Published in October 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
When I first got to know my father-in-law over 30 years ago he was deeply engaged in researching his family history. I regarded the project with priggish disdain, as a useless activity and a withdrawal from the world. My own father, who had come to this country from Vienna after the first world war, was the opposite of my father-in-law. He recalled his parents with affection, but never mentioned any previous forebears. This seemed to me altogether healthier.
Yet now that I am about the age my father-in-law was then, I find myself as intrigued by my family’s origins as he was by his. I realise that trying to unravel them, far from cutting one off from the world, helps to establish one’s context within it. My impression is that many others, as they move deeper into middle age, feel the same. While there is still time they want to find out what evolutionary line they fit into.
Sometimes the impulse is snobbish: a desire to establish a link with some famous figure bearing the same name. The Garter King of Arms and his colleagues have done good business responding to this impulse, and many coats of arms have been revived or claimed as a result. But more often individuals simply want to discover from whom and where they stem and whether it tells them something about themselves. If a heroic or romantic story is uncovered that is a bonus.
Surprises are likely to surface. My father-in-law, whose surname was Dobson, had supposed his family to be as English as could be. However, he found he had relations in France. Some of his 18th-century ancestors had been catholics. To escape the penal laws, one more enterprising than the rest had emigrated, not as one might expect to America, but to France. He was an expert in a then new technology connected with the manufacture of iron, which he was able to turn to profitable use in meeting Napoleon’s demand for armaments. Having moved up in the world he foolishly returned to England to visit his relations and was promptly clapped into jail.
My own stimulus was entirely external. Since all my father’s immediate family had, with his help, been able to get out of Austria to join him in Britain after the Anschluss and there were no other Tugendhats here, I na?ly supposed that we must be unique. In my teens I began to be asked if I was connected with Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat in Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia. No, my father said. The people who had commissioned it were distant cousins and anyway it all seemed a long way away.
Then when I lived in Brussels for some years I became aware of a famous German academic called Ernest Tugendhat and of other Tugendhats in France. My sister met Ernest, and my wife and I met one of the French Tugendhats, whose son came to stay on a memorably unsuccessful visit. On our return to London I received letters from Tugendhats in California and Nevada, asking if we were related. I was also telephoned by one who lives in S? Paolo, Brazil, with the same question. Finally, when we went to visit our younger son in Ecuador, a letter arrived at our hotel from an elderly Tugendhat lady living in Quito, saying she could not believe it when her daughter who worked in a travel agency had said that another Tugendhat had arrived from London.
All these people, it emerged, had one thing in common. They could trace their antecedents back to a town called Bielsko, now in Poland but which until 1918 was called Bielitz and was part of the Habsburg empire. My grandfather, too, had come from there before going to Vienna where my father was born. I felt I must get to the bottom of this.
My wife and I set off for Bielsko and great was my surprise when we got there. In the Jewish cemetery, which opened in 1842 and closed in 1939, 25 Tugendhats were buried. A massive house, now derelict, bore my name. A textile mill produced old cuttings and reports that showed it had once been owned by the family. None of my immigrant relations had given me any idea of this and since they were all now dead they could not answer my questions.
I contributed to the restoration of the cemetery and asked to be informed of whatever records they might find. I was also put in touch with a local historian whose life is devoted to tracing the origins of Jewish families from that region. With his help I am uncovering, layer by layer, generations of Tugendhats going back as far as 1800. The links with those who have made contact with me are gradually being revealed.
I am as riveted by the work as anyone unearthing the secrets of a lost civilisation. The details are of little interest to anyone outside the family, but they are my roots and I want to know about them. And what after all is history, if not the gathering together of infinite individual strands from which broad trends may be discerned and conclusions drawn about who we are and where we are going? n