Leonard Zwelling


Tom Stoppard is probably the foremost living British playwright. After last Sunday (6/11), he has been the recipient of five Tony Awards for his plays and that’s just in America. He is also a screenwriter of note (Oscar for Shakespeare in Love).

In his newest play, Leopoldstadt, he writes his most personal drama yet. You see, Mr. Stoppard was once a Czech Jewish citizen named Tomas Straussler who escaped the Nazis with his mother and brother and eventually settled in England where his mother made sure he became a proper English gentleman with no knowledge of his Jewish past. It was only much later in life after re-engaging with a cousin that he learned of his true origins. In the play, he addresses his discoveries about himself and about his people.

The play is set in one apartment over 55 years in Vienna, Austria. At the turn of the 20th century, the Jews constituted 10% of the Viennese population. Many were prosperous business owners. Others excelled in medicine (Freud) and the arts. They thought they were an impervious part of Viennese society. Many inter-married. Some even embraced Christianity and were baptized. They had found a home in Vienna—so they thought.

The story follows two families linked by marriage from a Christmas party with a Star of David atop the Christmas tree in 1900, to the devastation of the post-WWI economy in Austria and the collision between the Social Democrats, the Communists, and the National Socialists, the Nazis.

The third part is set on Kristallnacht in November of 1938 when the Nazis destroyed the last vestiges of Jewish society in Vienna, seized businesses, invalidated transit visas, and began the Shoah in Austria and Germany.  Among the children in the apartment in 1938 is a young boy of one of the daughters of the matriarch of one of the families who manages to get him out through the help of an Englishman she marries. That boy represents Stoppard who we see again in 1955 when the last vestiges of the family return to Vienna and we learn the fate of all of the people (there are 38 members of the cast) we have encountered over 55 years.

I thought a great deal about my mentor Dr. Kurt W. Kohn whose life parallels the characters here as he escaped Vienna by train in 1938 just as the Nazis were closing in.

The real sobering message of this play is far more than that the Holocaust was a catastrophe for many European Jewish families who thought that they had assimilated into their communities. They had not. With the smallest of provocations, they were outcasts again. So, message one, since 70 AD we have been living in someone else’s land. We have been treated kindly by some, especially in America, but we are still a very small part of the countries to which we have been dispersed.

The play starts by noting the budding Zionist movement that had its first congress in 1897 because Herzl and other visionaries could read the handwriting on the wall and knew that European Jewry was always living on borrowed time and that the Jews needed a home of their own.

That’s message two and it rings true right down to 2023. The Jews must have a homeland and it must be in Palestine. How we come to terms with those who have shared this land with us for centuries has yet to be worked out. Right now, the tensions among Jews are high in Israel for ludicrous reasons. Essentially, how does Netanyahu stay out of jail and how does Israel come to terms with the diversity among the Jews who have chosen to live in Israel.

This play was very difficult to watch and it’s two hours straight through. No intermission. Not only is it Stoppard’s story, it’s all of our stories. From 70 AD to 1948 we were wandering, strangers in a strange land. Now, we are not.

For years Stoppard had no idea from whence he came. Now he does and has come to terms with it in the most personal and public of ways. This is a masterpiece and deserving of the Tony this year. It is a spectacular production of import even today. One man’s journey is one all of us Jews have to take. Where did we come from? How did we get here? How do we make sure we never again have no place to go? And, how do we help keep that place a democracy and a Jewish state without turning into an autocratic apartheid one?

Dr. Zwelling’s new novel, Conflict of Interest: Money Drives Medicine and People Die is available at:


on amazon if you search using the title and subtitle,


directly from the publisher Dorrance at: https://bookstore.dorrancepublishing.com/conflict-of-interest-money-drives-medicine-and-people-die-pb/m

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *