Most people who think of famous Czechs are likely to skip over one person. He has made quite a name for himself in the UK and worldwide, yet Tom Stoppard is Czech.
Stoppard was born in Zlín, in the former Czechoslovakia, in 1937. The city was (and, to a great extent, still is) dominated by Tomáš Baťa’s enormous shoe manufacturing company, famous around the world. His parents were Jewish, and, fortunately, his father worked for the Baťa company as a doctor. The then owner of the company, Jan Antonín Baťa, saw which way the political winds were blowing in the late 1930s. Baťa was able to post his Jewish employees to various outposts in countries outside occupied Europe, making them safe from the Nazi terror. Such was the case with Eugene and Martha Straussler and young Tomáš. The Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. That same day, the Straussler family escaped to Singapore.
When the Iron Curtain fell, Stoppard was able to learn what had happened to his relatives who had been unable to escape Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. All of his grandparents had perished in concentration camps; so had three of his mother’s sisters.
Singapore would not be a safe haven for long. In 1942, the Japanese invaded. By that time, Martha Straussler and her two sons were gone; they had been evacuated yet again, this time to Darjeeling, India. Eugen Straussler stayed in Singapore, volunteering as a doctor for the British Army. When Stoppard was four years old, his father died in Japanese-occupied Singapore.
In India – still a British colony – Tomáš Straussler was renamed Tom, and his brother Petr was renamed Peter. It was in India that Martha would meet and (in 1945) marry a British army major by the name of Kenneth Stoppard. The boys were given his surname, and in 1946, the whole family moved to England.
After leaving school at the age of seventeen, Stoppard began working as a journalist, while writing short radio plays. In 1958, the Bristol Evening World offered him a job which included work as a drama critic, bringing him into close contact with the world of the theater. In 1960, he completed his first stage play, A Walk on the Water (later retitled Enter a Free Man). It was a turning point in his career. In 1964, he received a grant from the Ford Foundation, which enabled him to write a one-act play that, later, was turned into his famous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This play opened on April 11, 1967, at the Old Vic, making Stoppard a household name virtually overnight.
Stoppard has translated into English the works of several Czech playwrights, including those of dissident and former president Václav Havel. He has written several screenplays, including The Russia House, Brazil (with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Poodle Springs, Anna Karenina, and an adaptation of his own play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He co-wrote Shakespeare in Love with Marc Norman, and it won the 1998 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.