Leopoldstadt, a play by Tom Stoppard, and Sunshine, a film directed by István Szabó. Review by David Merkowitz
In 2003, I took my first trip to Italy, where I hit many of the big tourist spots in Pisa, Venice, and Rome with my future wife. We did a lot of the usual Venice things like visiting St. Mark’s, the Doge’s Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs. We also visited the first ghetto, which is located not far from the train station that serves tourists visiting Venice. In 1516, the Doge of Venice forced all Jewish residents to live in just a small quarter of the city. The very word ghetto is derived from that copper smelting that had occurred there prior to it becoming the Jewish quarter. This method of allowing Jews to reside in the urban communes of Europe but with remarkably limited rights would be how Christian Europeans handled their Jewish population—when they didn’t expel them as England and Spain had—right up until the French Revolutionary era.
As we walked around the former ghetto, we happened upon a neat little Judaica shop that had a variety of Venetian glass Jewish items. We purchased a small Venetian glass Menorah for my dad.
The family memory is a bit fuzzy, but within a year or two after our return from Venice, the family gathered around the table to celebrate Hanukkah and light the candles held by the glass Menorah. Sadly, as the evening ended my father reached to put it away and it tipped over and cracked. For the next 15 years, it sat in a box waiting to be fixed. In the intervening years, my dad was laid low by Alzheimer’s before passing away in 2017.
Before the COVID-times, my mom had the Menorah repaired. It was delivered in a large box in late October filled with packing peanuts to keep it safe. And so, for the first time in many years, we will get out the Venetian menorah to commemorate Hanukkah. To be safe we will use a nice sterling silver one for the eight nights, but for one night we will light the candles and say the prayers over this piece from far away and from a place of pain and significance.
In these strange and troubling times when history seems shadowed by all the darker moments, I have spent time with Tom Stoppard’s brand new and possibly final play, Leopoldstadt. It premiered in February in London just as COVID was bearing down on us all. I have also been turning over in my mind, the film Sunshine (1999) by the Hungarian Director István Szabó and written by Israel Horovitz and Szabó.
Both pieces explore the strange and tragic trajectory of so many Jews in German-speaking lands across the 19th and 20th centuries. In each case, the narrative traces a dramatic arc of the rise and seeming assimilation of these Jewish families into central European society followed by not just the fall of those families but the very destruction of a part of that civilization that seemed so solid and even a part of the normal.
Central and Eastern Europe was a patchwork of peoples until the twentieth century. The cities were often dominated by Germans, usually a part of the imperial regime of the Habsburgs and Prussians. The countryside was a mixed variety of ethnic nationalities, some age-old, some discovering a separate identity only more recently. The Ashkenazi Jews of the world were the most intermixed. World War II and the Holocaust remade the map. This diverse menagerie of people was forcibly homogenized through displacement and destruction. The achievement of these new uniform nationalities crept forward with ever greater finality brought on by each passing calamity.
After World War II, Stoppard explores how Austria settled into the comforting myth that the country was the first victim of Nazism. This covered over so much collaboration and murderous criminality. In Szabó’s Hungary, the Iron Curtain kept Hungary under the domination of a Communist regime and the Soviet Union. For a time, the worker in the communist collective sense tried to replace these ever more uniform nationalities. But then Communism ended. Stoppard and Szabo draw their stories to a close well after the destructive forces and totalitarian regimes have passed away. Standing among the ruins, the memories of survivors keep these once solid and seemingly permanent lives alive for one last time.
For most of my life, this foreboding sense that at any moment the darkest forces could overtake us all, and some descendant far in the future would look back to my life as a golden age of sorts seemed far-fetched and overly dramatic. Escaping that feeling is part of why my ancestors came to America 100+ years ago. Sadly, the last few years has forced me to realize that the United States is no different, that the same dark forces that tore apart the ancient empires of central Europe could arise here and destroy the lives we each try to make for ourselves and our families.
And so, when my family gathers around the Menorah this year, it will be with a heavier heart and a little more fear, a need to look over my shoulder more often. Instead of hope or joy, I want to offer a note of caution. We must always be on guard to assure that we see our fellow human beings as people deserving of rights, hopes, and dreams. When humanity forgets that —as it so often does—the misery we are willing to inflict upon each other is boundless.