major event of the new season before it even began, might be bound to disappoint.

But “Leopoldstadt” does not. It’s two hours and ten minutes without an intermission of drama, leading inevitably to tragedy and maintains Stoppard’s reputation as an author of dialogue that is destined for collections of brilliant quotes. More importantly, though not without its flaws, the play also adds a late-career triumph to Stoppard’s resume that will be looked upon as a not insignificant contribution to the literature of the Holocaust.

The questions that the play poses—and for which it has few answers—are ones that not only needed to be asked in the first half of the 20th century, but which still require attention from contemporary Jews. Though today’s increasingly assimilated Diaspora population, which demographers have dubbed “Jews of no religion,” feel no pressure to convert and don’t have to navigate the humiliations or the horrors that the Jews of pre-Holocaust Europe experienced, they still must ponder the price they will pay for losing touch with their heritage. They cannot escape wondering whether the ever-present virulent virus of anti-Semitism will leave them completely unscathed, even if they, like the characters in “Leopoldstadt,” think they can extricate themselves from membership in Jewish peoplehood.

The play’s Merz family of Vienna are more interesting than the Strausslers of Zlin, the small and provincial Moravian city where Stoppard’s family lived. But he makes no secret that the Merzes are stand-ins for his own relatives, most of whom perished in the Shoah.

Even more to the point, one of the characters in the play’s last act—an Englishman who has all but forgotten his early childhood in a world being turned upside down by the Nazis—is a thinly veiled self-portrait. Like previous generations of the family who thought assimilation and even conversion would provide an escape route from the tragic arc of Jewish history, that young man who has, as Stoppard did, completely assimilated into English identity, is forced to acknowledge that even when you deliberately discard your past, it has a way of catching up with you.

Stoppard’s personal story

Stoppard’s personal story is as dramatic as any play. He and his parents fled Moravia just before its Jews fell into the hands of the Nazis. They left for Singapore, where his father’s employers had a factory. There the elder Straussler worked as a physician.

That idyll only lasted until early 1942, however, when that island city was attacked by the Japanese. The author and his mother escaped on a ship that took them to India, while his father took a later boat that was sunk by the Japanese and all onboard were lost.

In India, his widowed mother met and married a non-Jewish English officer who took them home with him after the war. There, after being adopted by his stepfather, he became a typical English schoolboy named Tom Stoppard, who would grow up to be one of his adopted country’s most celebrated writers.

Few of his relatives, almost all of whom were highly assimilated, survived the Holocaust. It was not until the 1990s that Stoppard, whose mother made a concerted effort to erase her own past and who saw Jewish identity as only associated with tragedy, came back into contact with surviving family members and learned their stories.

The play recreates this element of his biography through a four-part triptych into the lives of a prosperous, assimilated and partly intermarried Viennese-Jewish family. It opens in 1899 at a family Christmas party where they are having some trouble making their peace with their new traditions, as the decision of one of the children to place a large Star of David atop the Christmas tree attests.

With his trademark wit, Stoppard shows this family considering the significance of the use of anti-Semitism as a successful political platform and debating the merits of the recent works of Viennese-Jewish celebrities like Theodor Herzl (whose book, The Jewish State, had only been published three years earlier) and Sigmund Freud.

Freud’s controversial theories about dreams and the psyche are dismissed as eccentric, while Herzl’s Zionism is seen not only as a pipe dream, but unnecessary in a great city where Jews can enjoy the benefits of assimilation.

Nevertheless, their hopes of blending in (the family had only arrived from the shtetls and pogroms of Galicia in Poland two generations previously, to settle first in the traditional Jewish neighborhood of Leopoldstadt, before moving up to a more fashionable address) are soon exposed as illusory. The tension is not just between their vestigial ties to Judaism and desire for success in business, high society and academia; the non-Jewish world, where hatred for Jews is far more deep-seated than they thought, will not let them escape being Jews.

Each subsequent scene of the play—which moves first to 1924, when their fortunes have declined after Austria’s defeat in World War I, and then to the Nazi occupation in 1938 before the post-war assessment in 1955—illustrates the shattering cost of their lost wager that Jews have a future in a Europe that sees them only as aliens.

The fact that most of the characters disappear as time goes by, rather than developing, can be seen as a fault. It is difficult, even with a genealogical chart, to keep track of who is who, as the children in the first scenes grow up and are replaced with older actors and a new crop of Jewish children, most of whom are also fated to die.

Nor is all of the witty dialogue entirely on point. In what must be seen as a reflection of the British political culture in which he dwells, Stoppard seems unable to acknowledge that the Zionists were the ones who were right about the future.

Each time embracing the possibility of a Jewish homeland as the solution to their dilemma is discussed, it is balanced with concerns about what the Arabs (who, at one point, are anachronistically referred to as “Palestinians,” a term that only referred to Jews prior to 1948) think about it.

The complete absence of any serious discussion about the virtues of re-embracing Jewish identity and faith over assimilation and/or conversion, also speaks to Stoppard’s own lack of familiarity with Judaism or Jewish peoplehood. For him, being Jewish seems to revolve solely around remembering a dead Jewish past and the souls who were lost to Hitler and his accomplices.

Living ‘Without History’

This counts as progress for an octogenarian who had happily forgotten all about being Jewish for most of his life. Any play that calls attention to that legacy, and points to the culpability of those who either actively participated in genocide or did nothing to stop it, has value. The roll call of characters who reappear in its final moments and whose fates in the death camps are noted do more than elicit the tears of the audience. They stand as mute memorials to the lost hopes of a murdered Jewish civilization.

The Stoppard-like character is confronted in post-Holocaust Vienna by a survivor who tells him that he is living, “without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you.” That challenge, which seems to cut both the author and his creation to the quick, is one that can be posed to much of contemporary Jewry.

“Leopoldstadt” is a riveting, expertly crafted and important play that will likely be thought of as among its creator’s finest works. But the author’s inability to fully answer how one can truly live without history and what it means to re-embrace it speaks loudly about more than just the anguish of one kind of survivor. It is a yahrzeit candle to the existential dilemma of Diaspora Jewish life.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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