You wouldn’t need to be a devotee of the theatre or playwright Tom Stoppard to be fascinated by his lengthy appearance on the late night BBC arts programme, Imagine.
Alan Yentob’s interview, conducted in the bucolic setting of Stoppard’s quintessentially English country home, detailed his life as an inside, outsider. Prep and public schools and a protective mother, Martha Becková, shielded him for most of his life from his refugee and Jewish background.
Martha remarried after Stoppard’s father, Eugen Sträussler, a doctor for the Bata shoe firm, died in Japanese hands during the Second World War. His stepfather, Kenneth Stoppard, whose English surname he took, is described at one point as being mildly antisemitic.
Anyone who has seen Stoppard’s late-flowering, brilliant play Leopoldstadt, set in Vienna, will recognise how he eventually came to terms with his Judaism and how most of his biological family perished in the Shoah. What also comes through loudly is how that part of his life was suppressed by his mother.
As Stoppard put it: “I had an exciting life up until the age of eight.” What happened before that, including his Czech birth, exile in India, loss of a parent and erasure of his Jewishness provided the backdrop to the Yentob interview.
Stoppard’s life may have been unusual in that his background and the Holocaust backstory was so suppressed and anglicised. Yet lack of exposure to the refugee experience is a common theme.
My own family background was very different. My father Michael, a refugee from Hungarian-speaking Czechoslovakia, came from an Orthodox background. One of my father’s brothers was a chazan-rabbi and a sister was married to a rabbi. English wartime experiences, from the bombing of Kemptown in Brighton to being part of the land army, were the dialogue over family dinners.
But for much of my early life, we were shielded from discussion of what became of my father’s parents and the rest of the family in the war. When the TV drama Holocaust aired in 1978, it was regarded by mother as too painful to watch for my father, who had lost both his parents, three older brothers and countless other relatives in the Shoah. When my brothers and I were growing up, the evil of what had befallen the family was discussed only in hushed whispers.
An Israeli cousin, son of my father’s youngest brother Martin, only learned of the horrific experiences of his father during the war from listening in to conversations on the balcony of his parents’ Ramat Gan flat. Each Shabbat morning, his father and a friend would sip coffee and relive their horrific experiences in a series of work and concentration camps. This included being tied to a railway line for several hours after an attempted escape and only being cut loose as a locomotive bore down.
In our family’s case, release from the decades of silence and whispers only occurred after my anglicised mother died in 1994. I, my father, my brother, and a first cousin, who had lived through the terrible trauma of Auschwitz, set off on a journey of remembrance to the family home, now Ukrainian territory.
As we journeyed across Eastern Europe, the family history unfurled. The death of my father’s elder brothers in Hungarian work camps. My grandparents’ last journey to Auschwitz. The neighbours who threw salt at the departing Jews as they requested water. The fonder memories of childhood days before Nazi bedlam destroyed a society.
Tom Stoppard was not alone in piecing together family history relatively late in life. In his case, travel to his native Zlin in the Czech Republic set him off on a journey of discovery that exposed the secrets of the Shoah.
The Yizkor service on Yom Kippur reminds us never to forget.