Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"The House by the Lake" by Thomas Harding

My family has never owned a cottage (or cabin, or camp, or summer house, or whatever you want to call it) -- but I have spent time at cottages belonging to friends over the years, and I understand their allure and the emotional power they can hold. Here in Ontario, "the cottage" holds a sacred place in the lives of many families, passed down from one generation to the next. On summer Friday afternoons, the highways are jammed with people heading north (and east) to "cottage country" (and then back to the city again on Sunday night). (These days, of course, some cottages are as big as houses, built to operate year-round, with all the modern amenities -- and just as expensive as a "regular" house, too... but I digress...!)

I love stories about old houses and family history, and about how people lived through the First and Second World Wars. So I was predisposed to enjoy "The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History" by Thomas Harding. I first saw it in hardcover in the bookstore last summer, but resisted temptation until the paperback was published this July.

As the subtitle would suggest, the book covers (more than) a century of German history.  But it's so much more than a recitation of historical facts. This is not just the story of a country, but also the story of a house on a lake (Gross Glienicke Lake) near Berlin, and the families who lived there -- and loved it,
  • The property was originally owned by a family called von Wollank, who purchased it as part of an entire estate in 1890, and then leased lakefront lots for development as a way to make money in the lean years of the 1920s.   
  • While the von Wollanks continued to own the land, the lake house of the story was originally built in 1927 and owned by Alfred Alexander, a prominent Jewish doctor. His family enjoyed most weekends and summers at the lake house, swimming, boating, playing tennis and tending to their garden, until the growing restrictions on Jews under Adolf Hitler forced them to flee to England in 1936.  
  • Eight months later, in 1937, the Alexanders' lawyer leased the lake house to Will Meisel, a prominent composer and music publisher, and his wife, Eliza Illiard, a music-hall singer and film actress. By 1940, the Alexanders' property had been seized by the Third Reich, which continued to own the land, but sold the lake house at a fraction of its true worth to the Meisels. 
    • In 1943, the Meisels went to Austria to avoid Will's conscription, leaving the house in the care of his business associate, Hans Hartmann, and his Jewish wife, Ottilie Schwartzkopf. They too left the house at the end of the war, when Soviet troops began arriving in the area and terrorizing the villagers. 
    • The Meisels returned to West Berlin in the fall of 1946, and purchased the land the lake house sat on from the village of Gross Glienicke in 1947 -- but bad roads, petrol shortages, and the numerous British and Soviet checkpoints made it difficult to access the property. In 1948, the Soviets erected a blockade around West Berlin, and in 1949, Germany was formally divided. In May 1952, the border was closed between the two Germanys.  
  • Unable to visit the lake house after the border closed, Will Meisel asked a local widow and mother of two, Ella Fuhrmann, if she would like to stay there as caretaker.  Although the house had not been insulated against the winter cold, the Fuhrmanns lived there for the next six years. It soon became clear the Meisels would not be returning.  
  • In 1958, the local council decided that another family should share the lake house with the Fuhrmanns -- Wolfgang and Irene Kuhne and their two children. In August 1961, construction began on the Berlin Wall -- directly behind the lake house, cutting off the families' view of and access to the lake. The Furhmanns moved out in February 1965, leaving the Kuhnes as the sole tenants for the next 30+ years. After the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, Wolfgang and his step-grandson Roland hacked a hole in the wall behind the lake house, and stepped through to see the lake for the first time in more than 25 years. (The rest of the local wall was dismantled in the summer of 1991.)  
In 1993, Elsie Alexander Harding, whose family had built the lake house, brought several of her grandchildren -- including the author -- to see her "soul place" for the first time since she left Germany in 1936. Wolfgang Kuhne was still living there, but died in 1999. Roland continued to live -- and party -- in the house with some of his friends, until 2003, when he was evicted by the City of Potsdam, which planned to redevelop the site.

When Thomas Harding returned to Gross Glienicke in 2013, 20 years after his first visit, he found the house still standing but abandoned, derelict and about to be torn down. Could it be saved? Should it be saved?

I won't give any more away -- but I thoroughly enjoyed this well researched & written book -- its unique perspective on the events of the past 100+ years, on life behind the Iron Curtain, and the personal stories of the families who lived in the house -- and I was a little sad to see it end. Even the notes section is worth reading for the additional details it contains, as well as the closing acknowledgements, where we find out what has happened to some of the people in the story.

For more information on the book, the house and its future, visit AlexanderHaus.org .

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Reading Harding's author profile on Goodreads, I learned he was the author of several other books, including one called "Kadian Journal." A title with the word "journal" in it almost always piques my curiosity, and I clicked over to find out more about the book. Imagine my surprise when I read:
In July 2012 Thomas Harding's fourteen-year-old son Kadian was killed in a bicycle accident. Shortly afterwards Thomas began to write. This book is the result. 
Beginning on the day of Kadian's death, and continuing to the year anniversary, and beyond, Kadian Journal is a record of grief in its rawest form, and of a mind in shock and questioning a strange new reality. Interspersed within the journal are fragments of memory: jewel-bright everyday moments that slowly combine to form a biography of a lost son, and a lost life. 
It is an extraordinary document, and several things at once: a lucid, raw, and startlingly brave book: a powerful and moving account of a father's grief, and a beautiful tribute to an exceptional son. 
Another book to add to my wish list (and from there to my immense to-be-read pile...!)!

*** *** ***

Another book by Harding: "Hanns and Rudolf," about how Hanns Alexander, a German Jew in the British Army, hunted down Rudolf Hoess, the Kommandant of Auschwitz, after the war, and brought him to justice. Hanns Alexander was Harding's great-uncle, the younger brother of his grandmother Elsie. Hanns briefly visited the lake house in 1945 as the war was ending, the only member of the family to see it between 1936, when the family left for England, and 1993, when Elsie returned with her grandchildren.

This was book #14 that I've read so far in 2017, bringing me to 58% of my 2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I am currently 2 books behind schedule to meet my goal. :p  ;)


  1. Another great book review - thank you so much! I don't know if you remember me, I posted here only once I think when you asked us to "delurk" :). I am German and I lived at Potsdam, near Lake Glienicke for a year in 2001. I took a hike along the former Berlin wall then and I remember these houses at the lake that were literally surrounded by the wall.
    So I will definitely look out for this book! - So often your posts remind me of my Canadian friends living in Toronto and my wonderful holidays in Ontario and the Maritimes (and my major Lucy Maud Montgomery obsession...) - for example, I loved your post about Niagara on the Lake, because I spent a happy day there with my friends in 2005. And now you post about a place where I used to live! This is a really nice coincidence! Looking forward to the next book review! Annette

    1. Wow, that really is a cool coincidence!! It really was a good book, & I hope you think so too if you read it. Thank you for the nice words -- I am glad you de-lurked again! :)

      P.S. I still have to make it to PEI (maybe next year...!) -- but did you ever see my post about my visit to Leaskdale, where Lucy Maud Montgomery lived for several years?


    2. Dear Lori, yes I read and enjoyed your post about Leaskdale - especially since I could not drag my dh there when we visited our friends at Toronto... to be fair, he went to ALL the Lucy Maud Montgomery places on PEI with me and also stopped at Bala/ Lake Muskoka for me (unfortunately the museum there was closed that day...). I'm looking forward to reading about your journey to PEI!