Words by: Helen Sullivan
Image: All rights reserved
January 27th marks Holocaust Memorial Day and NT Live is releasing a filmed version of Tom Stoppard’s latest play, Lepoldstadt. The play follows multiple generations of a Jewish family living in Vienna. In what could be his last work, Tom Stoppard writes his most personal play, drawing on his own family’s history that Stoppard himself did not know about until later in his life.
Tom Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler in then Czechoslovakia before fleeing from Nazi persecution with his family. He travelled with his mother, brother and stepfather before landing in England. He adopted his stepfather’s last name and the English version of his first name to better assimilate into English society. It was not until the ’90s, when a relative tracked him down, that he learned his family’s history.
Leopoldsadt follows a similar story to his family’s history but is set in Vienna. The play opens in 1899 and sees them enjoying the holiday season. The apartment is decorated and servants are waiting on the family. But by the 1930s, the family was destitute and faced deportation to concentration camps. The play reflects on what many Jewish people in German-controlled territories had experienced. Many were at the top of their fields and had been a part of an established community but were suddenly tossed out of the society they had helped build.
Stoppard explores the different meanings of what it means to be Jewish. One character, Herman, has converted to Christianity to marry his wife Gretl but is still seen by his peers as Jewish. In an article published in 1999, Stoppard reflects on his mother’s relationship with Judaism. When he asked his mother if they were Jewish, his mother would respond with “Tsk”:
“I believe I understand her ‘Tsk!’ It was less to do with denial than irritation. To ask the question was to accept the estimation put on it not by her but by the Germans. She had no sense of racial identity and no religious beliefs…As I understand it, if I do, ‘being Jewish’ didn’t figure in her life until it disrupted it, and then it set her on a course of displacement, chaos, bereavement and -finally- a sanctuary in a foreign country, England, thankful at least that her boys were now safe. Hitler made her Jewish in 1939” (Talk Magazine)
Stoppard’s family were mainly non-observant but to the Nazis, they were as Jewish as those who regularly attended synagogue. Stoppard’s mother was forced to flee her homeland for something she did not consider as a main part of her identity.
After seeing the play, I reflected on my own identity as a Jewish person. My mother is Jewish and therefore by Jewish law, I am also Jewish. For many years I never thought much about it past opening presents on Hanukkah and eating latkes on Passover. I did not think of myself as Jewish because I did not have a bat mitzvah or fasted on Yom Kippur and my only synagogue trip was a friend’s Bat Mitzvah in eighth grade. However as anti-Semitism has risen, I realized that it was not only about religious practices. Nazis did not see a difference between Jewish people who practised and those who did not. If heaven forbid, a Neo-Nazi movement gains power, my choice will have been made for me. I have become proud to identify as a Jewish person and it has become a very important part of my culture.
Leopoldstadt is then one of the most important plays to be seen today. The play can be viewed in select cinemas on limited dates in February. Anti-Semitism is facing its highest levels since the Holocaust. As we just celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day it is vital to remember the horrors the Jewish people went through and to work to purge anti-semitism. As I left the theatre the first time I saw the play, I went silent and still to this day think about what I have seen. If this is in fact the final play from Tom Stoppard, I cannot think of a more important story for him to tell.
You can watch Leopoldstadt here: https://leopoldstadt.ntlive.com/