Thursday, June 1, 2023




Last night, thanks to a kind and generous friend, I was able to see Leopoldstadt at Manhattan's Longacre Theater. I was delighted to receive this invitation because Tom Stoppard is a prominent playwright, and Leopoldstadt has been described as Stoppard's coming to terms with his Jewish ancestors' murder in the Holocaust. I've been wanting to see this play but I never thought I'd be able to afford to go.
Stoppard is famous and of course I'd heard his name, but I have not seen his stage plays. I have seen a couple of films he wrote or co-wrote, Shakespeare in Love, and Empire of the Sun. Stoppard also co-wrote Enigma, a notorious anti-Polish film. Enigma is based on an anti-Polish novel by the same name, so the anti-Polish element of the film did not originate with Tom Stoppard.


Stoppard has been called the most important playwright since Shakespeare. I have not sought out his work because reviews I've read have suggested to me that Stoppard's work is, as it is often called, "clever" and "cerebral." He has been influenced by absurdism, a style that doesn't interest me. Work that is called clever and cerebral tends to leave me cold. In short, I am no expert on Stoppard and what I write here is my impression of one play, not an in-depth review.


Also, I saw Leopoldstadt just once. I have not read, and don't plan to read, the script. Leopoldstadt has about forty speaking parts. It begins in 1899 and ends in 1955. The play is over two hours long. I couldn't make out facial details and I could not understand a good forty percent of the dialogue, especially that spoken by women. I could not easily differentiate characters. Much of the time, I had only a general idea of what was transpiring onstage. My comments here are fairly typical of many reviews, both by professionals and by fans. I agree with much of what the New Yorker said about Leopoldstadt. Given the number of speaking parts, and the length of time covered, it was difficult for me, for many amateur reviewers, and for the New Yorker reviewer not only to follow what was going on, but also to be moved by what was going on. When you're not really sure which character is speaking, and when you can't identify the older version of a previously introduced younger character, it's hard to care about the character.


I thought that, perhaps, given Stoppard's reputation for clever and cerebral work, that all these challenges might be intentional. Perhaps Stoppard does not want to move audiences in a conventional way. Leopoldstadt makes frequent references to mathematics; the current poster for the play is a child holding up a cat's cradle, a pattern made with string. I guess there is some message there that eludes me.


One possible interpretation. During the play, a character says that elements of a cat's cradle are always in a similar relationship to each other. The play begins and ends with Jews being persecuted by non-Jews. Perhaps that is the message. Jews and non-Jews are always in the same relationship to each other, but periods of persecution wax and wane as history changes. Of course I could be wrong and that might not be the message that Stoppard, or the person who designed the play's poster, intended at all.


In any case, given the play's difficulties, I have to guess that if an unknown playwright wrote the exact same play, with a few minor tweaks to make it about the Armenian Genocide by Turks rather than about the Holocaust, it might never have been produced, and it would certainly not receive the laudatory reviews it has received from some reviewers. Again, I could be wrong, and I'm totally open to hearing an alternative point of view.


One of my biggest impressions was this. Given that my parents are from Eastern Europe and their families lived through Nazi occupation, I have been exposed to material about Nazi crimes since I was about five years old. Such material is difficult. When I pick up a book or watch media about Nazi crimes, I know it is going to be hard for me and I want to get something from that material that I have not gotten from previous material. Otherwise, I don't want to be exposed to it.


There are a couple of scenes in Leopoldstadt that are hard to watch. In the early scenes, a family member challenges an anti-Semite to a duel, and is humiliated. Later, As the Nazis are coming to power, family members reveal how naïve they are about their fate. Later, Nazis enter the family apartment and bully the residents. The Nazis also detail how they are going to steal the family's business and render this formerly successful family paupers. And of course, eventually, most of the family members are killed in Dachau, Auschwitz, and on transports or death marches.


The simple truth is other works have covered this material and I think have done a better job. I think of The Pianist, Nazi Billionaires, and multiple memoirs by survivors.


The play opens on a busy scene in 1899 with many characters onstage. They are in an apartment in Vienna. They are all related. There is a large Christmas tree in the corner. Again, I could not make out a lot of the dialogue, but I did hear snarky comments about Christianity, Jesus and, I think, Mary. One character says that Jews who convert are still wet from baptism, a baptism they underwent insincerely in order to gain wider societal rights and acceptance. Another says that Jesus was a Jewish boy with an exaggerated idea of himself, or words to that effect.


These comments are interspersed with comments about how Jews have been oppressed throughout history and how Jews can never feel safe among non-Jews. Other characters reject this idea and celebrate the rights and freedoms that they enjoy.


These scenes did not work for me. Again, given the distance between my seat and the stage, and also given how the play works, I could not relate to the characters in any real way. They were little figures on a distant stage speaking lines that I couldn't place with any given characterization because I was often not sure who was speaking. No doubt someone closer to the stage would react differently.


These scenes also didn't work for me because I don't understand history the way the play seemed, to me, to be presenting it. I don't understand the Holocaust as the inevitable next link in a chain in a series of comparable events. I think the Holocaust happened because of a perfect storm of historical events including WW I, the Versailles Treaty, the Russian Revolution and mass killings by communists, the Depression, the Weimer Republic, the rise of scientific racism aka eugenics aka social Darwinism, etc.


I also don't see Vienna's Jews in 1899 as the only suffering or threatened group in a world of non-Jews all of whom are safe and comfortable and like each other and face no impending mass death. Many subpopulations in the Austro Hungarian Empire were disenfranchised and seriously impoverished. Galicia, for example, was actually internationally famous as a land of poverty and starvation. There were epidemics and famines that took the lives of a reported 50,000 deaths a year. The people starving there were largely Christian Polish and Ukrainian peasants.


The characters in Leopoldstadt talk about Jews and political rights. Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II issued the "Edict of Tolerance" in 1782. This extended religious freedom to Jews. The Hapsburgs did not abolish serfdom until 1848. The serfs were non-Jewish peasants.


Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, and Tom Stoppard were all born Jewish in what was once Czechoslovakia. Peasants in that land, some of them whose grandparents were only recently released from serfdom, were much less likely to become world famous. In other words, the play's depiction of utterly helpless victimhood as sole and unique identity is not accurate.


The Russian Empire was about to burst into diabolical flames and bourgeois and devout Christians there would soon be dispossessed, tortured, massacred, and marched into camps. Soviet Communism would kill millions. Exact numbers are debated. And of course the Nazis crucified Poland, killed handicapped people and Rom, etc etc etc.


I do not mention non-Jewish people's suffering and death during the time period and in the general geographic region of the play to diminish the Holocaust. I mention them, rather, because what struck me as the history lesson of Leopoldstadt – that Jews are uniquely menaced by non-Jews who are all uniquely menacing and that the Holocaust was inevitable and preceded by precursors carried out by non-Jews, symbolized by the Christmas tree in the corner, struck me as simplistic and false.


In scenes, specifically the dueling scene and the sexual scenes involving the German officer, depicting Jews as helpless victims and non-Jews as powerful, heartless, Snidely Whiplash persecutors, I thought of a couple of things.


I thought of a poem that takes the story of Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar and makes it a story about a Jewish couple and their Polish servant. In that poem, the non-Jewish servant is the powerless, victimized one.


I thought of Leon Weliczker Wells who wrote, that Polish "farmers, who, even considering their low living standards, couldn't support an entire family, sent their daughters to town to become servants in the Jewish households. I never knew a Jewish girl to be a servant in a Polish household, but the reverse was the norm. The gentile maid was referred to in negative terms as the 'shiksa' (Hebrew for "a vermin like a cockroach"). There was a repertoire of jokes about these girls. For example, there was the joke about how Jewish mothers made sure that the servants were 'clean,' because their sons' first sexual experience was usually with this girl."


In other words, Leopoldstadt depicts even wealthy Jews as helpless victims in sexual encounters with non-Jews, who are contemptuous and heartless. In reality though, in some encounters, it was Jews who had the upper hand, and the non-Jew who was relatively less powerful. This reality about life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire does not in any way belittle the horror of the Holocaust. It just makes the history of Leopoldstadt simplistic to the point of distortion.


Also, Leopoldstadt mentions only one cause of tension between Jews and non-Jews: Christianity. In fact, though, middleman minority issues caused tensions. In Stoppard's natal Czechoslovakia, Czechs and Slovaks were fighting against domination by larger empires, including Muslim Turks (in the past) and Germanic Austrians. Nationalists resented Jews for speaking Yiddish or German, rather than Czech or Slovak. Also the disproportionate role of Jews in business and industry was a source of tension. These tensions do not excuse anti-Semitism. They are historical facts, facts that the play ignores. That Christmas tree in the corner is made to stand for menace, and that is ahistorical.


I saw the play with a friend, and he disagreed completely with how I read the play. He says that the Christmas tree was there to show how assimilated the main characters were. I think both his read of the Christmas tree and my read can be true.


Actions are rushed. A character we may be expected to care about fights in WW I and loses an arm. He later commits suicide. Given how little time he had onstage, I never cared about the loss of his arm or his suicide.


In a weird and perhaps "clever and cerebral" not to say absurdist plot twist, a Jewish man manipulates his wife into becoming impregnated by a blond anti-Semite so that the offspring of this union, whom he will raise as his own, will not suffer anti-Semitism. This plot twist epitomizes why I don't like "clever" writing. It seems to me to be more about showing off the writer's complex mind rather than plumbing any truth.


A character becomes a Communist and mimes making a red flag onstage. This communist allegiance is presented as neutral, if not positive. Again, one thinks about how and why Communism's crimes against humanity are softened in media while the same approach is not taken in regards to Nazi crimes. All mass graves are equal, but some mass graves are more equal than others.


The scene where a character challenges a blond anti-Semite to a duel struck me as more a slice from melodrama. I have to wonder what impact Stoppard wanted to have with this scene. He makes his Jewish character appear helpless. During this scene I thought of Franz Boas, "The Father of American Anthropology." Boas was born in Prussia. He was from a Jewish family but he was non-observant. Here's an account of Boas' first duel:


Franz Boas fought his first duel in 1877, when he was nineteen. He was freshly arrived at the University of Heidelberg, where saber fencing over slights, known as Mensur, was ingrained in undergraduate culture. And the slight in question was, indeed, slight: Boas shared the rental payments on his piano with a classmate, who banged away for hours at a time. The students downstairs protested, Boas took offense. Words were exchanged, satisfaction demanded. Three weeks later, he and another student drew swords.


Boas went on to have a great life.


I could go on to how the play's depiction of Jewish life contrasted with historical facts and memoirs but let's cut to the final scene. It's 1955 and Leo, Tom Stoppard's stand-in, meets Nathan, a relative, and an Auschwitz survivor. Nathan is depicted as physically expressing his interior pain. His clothes are ill fitting and he has many nervous ticks, for example a bouncing leg. He cries loudly and dramatically onstage. I didn't feel that Stoppard had earned Nathan's onstage breakdown. The play did not devote the previous two-plus hours to introducing Nathan to us and letting us get to know him intimately. He's just the latest character to walk across a very busy stage.


But that was my reaction. My companion reacted very differently. So did a theatergoer who posted at the New York Times website, "The last scene slayed me. I was so moved I could not even stand up to help give the ovation, and found out what it is like after two and a half years to sob with a mask on."


During the final scene, Leo mentions that his mother was killed by the Nazis, during the Nazi bombing on the UK. Nathan scoffs. It's clear that Nathan assesses Leo's English mother's death as less worthy of sympathy. Again, this message of the play is one I don't find worthy. It's especially irksome given that Tom Stoppard, by his own admission, has lived a charmed life. Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia. His father was a doctor who worked for Bata shoes. Jan Antonín Bat'a relocated Jewish employees in order to protect them. Non-Jewish Bat'a saved Stoppard when Stoppard was just a toddler. Stoppard's father was killed by the Japanese. Stoppard's mother remarried and her new husband, a British army major, provided Stoppard with a comfortable childhood. Stoppard is now 85. He waited a long time to write a play about his Jewish ancestry. For him to depict a character deciding that some wartime killings of innocent civilians are less worthy of sympathy than others didn't work for me. Again, yes, the Holocaust is respected and taken seriously and it deserves that respect. No one is questioning that here. But Stoppard has a character scoff at a civilian woman killed by an enemy bombing. Victims like that deserve sympathy and respect, too.


There was a scene in the play that did move me. At the end, characters who had earlier moved offstage came back onstage, again in their turn-of-the-century attire. This scene spoke to me of resurrection and the immortal soul, in which I do believe. I am a Christian of the universal salvation variety.


I don't know Tom Stoppard's religious beliefs. The internet gives me a couple of interesting quotes attributed to him. " "I don't think of myself as being particularly spiritual. I'm quite hard-headed in fact, but I have a sense of, with great respect, science having a long honourable history of self certainty which needs modulating continually and I'm just very very curious about the unknown" and "Atheism is a crutch for those who cannot bear the reality of God."


In any case, in a play that references the Holocaust, to see Jewish characters who had "died" return to "life" was moving to me.




  1. I posted this on facebook and a woman complained bitterly. She didn't like the quotes from Leon Welczker Wells. She didn't like the definition of "shiksa" and she especially disliked another feature.

    I responded.

    The second protest was against what Wells said about servants , mothers, and sons. The person insisted that it is impossible to believe that such behavior occurred because of taboos as the post put it, " a strong tendency against intermarriage and intersexual relationships" in Judaism.

    This person is probably well meaning but uninformed. It's forgivable to be informed. It's not so forgivable to make false accusations because of your own lack of knowledge or even curiosity. A brief Google search would turn up ample material.

    In fact there is significant sex trafficking between Israel, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, and there has been for at least the past two decades.

    The New York Times published a devastating expose on this traffic entitled "Naive Slavic Women." the full article is on the web. Read it. The article appeared in 1998.

    A Jewish publication published a piece on this trade. I can't find it right now but I have it somewhere in my clip files.

    This trade is not a thing of the past.

    Perform a google search of Israel prostitution Poland Russia Ukraine and you will find many articles. Wikipedia also covers this topic. I'd prefer not to post links. You can find this material on your own. It is unbelievably depressing

    I used to teach a women's studies course that covered this material. We didn't particularly focus on Israel or the trafficking of Slavic women; we did cover that but we covered other routes as well, Nepal to India and the Gulf states, for example. And yes even sex trafficking in the United States, especially of desperate immigrants from Latin America, including children.

    I find it saddening that someone who apparently either doesn't know about this trade or would prefer to remain ignorant of this trade would call me a liar on my page and insist that some men are so religious that they would not abuse or exploit poor and desperate women from a different ethnicity and religion.

    Unfortunately no religion has produced such men and yes Leon Weliczker Wells was correct, and the trend he pointed to is alive and well today and uncounted women have been victimized by this trend.

  2. English WIkipedia writes mostly about Russian (Congress) Poland. Other sources inform about Zwi Migdal operating in Austrian Galicja, either. I have recently read a fiction book but based on research, about killing of a Polish girl in Krakow.

  3. It does feel like an immutable law of physics [the cat's cradle metaphor] and also something in engineering.

    And doesn't it take the secular world something that religion is not doing and indeed cannot do?

    Like, seeing people as persons who are outside your tribal group.

    It is a thing I learnt all too well about the young people in the orphanages who face trafficking.

    [it was the boys and young men who were in crime and the young women who were being trafficked].

    Indeed a lot of Serbians; Bulgarians; Croatians; Bosniaks and ...

    Malaysia and Indonesia too.

    It is like the drug trade.

    A civilian woman killed by an enemy bombing - that must have been in Coventry or the Midlands more generally.

    Even in London.

    APPEARING helpless is not BEING helpless - far from it!

    Dramatic irony? Socratic irony?

    What if it were a podcast or a radio play?

    There is a LOT of intermarrying among Jews and nonJews.

    The whole "revenge against Hitler" [and Stalin and the tyrants of our times] trope.

    Thank you kind and generous friend of Dr Goska.

    Stoppard: tough-hearted and tender-minded perhaps?

    When Stoppard talked about science with a self-certainty.

    And I campaigned against ENIGMA at the time the film came out.

    Adelaide Dupont

  4. Jewish text about shiksas

  5. Your long essay contains much insight. You write:

    "I don't understand the Holocaust as the inevitable next link in a chain in a series of comparable events. I think the Holocaust happened because of a perfect storm of historical events including WW I, the Versailles Treaty, the Russian Revolution and mass killings by communists, the Depression, the Weimer Republic, the rise of scientific racism aka eugenics aka social Darwinism, etc."|

    That's just it! In Marxism, every historical event is folded into the class struggle. Likewise, in the dominant Holocaust narrative, everything that ever happened to the Jews is folded into the Holocaust. Besides portraying Jews as eternal victims, this helps shift the blame away from the Germans, and to put the blame on others, including the Poles.

    1. Generally yes. But Engelking and Grabowski criticize poor Polish people, which is not Marxist.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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