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Tom Stoppard

The playwright who loathes the left

Tom Stoppard in 1967. Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Tom Stoppard was born twice, says Alan Yentob in Radio Times. In 1937 he came into the world as Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia. In March 1939 the Nazis arrived. The Strausslers fled to Singapore, then Darjeeling, British India. After his father, Eugen, was killed by the Japanese, his widowed mother, Marta, married a British army officer, Ken Stoppard. The Strausslers were no more.

In England they started anew. The bucolic “ideal of England” captivated the young Stoppard. In his twenties he was hailed as an equal of Oscar Wilde and Franz Kafka. The National Theatre’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was a hit. And so he turned his ire on the English left. “At some point I began to resent my sanctuary being pissed on by everybody I knew,” the 84-year-old recalls. “Thanks a bunch… [without the UK] I would have been in communist Czechoslovakia now.”

In 1993 his cousin Sarka visited and learnt that he knew nothing about the Strausslers. “You are completely Jewish,” she said. Then she showed him, on a napkin, how almost all of his closest relatives, including his grandparents and three aunts, had died in Auschwitz and other camps. His traumatised mother had never told him.

Twenty years later he told producer Sonia Friedman he was working on a new play, Leopoldstadt. It opened to rave reviews before the pandemic and has returned to the West End. Its Jewish protagonist, Leo, doesn’t know his own history. I felt I had “the charmed life”, says Stoppard. The play’s message to self was: “This is what happened to your family and you just swanned along with a different name, a different nationality. Wake up!”