On October 26, Professor Tara Zahra and Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director Charles Newell discussed 20th century anti-Semitic laws in Central Europe and the historical structures that impacted Jewish families’ choices to stay in Austria or send their children to safety in the face of rising Fascism. Here are 10 takeaways from their conversation.
- Hermann’s aspiration for assimilation
At the turn of the century, the Austro-Hungarian empire was a large, multhnic empire where, in theory, one could be both an Austrian and a Jew, One didn;t have to choose, which made many in the Jewish population very loyal to the empire. Even Hermann, the fierce convert, doesn’t deny his background or abandon his family. There was a legal structure in the empire that promised a form of equality, but there was still a glass ceiling in the social world.
2. Austro-Hungarian Empire
Not a nation-state. A state that at the federal and state level recognized the diversity and rights of diff people to be equal citizens and preserve their different languages and traditions. For example, there were ten official languages of the empire, children had the right to be educated to a certain level in their native tongue. These laws created a context where there was coexistence to an extent, but also conflict. Vienna in particular draws p from across the empire who have aspirations to be in the center and have social mobility.
3. 1918 Law
The empire breaks into separate nation-states that aspire to be ethnically homogeneous. Vienna goes from being the capital of an empire to a capital without an empire. A ruling of the Austrian Supreme Court said that if one was a German speaking Austrian Jew who was living someplace in the former empire and they were coming to Vienna as a refugee from their state, they could not be considered an Austrian because they were identified as not belonging to the German race. This was a legalized form of racial exclusion.
4. The play depicts a small segment of Viennese society.
The Merz family are manufacturers who have enough money to be in the upper echelon of society where they can have artwork commissioned and engage in intellectual discussions that suggest a high quality education and awareness of cultural developments at the time. However, there were other Jews on every rung of the social ladder, being part of not only the elite but also the working classes. There were many different social and cultural experiences, and the play gives us a slice from that world.
5. The title
The title refers to the Jewish district of Leopoldstadt, but none of the play takes place in it. It is referenced, and there is a connection between it and the character Leo.
Intermarriage was a factor of religious conversion. The marriages between Jews and Catholicism represented the possibilities and limits of integration. Civil marriage was very rare where religious marriages were not. Jews could marry Catholics and convert Catholicism, which was accepted and resulted in Austria having a high rate of conversion of all the European states at the time. Conversion was also seen as a way to be further involved in high cultural life and opportunities.
7. Staying in Vienna after 1938
Most people did not leave because they could not. Access to visas was limited. As Stoppard points out in mentioning the Evian Conference, other countries would not let Jewish refugees in as they claimed they had quotas to follow. In the US, the State Department was anti-Semitic and ⅔ of the population was against letting Jewish refugee children in. For those who were reluctant to leave in Austria, it was a matter of family and money. They had their lives in Austria and people who had older family members who needed care meant that they were more inclined to stay.
8. Links to other Holocaust literature
The family portrayed in Leopoldstadt is upper middle class, a class status that is often true of well-known Holocaust literature we have. People of this class were literate and educated, so thus more likely to somehow document their experience via writing. Middle class assimilated Jews are often featured in media that depicts the Holocaust rather than Jewish Orthodox people, the elderly, and the poor. Children are also heavily featured in Holocaust memory culture.
Nathan’s character hints at the problems that survivors faced upon their return to their places of living from before. Nathan refers to living in a Displaced Persons camp at one point. These were US and British zones. The US had a Displaced Persons ACt that accepted Jews of certain backgrounds into the country, like farmers and anti-Communists. Other countries had other preferences of refugees they would let in, but everybody wanted laborers, not intellectuals. Jews faced obstacles in finding a new home, which explains the enthusiasm for Zionism in the Displaced Persons camp. Austria claimed to be the first victim of Hitler’s campaign, not an accomplice, which let it escape facing its own severe problems with Anti-Semitisim for some time. Jews were not treated as heroes or valued survivors upon their return. Some survivors wanted to talk of their experiences, but were silenced as no one would listen for a long time.
10. The size of the cast
The size of the cast is quite representative of the population it is representing. The Jewish population before WWII in Vienna was large and lively, full of unique individuals leading their own lives just as the family is. At the end of the play, only three survivors are left out of the 40 cast members, just as there were few survivors left in comparison to their numbers before, which reiterates the scale and tragedy of the Holocaust.
Tune into our next sessions of Deep Dive: LEOPOLDSTADT for our upcoming digital reading and more thought-provoking conversations!