Michael Lambek’s new book Behind the Glass: The Villa Tugendhat and Its Family traces the transformations in the life of the Tugendhat family, from their roots in a Jewish ghetto to part of the wealthy bourgeoisie in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to adaptation in interwar independent Czechoslovakia and flight in the face of Nazi invasion. Read Lambek’s Q&A interview below:
1. What was it like to write about the history of your own family, particularly your maternal grandmother Grete Tugendhat? Tell us about the balancing act of writing as an insider/family member and as an outsider/anthropologist?
As I describe in the book, it was indeed a balancing act! I wanted to produce an objective and fair account, but as a family member myself, my position within the family and my subjectivity are part of the story. My feelings about some family members, including my very impressive grandmother, were somewhat ambivalent. I wanted to do justice to these people but also not to fully disguise the feelings involved. An account of a family that occludes the ambivalence that inevitably characterizes relationships within it is hardly complete. In addition, I wanted to write the book both for family members and for a general audience, but I also had in mind fellow anthropologists and other academics. So, I had in effect three constituencies to please and that too required some balancing, balancing that may have veered too far to one side or another for various readers.
2. Tell us about the research process for this book. Was it challenging to compile all the information needed for a project like this? What were some of the resources you drew upon?
Early responses to the book have praised me for the amount of research conducted, but to be honest, it wouldn’t pass the test of most historians. I relied far too heavily on the Internet, although that often turned up surprises that I probably wouldn’t have discovered any other way. The main sources were knowledge I had growing up and questions I started asking various relatives beginning in the 1980s when I first conceived of the project. I drew extensively on a master’s thesis written in German about my grandmother’s cousin Paul Löw-Beer, a wonderful man who was simultaneously son of the patriarch, industrial capitalist, and minor Communist agent. I drew as well on short memoirs written by a few family members and my aunt and uncle’s scholarly book on the Tugendhat villa. I found a few old letters but felt uncomfortable reading the more personal ones and did not seek them out systematically. I had two other major sources. Thanks to the support of German scholars and permission from Ernst Tugendhat and Arnulf Heidegger I was able to read correspondence between Ernst and Martin Heidegger in the German Literary Archives in Marbach. And finally, I conducted ethnographic research, both autoethnography during a family reunion hosted by the city of Brno and on a subsequent trip to Brno to interview city officials, curators, and others about how they viewed the family legacy.
3. What are you hoping the impact of the book will be on your audience?
As I said, I envision multiple audiences. I hope general readers will find the story as powerful as Simon Mawer’s fictional account in The Glass Room and will appreciate the history of a multi-generational European family that was engaged with some of the more compelling events, movements, artifacts, and personalities of late-nineteenth and twentieth century Central Europe. Other readers might engage with the questions raised about the nature of family and how to write about it. Some readers will want to turn simply to the architecture, others to Heidegger’s relationships with Jewish students, others to the emergence and decline of the textile industry and its magnates, or to the travails of Jewish assimilation.