Homeland or hell: My parents and the Vienna of Leopoldstadt
Set in Vienna in the home of an affluent Jewish family, the hit stage play “Leopoldstadt,” now breaking hearts on Broadway, tells the story of the coming catastrophe that would be called the Holocaust and the devastating effects it would have on the family members, a group of highly educated, deeply cultured people who believed they were too safely assimilated into European society to be in danger when the Nazis arrived.
Since I grew up in a family for whom the Nazis actually did arrive, I was driven to purchase tickets, quiet my demons and enter the Longacre Theater on West 48th St. in New York City with both a supportive companion and a fistful of tissues. Both were useful; both were soaked with tears by the time the curtain fell. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Tom Stoppard’s brilliant creation plays without an intermission, and with his inimitable wit, philosophical intellectualism and wry bits of black humor, he leads us into a memorial to a lost world. The drama begins in 1899. It is the cusp of a new century, but it is also a year after an Austrian Jew named Theodor Herzl published a landmark study he called “Der Judenstaat,” which instructed all Jews to leave the country and emigrate to Palestine because assimilation was an impossible dream and could never be achieved.
But the only positive reviews of the book, we are told by the patriarch of the family, came from gentiles. “We say no to Herzl!” he shouts from the stage. “Vienna is our Promised Land!”
And as the family frolics through holiday celebrations and gossips about one another, we learn that another Austrian Jew, Sigmund Freud, has published another landmark study: his theories about the meaning of dreams. But Stoppard shows us as his play unfolds how the dreams of the Viennese, who thought they belonged, broke into a thousand pieces.
“We live in the culture capital of Europe,” explains the owner of the family textile business, unable to see the looming betrayal just outside the door. “We literally worship culture. Sameness is the goal. Zionism is about difference.”
Two million people lived in Vienna in 1938. A full ten percent of the population, 200,000, were Jews. Out of these 200,000, two were my parents, four were my grandparents, and another couple dozen or so were my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Nearly all felt they were safe. Accepted. Assimilated. Nearly all perished in the camps.
“Assimilated means to carry on being a Jew, but without insult,” one of Stoppard’s characters, a mathematics professor, tells his drinking companion. “Episcopalians are assimilated. Zoroastrians are assimilated. I could be a druid, for all my colleagues care. It’s only the Jews! I’m an unbeliever, but to a gentile, I’m always a Jew.”
Vienna was home to the largest German-speaking Jewish community in Europe at the time, larger than existed in any city in Germany. Judaism, in all its many forms and levels of observance, flourished there, and while Jews were ten percent of the population, they were fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors and professors in the city.
After the Anschluss in March 1938, when Hitler annexed Austria to Germany, Adolph Eichmann was sent to Vienna to rid the city of Jews. Through five exquisitely crafted acts, which grab the play’s families by the seat of the pants and fling them into the stratosphere, where there is no air to sustain them and no firm place to land, “Leopoldstadt” tells this story.
So, hell or homeland? What was Vienna as it was presented to me by my immigrant parents, the last of their families to survive? What of the Merz and Jacobovicz family members who were still extant when Stoppard’s play comes to a crashing end in 1955, having swept across 56 years in two hours and ten minutes and presented us with but three of the 23 still alive?
Tom Stoppard wrote the play in his 81st year. It was a hit in 2019 when it was presented in London, but this was only a few short decades after Stoppard even found out he was Jewish.
Born Tomáš Sträussler in 1937 to two Jewish parents in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard was evacuated to Darjeeling, India, in 1941 when he was five, lost his father there and moved with his mother to England, where she remarried and he became an honorary British boy. The Holocaust, and his relationship to it, remained safely hidden behind a curtain of silence.
But as we know, sometimes silence can scream louder than words. For my parents, who lost everything – their home, their place in society, their sense of safety, their language, their future, their families – there was never a sense of belonging after they fled Vienna and the Nazis. Stoppard’s characters in the last wrenching scene recite with no embellishment or softness each family member’s fate: Auschwitz, Dachau, death march, suicide. Each is a punch; each is a little death of a piece of us. There is no drum, but we hear one anyway.
The play is about then, of course, but also about now. Family love, confidence in our strength, the crystalline beauty of art and music, the fragile nature of our belief in the goodness of our neighbors. And yet also a firm reminder of why, when there were only four in my family as I was growing up, we had five chairs at the kitchen table, so that every night my mother could set a place for the mother the Nazis had torn away while she was unable to save her, and so keep her own heart beating for one more day.