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Tom Stoppard brings his Jewish identity to the stage – decades after he learned of it

Updated October 3, 2022 at 1:55 PM ET

All four of Tom Stoppard's grandparents died in the Holocaust, but he only learned about his Jewish roots in middle age. His new play, Leopoldstadt, which opened Sunday on Broadway, is both an acknowledgement and personal excoriation, asking how for so long he could have ignored his family's history of suffering.

Stoppard is known for his wit, verbal dexterity and intellectually challenging work. Born Tomáš Sträussler in 1937 in what was then Czechoslovakia, his family fled the Nazis in 1938 and moved to Singapore. But the Japanese invaded, his father was killed and the family moved to India. Then his mother remarried a man named Stoppard, who moved them to England where they assimilated completely. The playwright says his family's Jewish origins were never talked about.

"It was a combination of my mother not looking backwards and liking to talk about the past, on the one hand," Stoppard explains. "On the other hand, there was my strange lack of curiosity. I'd been turned into a little English boy. I was very happy being a little English boy. I didn't need to become somebody else. I already was somebody else."

That somebody became a playwright, dazzling audiences and enjoying the life of a literary celebrity. Then, in his 50s, a cousin he didn't know contacted Stoppard and started telling him about his own family. "I didn't know that I had family who died in the camps," he says. "I simply didn't know that."

The play follows generations of a large and lively Jewish family

Almost 20 years after that discovery, Stoppard finally dealt with the loss, in Leopoldstadt. He even included a character that is a thinly-veiled version of himself. "As the young man says in the play, I began to talk about my charmed life," Stoppard says, "and ultimately this phrase, it stuck in my throat. And the boy in the play is rebuked for it. He's told that he's lived as if without history."

'Why did you ignore what you were? Why couldn't you bear to look at it? How ashamed do you feel about that?' It's a very, very powerful reckoning that a playwright has with himself and his past.

"Yes, there's a Tom-like character who appears at the end," says Patrick Marber, who directs Leopoldstadt, "but Tom's in it throughout talking to himself about 'why did you ignore what you were? Why couldn't you bear to look at it? How ashamed do you feel about that?' It's a very, very powerful reckoning that a playwright has with himself and his past."

The history Leopoldstadt tells comes not from Czechoslovakia but Vienna, Austria. It's an epic play that follows a large, lively, and mostly Jewish family. Thirty-seven characters are listed in the Playbill.

The curtain rises on an opulent apartment in Vienna in 1899 with a tall Christmas tree. "You think you're looking at a family Christmas scene," says Marber. "Then you realize, oh, it's a Jewish family celebrating Christmas. Or — really celebrating Christmas because the guy who owns the apartment has converted to Catholicism and insists on it. So, it becomes more complicated. And then a child puts a star of David on the Christmas tree by mistake. And then, you know, you're in the world of a Stoppard play."

The audience follows generations of the family with stops in 1924, on Kristallnacht in 1938 and in 1955, when Austria became a post-war republic.

At the start of the play, the patriarch, Hermann, has converted to Catholicism and is a prosperous factory owner who mingles with the Viennese elite – Mahler, Klimt and Freud are all name-checked. Dressed to the nines, he marvels at the progress Jews have made in Vienna during his lifetime, exclaiming: "My grandfather wore a caftan. My father went to the opera in a top hat! And I have the singers to dinner!"

But no matter how far he's come in society, he is always reminded – in painful and humiliating ways – that he was born a Jew. Director Patrick Marber says: "It's a play that I think suggests that how you were born and where you were born, the manner in which you were born, can never be escaped. And Tom escaped it for a lot of his life."

By the end, only three family members remain

By 1938, Hermann has become a broken man. "Because in the end, the great lesson is that regardless of whether he calls himself a Christian or not, he's on the train," explains David Krumholz, who plays Hermann, referring to the transports that took Jews to the death camps. "Or he'll be on the train. His family's on the train, his children, his grandchildren. It's devastating."

You hear stories of survivors, but you hear those stories because they survived. Most of us did not. You don't get to hear the stories of the dead. It's chilling.

By the end of the play, the formerly opulent Viennese apartment is empty and only three members of this huge family remain. As the stand-in for Tom Stoppard finds out what happened to them, the lost generations gather onstage, as if for a portrait. "The point of that moment is to say most of us died," says Krumholz. "You hear stories of survivors, but you hear those stories because they survived. Most of us did not. You don't get to hear the stories of the dead. It's chilling."

And although the family at the center of Leopoldstadt is an invention of the playwright, Tom Stoppard says, "It has its own truth. And in a way, it's an irrefutable truth."

Leopoldstadt will be playing on Broadway until the end of January.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.