On November 17, 2022, 140 students from the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program at Stern College for Women went to see Leopoldstadt on Broadway. The hugely popular play has received rave reviews and enormous buzz. Written by Sir Tom Stoppard, a highly acclaimed playwright, it also enjoyed a sold-out run and won the Olivier Award in London.
Leopoldstadt is set in the Jewish community of early 20th-century Vienna and is a five-act story about a Jewish family that tries to assimilate into Austrian culture, yet is never fully able to do so. The title takes its name from the Jewish quarter of Vienna.
Members of the Merz/Jakobovicz family, as well as their extended families, appear in the first and second acts, which takes place at the turn of the 20th century. They are portrayed as somewhat traditional Jews and proud Austrians trying to blend into Austrian society. They are also confused by their identity, as is clear by the Star of David that a child places on their Christmas tree and are well-aware that they are always seen as “the other” by their fellow Austrians.
The third act depicts the family’s lives in the mid-1920s, post-World War I. They continue some Jewish traditions and are mostly fully integrated into Austrian culture, however, they are still seen by their fellow Austrians as outsiders. In the fourth act, the family is shown reacting to Kristallnacht in 1938, which they downplay, reasoning that they have faced and survived hostility as Jews before. Soon after, Nazis come to their door to evict them from their house.
In the fifth and final act, the play shows what remains of the family after the war in 1955. Out of the entire family, only three people have survived, including a young man who had been brought to Britain as a boy and assimilated into British culture to the degree that the only thing he knows about his Jewish identity is its existence. Stoppard, too, was transported to England as a young boy and did not learn about his family’s Holocaust experience until he was a grown man.
“With a cast of 38, the play is brilliantly composed and tremendously haunting. It tracks one European Jewish family across the devastating first half of the twentieth century,” commented Dr. Cynthia Wachtell, director of the Honors Program. “It is a masterpiece, and I am so grateful we were able to view it together.”
Many thanks to Vered Gottleib for her help with the writing of this article.