When Thomas Harding visited Germany in 2013 to see the vacation home that loomed so large in family memory, the place lay in ruins.
Harding’s great-grandfather, Alfred Alexander, had built the lakeside cottage in 1927 in the village of Gross Glienicke. But now its windows were patched with plywood, its roof cracked, its chimneys crumbling. Inside, Harding writes, were “mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.”
Far from deterring Harding, this unsavory vista seems to have sparked his imagination. “The House by the Lake” meticulously chronicles two linked feats of reclamation: the author’s reconstruction of the house’s life and times and his quest to restore the building itself.
The British journalist has mined family history before in “Hanns and Rudolph” (2013). In that dual biography, he chronicled the intersecting lives of his great-uncle, Hanns Alexander, a war-crimes investigator, and Rudolf Höss, commandant of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, whom Alexander would eventually capture.
In “The House by the Lake,” Harding returns to the saga of his prosperous German Jewish clan. Alfred Alexander was a Berlin physician whose patients included Albert Einstein, Marlene Dietrich, and the theater director Max Reinhardt. One day, another patient, Dorothea von Wollank, told him that her husband, Otto, was looking to lease land on his estate just outside Berlin.
On one such plot, Alexander constructed his cottage — a charming nine-room retreat adorned with Delft tiles and featuring a tennis court and lake access. There his four children would swim and play; the doctor would garden; and his wife, Henny, would sleep in and assemble their meals. Harding’s grandmother Elsie remembered the house as a place where “life had been easy, fun and simple.”
With Hitler’s ascension in 1933, the idyll ended. In the mid-1930s, the Alexanders all managed to flee Germany and resettle in England. They never sold the house, but in their absence, it became home to a succession of other families — and, Harding suggests, an emblem of Germany’s turbulent 20th-century history.
The principal achievement of “The House by the Lake” is Harding’s portrayal of the ordinary lives, loves, and foibles of the people who passed through the house. He manages to show, too, how historical currents carried them along, channeling them into Nazi Party politics, Stasi spying, and other not entirely voluntary pursuits. This is a tale of multiple dispossessions, but also of adaptation and resiliency.
Harding begins with a sketch of the original estate owner, Otto Wollank (he added the “von” after being knighted). But the narrative acquires more urgency when he turns to his own family and the darkening political situation that disrupted their lives.
After the Alexanders’s departure, they leased the house to August Wilhelm Meisel, a successful composer and music publisher. Before the Nazi period, nearly all the lyricists and composers Meisel signed were Jewish. He was neither anti-Semitic nor a Hitler acolyte.
But he was intent on his own survival. So, like many, Meisel adapted, joining the Nazi Party in 1933, courting the patronage of top Nazi officials, and seeking to profit by purchasing Jewish-owned businesses. He offered the Alexanders a lowball price for their lake house, which they rejected. And when the Gestapo confiscated the house, he bought it and sought refuge there during the intense Allied bombing and evacuation of Berlin. But facing conscription, he fled to Austria and gave the house key to his company’s creative director, Hans Hartmann.
Hartmann, a talented arts administrator, had suffered because of his refusal to divorce his Jewish wife. He saw the lake house as a sanctuary, even though its lack of insulation made it frigid in winter, and food supplies were scarce. After the Soviet invasion, he and his wife returned to Berlin — on foot.
Harding’s description of the Soviet military’s arrival is vivid and horrifying. He recounts the mass rape of the town’s women, including one who was commandeered as a sex slave. In time, Gross Glienicke was ravaged by Cold War politics as well. The boundary between West Berlin and East Germany ran down the lake’s center, dividing the village. And, in 1961, a portion of the Berlin Wall was constructed between the Alexander house and the lake, making swimming impossible and turning the area into an almost inaccessible border zone.
By then, Meisel, who successfully underwent “denazification,” was settled in West Berlin and cut off from the lake house. In 1952, he entrusted it to a caretaker, Ella Fuhrmann, a widow with two children. Because of the East German housing shortage, the Fuhrmanns were soon asked to share the house with another family, Wolfgang and Irene Kühne and their two children.
Wolfgang, who would reside there for four decades, was a military truck driver, a lackluster Stasi informant, and a builder who made many alterations to the house. He was also a violence-prone alcoholic, who eventually divorced and remarried. After his death, the house deteriorated — at the hands of two rowdy teenagers, drug-addicted squatters, and, finally, a family of foxes.
For the surviving Alexanders, Harding says, the lake house represented “a place once cherished, then stolen, located in a country now reviled.” For Harding, though, it suggested the possibility of reconciliation, of bridging past and present — and, in the end, the force of his vision triumphs.
THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE:
One House, Five Families,
and a Hundred Years of German History
By Thomas Harding
Picador, 442 pp., $28
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward. Follow her @JuliaMKlein.