When is it time to leave — a neighborhood, a state or a country?
In “Leopoldstadt,” the new play by Tom Stoppard that opened on Broadway last month, the reluctance to pull up stakes proved tragic.
The family portrayed in the production — loosely based on Stoppard’s own ancestors — were Jewish and refused to leave Vienna in the years leading up to the Holocaust. Early on in the play, one of the characters is mocking Theodor Herzl for thinking that Jews who had achieved financial success and cultural clout would want to move to a homeland in Palestine. Even on the day of Kristallnacht, the extended family talks about how they have endured poor treatment at the hands of other leaders in other countries. This too shall pass, they believed.
Having just seen “Leopoldstadt,” I was startled to read the story of Angela Lansbury’s family. Lansbury, who died this week at the age of 96, was taken by her mother during the Blitz from their home in London to live in New York. Her father had died but she had two younger twin brothers, and apparently her mother was so concerned the Nazis might win that she was willing to uproot her whole family.
I asked the historian Andrew Roberts how typical this was — the move, not the fear — and he told me that “It was pretty common, as we needed fewer mouths to feed in the U.K., but surprising in that she was the daughter of the previous leader of the opposition.”
In other words, uprooting oneself is rarer among people who have money, who are part of the establishment and who have strong ties to the community.
Even for those with fewer material reasons to stay in a particular neighborhood or state or country, many still find it hard to leave. Why do people stay for generation after generation in poor or dangerous neighborhoods? It’s not always that they don’t have the financial resources to leave. It’s the attachment to the people there, the sense of belonging.
But if it means keeping one’s family out of danger, leaving home may be the only option. Lansbury herself apparently faced this decision when her own daughter was a teenager. According to her own account, the daughter started hanging out with the wrong crowd, including a young man who was encouraging her to use drugs and steal. The man turned out to be Charles Manson.
Lansbury told her husband they could no longer stay in Hollywood and moved the entire family to Ireland. She didn’t take any work for a time — until she felt confident her daughter had been extracted from this crowd. “We upped sticks and moved the family to a house I found in County Cork,” Lansbury said. “I was drawn to Ireland because it was the birthplace of my mother, and it was also somewhere my children wouldn’t be exposed to any more bad influences.”
Moving for the safety of one’s family is, in retrospect, an obvious decision. But in the moment, it is easy to see how a parent would just stay put and assume another solution would present itself. Changing states or countries is pretty drastic, and it’s probably good that most people don’t consider the option regularly. During COVID-19, it seemed as if many Americans became aware of their potential mobility for the first time and started to notice real differences in how their lives could play out in different states.
People in the U.S., it turns out, move more than Europeans. But we still move less often than we used to. In terms of a strong economy, of course, mobility is a good thing. Being able to pull up stakes quickly and regularly means you will be able to take the job that is most suitable and pays the best. Immigrants to this country are often willing to give up everything for the prospect of a better life, and they continue to be extraordinarily motivated once they get here. They sacrifice ties to extended family, culture or country in order to improve the lot of their own immediate family.
But individual mobility is not great for one’s social life. People’s willingness to commit to institutions, to assume that they will be living where they are for the long haul, is vital to building strong and vibrant communities. Ultimately, every parent needs to decide for his or her family when it’s time to leave home. The depth of their roots can make those decisions much harder, and as both “Leopoldstadt” and Lansbury’s life show, leaving — and staying — can have both tragic and positive consequences.