Tom Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt’ tells a brutal Holocaust tale

British playwright’s wrenching discovery of his Jewish roots

The little girl in front is Tom Stoppard’s mother, Martha Beckova, in 1914, aged three.

Before you see Leopoldstadt, the Longacre Theatre will email you a family tree and an essay by the play’s author, Tom Stoppard, and ask you to review both. The play spans 56 years, from 1899 to 1955, and the family tree helps makes sense of it. Stoppard’s essay is a revelation. Although raised as an English boy, Stoppard was born in 1937 as Tomas Straussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, to a Jewish family. His father was killed by a Japanese bomber after they made their escape to Singapore.

Stoppard has no memory of his real father, Dr. Eugen Straussler, and it was not until he wrote the essay, in 1999, that he made a tangible connection to him. Stoppard met an elderly woman who cut her hand as a child, and it had been Dr. Straussler who stitched it. “I have nothing that came from my father,” writes Stoppard, “nothing he owned or touched, but here is his trace, a small scar.”

Leopoldstadt is a masterwork based around that scar, and all the other scars of memory and identity. It begins in 1899 in a beautiful apartment in Vienna, with the Merz family decorating a Christmas tree. Young Jacob adds a Jewish star on top, to general laughter. His father, Hermann, married Gretl, a Catholic, and decided to convert in order to escape persecution. Hermann’s mother Emilia jokes that Jacob might be the only boy circumcised and baptized all in the same week. Hermann and his brother-in-law, Ludwig, good-naturedly debate assimilation. Is Theodor Herzl right – should Jews return to their homeland? Is there a reason to cling to the Jewish traditions? Ludwig is a mathematician, Hermann in textiles, and neither can move ahead unless they renounce the past and embrace a fully Austrian identity. But both of them know that a Jewish past will always be their present, no matter what holidays they celebrate.

The drawing room in Vienna sees a seder and family celebrations over the decades that follow. Gretl’s portrait hovers over the room, a tribute to their complete assimilation into Viennese society. More children and grandchildren fill the apartment in 1924, as some dance the Charleston, while others embrace the emerging socialism of the day. Young Jacob is now a maimed and bitter former soldier. Another family member was lost in the war. Jacob’s cousin, Sally, debates whether to have her infant Nathan circumcised. Is the family Austrian or Jewish? One aunt gave her gold wedding ring to the Austrian cause. Others have escaped to America. The stage is a swirl of birth and business and politics and family. It is difficult to watch them and know that they have so few years left of relative safety.

Tom Stoppard photographed by Jill Krementz on December 6, 1983 in Manhattan. (Photo: Jill Krementz)

The next scene is 1938, and it is filled with dread. The beautiful apartment is barren and packed with the entire family (there are TK members of this sprawling cast). Gretl’s fabulous portrait is gone, as are the chandelier and any other signs of prosperity. Screams and gunshots ring out from the streets below as the adults try to keep the children calm. Ludwig plays cat’s cradle with Nathan. Ludwig tells the boy to imagine the knots in the string as balls hovering in space, each with its own plottable address. The knots can always be found at the expected coordinates.

Nathan’s mother Sally quietly reads “The Six Swans” to his sisters. Tension builds in the crowded apartment until the doorbell rings, and the inevitable trouble arrives in the form of three jack-booted monsters, there to take inventory and expel the extended family. Young Leopold breaks a teacup in fright and will need stitches. One of the soldiers sees Sally’s daughters hiding in a corner. “Peek-a-boo, piglets,” he mocks them, and it is unbearable. It is unbearable to know that nearly every member of this crowded stage will be murdered.

The last scene is 1955, and only three characters remain, meeting in the reclaimed Viennese apartment. Aunt Rosa made it to New York City. Young Leopold is visiting, but he is now Leonard Chamberlain, an English writer of witty novels, callowly unaware of his past. The infant Nathan is now an adult, a mathematics professor who chooses to stay in Vienna, despite being surrounded by former Nazis. It is an uneasy reunion, difficult to watch. Leo knows nothing about the past, he swears, and scoffs at Nathan’s belief that the worst will happen again. Nathan, the mathematician, is tortured by numbers: the numbers of Jews kept out of America by Roosevelt, by the British in Palestine, by every country on Earth. The distant cousins are finally united by the scar on Leo’s hand, the scar of memory, and Leo slowly walks to where he sat 17 years before, his hand stitched by a dead man. The room fills with ghosts as the three survivors tell us what happened to them all.

It’s a wrenching play, and I cried all the way back home. I cried for the fictional characters in the play and the real ones they are based on. I cried because Nathan is right, that the numbers matter, that just this month GQ ran a worshipful cover story on AOC, who voted in May to call the founding of Israel al nakba – a catastrophe. Late in life, perhaps even Stoppard, the consummate Briton, sees it too. There is no escaping the cat’s cradle; the knots in the string will always be discovered.

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Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

One thought on “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt’ tells a brutal Holocaust tale

  • September 26, 2022 at 10:52 am

    Thank you, Rebecca, for this searing story.


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