Leopoldstadt is the new and presumably last play written by Tom Stoppard. It tells the story of two families and spans four generations. While it explores themes of class, culture and religion, its primary question centers around the obligation family has to its members. Not just present but future and perhaps most importantly past.
Early in the play, the matriarch is showing the family photo album to her grandchildren. As she does so, other members question who is in each photo. The grandmother, recognizing that all of our days are numbered, laments ‘They say you die a second time, when your family forgets your name in an album.”
I was curious to learn the number of generations that have preceded me, so I googled, “How many generations of…” Before I could complete the query, google completed it for me. With results that showed the number of generations of iphones, ipads and ipods that have been manufactured to date.
Correcting the search results, I learned that the number of generations of “civilized humans” that have lived is estimated to be four hundred. This takes us back ten thousand years. While I’ve done ancestry.com, I can only go back six generations. Of which, I’ve only ever met three.
This remarkable PBS video shows that going back even further, there are probably at least ten thousand generations of humans that came before us.
Pause and consider that for a moment. Imagine all the lives lived, struggles overcome. The laughter, love, fear, sadness, wonder and joy felt by thousands of generations of your family whose very survival was the predicate for your own existence.
Years ago, I had the good fortune to take my family to Scotland, the land of our ancestors. On the Isle of Skye, I helped my children climb up a seaside hill to where the remnants of the McKinnon Castle stood. Standing there, I felt the same stones my ancestors did a thousand years ago and witnessed the same horizon. I still feel full of wonder and appreciation when I think of it and hope my children may feel the same way as they grow older.
Back to Leopoldstadt; its ending is both a gut wrenching and beautiful reminder of how critical it is to appreciate and remember those who came before us. Tears flowed reluctantly and unexpectedly throughout the crowd as the curtain closed. They were born not just of sadness but profundity – appreciating our collective and connective humanity.
You may not be able to visit the land of your ancestors or trace your family tree back more than a few generations. But perhaps you could reach out to the oldest generation in your family today, ask questions about those who came before, look through an old family album – and maybe help them “live again” by learning their names.