Since Tom Stoppard’s new play, Leopoldstadt, is a play about history—the supple confusions, the betrayals, the ambushes of history—it might be useful to look at the history it revisits. “You live as if without history,” one character says of another. Only the most heedless could say the same after seeing the play.

Set in Vienna in nine scenes, from 1899 to 1955, beginning with families decorating a Christmas tree to the accompaniment of Stille Nacht and ending with survivors trying to make sense of the genocidal fallout of Kristallnacht, the play runs over two hours without intermission and looks at the fortunes of two intermarried, upper middle-class Jewish families, the Merzes and Jacoboviczes, whose members include not only Jews but also Gentiles and, in Hermann Merz, a Catholic convert. Though the play has only one set, the Merz family’s living room in the Ringstrasse, the specter of Leopoldstadt, the old Jewish ghetto, clings to its proceedings like an inexpiable ghost.

Leopoldstadt has an interesting history. The Viennese district received its modern name in 1669 when the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I expelled nearly 1,600 of its Jews. While only a small number of wealthy Jews remained, their efforts to save the ghetto failed. By August 1670, all Jews had left Vienna. Over the foundation of the new synagogue, St Leopold’s Church was reared and consecrated in August 1670, and in 1675, what remained of the old synagogue was repurposed to build St. Margaret’s Church. Aptly enough, the only Jewish cultural site preserved was the Jewish cemetery. In the eighteenth century, Jews began coming back to the district, and by the nineteenth century, they had reclaimed it. The Nazis, however, exiled or murdered all but a few of Leopoldstadt’s 180,000 Jews. Today, the district is rather drab, distinguished only by the Crime Museum and the offices of OPEC, which continues to fund anti-Jewish terrorism around the world.

Stoppard’s first scene, set in 1899, sets up the tragic irony of his theme by showing his two families at one with Vienna’s high culture. They are well-dressed and well-spoken, versed in Herzl and admirers of Mahler. Prosperous members of the bourgeoisie, they exude the confidence of assimilation. Asked whether he is really a Catholic, Hermann Merz responds:

A Catholic, an Austrian citizen, a patriot, a philanthropist, a patron of the arts, a man of good standing in society and the companion of the aristocracy. My great grandfather was a peddler of cloth. His son had a tailor’s shop in Leopoldstadt. My father imported the first steam-driven loom from America. They strove to lift me high. Absurd as it is, I would be repudiating them if I flinched now.

When Ernst asks, “Hermann, no offence, but don’t you think you repudiated them by being baptized?” Hermann has his answer ready: “No. They were Jews, they knew a bargain when they saw it.” Yet Stoppard is careful to show that Hermann is more than a mere climber. He believes in the nobility of culture, a sentiment he shares with his Czech creator. “My grandfather wore a caftan, my father went to the opera in a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner,” he says, with understandable pride.

We buy the books, we look at the paintings, we go the theatre, the restaurant, we employ music teachers for our children. A new writer, if he’s a great poet like Hofmannsthal, walks among us like a demi-god. We literally worship culture. When we make money, that’s what the money is for, to puts at the beating heart of Viennese culture. This is the Promised Land, and not because it’s some place on the map where my ancestors came from. We’re Austrians now. Austrians of Jewish descent! We’re only one in ten but without us Austria would be the Patagonia of banking, science, the law, the arts, literature, journalism.

Yet Hermann’s faith in progress is shown to be delusive, especially when he tries to assure Ludwig that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past. “We wept by the waters of Babylon,” he says, “but that’s gone, and everything after, expulsion, massacres, burnings, blood libels, gone like the Middle Ages—pogroms, ghettos, yellow patches—all rolled up and dumped like an old carpet, because Europe has gone past them.” To hear this spoken in a twenty-first century theater is at once chilling and a relief. For all its tragic force, Stoppard’s irony speaks truth in a world sworn to falsehood.

The second scene, set in 1900, continues to expose the false security of assimilation by showing how ineradicable was the anti-Semitism of the city’s ruling class, an anti-Semitism formed and strengthened in the powerful Burschenshaften, or student fraternities, which were little more than drinking and dueling clubs for the wealthy young, where a depraved code of ethics normalized whoring and made the exclusion of Jews mandatory from the 1870s onward. When Hermann’s Gentile wife Gretl betrays him by sleeping with a product of such clubs, a dashing young Austrian officer, who would not know the difference between a cad and a gentleman if his life depended on it, Stoppard gives his Viennese history just the right frisson of treacherous snobbery.

The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire permeates the play’s latter scenes. If Emperor Franz Josef allowed the Jewish banking families of Arnstein, Eskeles, and Wertheimer to operate in Vienna, as the empire’s historian Pieter Judson points out, serving as they did as agents and lenders to the Habsburg government, he still saw fit to impose punishing taxes on them, as well as restrictions on their movement, their marriages, their businesses, and their properties. By the time of the Great War’s aftermath, centuries of anti-Semitism had recrudesced.

The young English historian Alexander Watson is astute on this aspect of Stoppard’s theme. “In the Empire’s capital, Vienna, anti-Semite agitation by German nationalists and the Christian Social Party in parliament, public meetings and newspapers, had been on the rise since the relaxation of censorship in the summer of 1918,” he writes. “So bloodcurdling and frequent were the pogrom threats at the end of July 1918 the city’s Jewish community councils from across the western half of the Empire finally broke their long silence and publicly protested. It made no difference. In Vienna, and across east-central Europe, the broken ethnic relations and virulent anti-Semitism that had formed through hunger and suffering would outlast the wartime ordeal and become more intense and radicalized in defeat.”

Stoppard’s wry view of these vicissitudes is marvelous. “The French did not win the war so that Germany could end up bigger than before,” he has Hermann’s son Jacob say. “What a triumph for the Peace Treaty, to re-draw the map of Europe so four million German-speaking Austrians wake up as Italians, Czechs, Poles, Yugoslavians . . . and here we are, leftover little Austria with the park benches chopped up for firewood, half starved . . . It was God’s mercy on Franz Josef that he didn’t live to see his Empire taken to pieces. Do you remember life in the Old Empire, Mina, before the war?”

To which Hermine responds, bleakly, “We were rich, I remember that.”

In scene seven, set in 1924, Stoppard presents his characters’ confused affiliations with postwar politics, culminating in young Jacob’s crying out: “I am a one-eyed, one-armed cradle Catholic of Jewish descent. . . . Those are my politics.” In speaking with one of his cousins, who thinks to escape her family reversals by marrying a banker, Jacob exposes the futility of her proposed flight. “If the Jews had had a country like most people, they would have developed a society like any other country, with a peasantry, a middle class, a squirearchy, an aristocracy . . . and lived the usual sort of lives, but as perpetual outsiders they had no place at the table except to be the bank. When someone said this in parliament, the Zionists applauded.” Jewish artists from Philip Roth (Goodbye, Columbus) to Woody Allen (Zelig) have mined the tragic ambiguities of assimilation, but no one has managed to put them in their historical context as incisively as Stoppard.

When, in the seventh scene, Hermann refers to his niece Nelly as having “caught politics at the university” and being someone who “now goes on socialist picnics,” he captures a well-known phenomenon. But then the proud owner of the family’s long-standing prosperous business wheels round and says: “Well, who would want to be a capitalist in Austria now? Revenue tax doubled. Income tax doubled. A luxury tax. Eight-hour days and paid holidays. High tariffs and import restrictions all round us, new countries settling old scores with the Empire. I was buying war bonds until 1917. That’s patriotism! . . . Fifty million people was a market. Six million people on the breadline is neither a market nor a tax base.” Politics, for Stoppard, can only go so far in extricating us from the scourge of politics. A playwright preeminently of ideas, in such works as The Real Thing (1982), Arcadia (1993), and The Invention of Love (1997), Stoppard in Leopoldstadt shows his audience the vanity of ideas, especially political ones, when confronted by the monstrous evil of race hatred.

Since Kristallnacht dominates the eighth scene, set in 1938, the playgoer can benefit from historical context, which Andrew Roberts serves up nicely in his The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (2009):

The milieu in which the young Hitler lived in Vienna, as well as the political tracts he read, while scraping a living as a hack painter, seems to have drawn him towards a loathing of Jews. “Hitler could scarcely ignore the everyday anti-Semitism of the kind of newspapers that were available in the reading room of the Men’s Home (the hostel where he lived), and the cheap anti-Semitic pamphlets he later described reading at this time,” writes an expert in the field; “and his enthusiasm for Wagner, whose operas he went to hundreds of times in this period, can only have strengthened his political views.” Yet it was not until Germany’s defeat in 1918 that this anti-Semitism became murderous. The way that Hitler harnessed German anti-Semitism, which was common among small businessmen, shopkeepers, artisans and peasant farmers, was as deft as it was malevolent.

“By August, 1941,” Roberts writes, “5,500 Jews were dying in the Warsaw ghetto every month.” He notes that Hitler gave serious consideration to having the Vichy-run island of Madagascar serve as the final destination for Europe’s Jews—the place’s affliction with yellow fever serving as its chief attraction for the Fuhrer’s insatiable sadism. Hitler only thought better of the plan when he realized that German seamen transporting the Jews to their deaths would be vulnerable to Allied submarines. In the play, Stoppard has Ludwig say, “Madagascar with Jews—it sounds like a dream,” to which Hermann responds (dismissively) “A pipe dream.” Here is tragic irony of a bitter brilliance.

Some Viennese Jews escaped the death camps through emigration, but many did not. They would not leave simply because they could not abandon their city. “Do you want to do mathematics in the desert or in the city where Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven overlapped,” Hermann reminds Ludwig. “We’re Austrian. Viennese. Doctors come from around the world to study here. Philosophers, Architects. A city of art lovers and intellectuals like no other.” When the man from the Gestapo (nicely named Civilian in the play) comes to the Merz flat to tell Hermann and his family that “This apartment has been requisitioned by the Reich Housing and Relocation Office,” Hermann’s civic pride is in tatters, but it lives on, as we shall see, in his grandson, Nathan. Culture may have its hands full standing up to barbarism—as one character says, “Barbarism will not be eradicated by culture”—but proper culture does stand up to the evil that it cannot eradicate, and Stoppard’s play is moving evidence of that honorable resistance.

Still, Stoppard never glosses over the predicament that overtook most of the city’s Jews. “Yes, for people with Swiss bank accounts; they can leave as soon as they’ve coughed up. Or people with family abroad, or who work for foreign companies, they can all leave as soon as they’ve paid the escape tax . . . If they can get a visa, yes, the Germans will let them leave after robbing them of everything they had,” Hermann’s sister Eva admits; but Hermann has kept his business going through “war, revolution, inflation and now Anschluss,” and she is not prepared to leave it all behind.

Apropos the Anschluss, Ian Kershaw quotes the playwright Carl Zuckmayer, who recalled how “Hades had opened up its gates and released the basest, most despicable, most unpure spirits.” Vienna, for the playwright, had transformed itself “into a nightmare painting of Hieronymus Bosch.” Kershaw also cites an English observer of the colossal betrayal, who recalled: “To say that the crowds that greeted Hitler along the Ringstrasse were delirious with joy is an understatement.” To turn the screw of betrayal tighter, on the orders of the Archbishop of Vienna, all the city’s Catholic churches rang their bells in Hitler’s honor and festooned their steeples with swastikas.

In the ninth and final scene, set in Vienna in 1955, where three survivors of the Holocaust gather in the old Merz living room to sort out the family’s wreckage under the Nazis, we are returned once more to the exasperations of politics, and the love that struggles to transcend them. Nathan, the son of Zac and Sally, whose bris gives Stoppard an opportunity to send up the comedy of assimilation, sums this up in a way that will resonate with anyone weary of our own unhappy politics. “There were a few thousand who never left,” he says of those Jews who decided to stay put in Vienna during the war. “U-boats they were called. We’re not enough to count politically. There are far more votes in leftover Nazis, half a million of them maybe, and no party wants to antagonize a bloc like that. Helping the interests of Jews is not a vote-getter. We were more welcome under the Emperor.”

It is at this point that Stoppard succeeds in making his audience see that the Jews of his play are not, after all, outsiders. They are all humanity trapped in man’s aboriginal fallenness. And yet, far from inspiring despair or hopelessness, this recognition gives rise to a cry from Nathan that must be the cry of all people defiant of hopelessness and despair. “Why did you come back,” the Anglicized Jew in Leo asks, the character based on Stoppard himself, who comes to terms with his Jewish heritage only belatedly; and Nathan replies: “Who are they to tell me I am not wanted? We were ten percent of the university graduates, of lawyers, doctors, writers, philosophers, artists, architects, composers . . . Without the Jews, Vienna was mothballed like a carnival costume. There was that, and there’s the horse chestnut trees in the Hauptallee. This is my town.”

On the evening that I saw Leopoldstadt, the company, led by Faye Castelow (Gretl) and David Krumholtz (Hermann) and featuring Seth Numrich (Jacob) and Brandon Uranowitz (Nathan), was without exception superb. If one is looking for a memorable night at the theater, look no further. Tom Stoppard has written not only a searing eulogy for the Viennese victims of the Holocaust but also a most salutary history lesson, which suggests that we can awaken from the nightmare of history only by reclaiming the dignity of its heartache.

Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images


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