Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time reading books I would have avoided a few years ago… books about Germany in the 20th century. The emotional toll was just too high. But, despite my anxiety about going down that road, a number of interesting and informative books have been published lately, and I felt it was time to understand that part of history. “The House by the Lake” by Thomas Harding subtitled.. Berlin, One House, Five Families, A Hundred Years of History… was handed to me by good friends, and I’m so glad they did. The book draws you in from the start, and keeps you intrigued until the last page. This is not a book about politics, not a book about evil, not a book about who is right and who is wrong… it’s a book about a house, and the people who lived there… and how their lives were affected by the events of the 20th century.
The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding
Thomas Harding the great-grandson of the original owner of Glienicke, the House by the Lake, describes his quest to find the house again, not to own it, rather, to preserve it. To let help the house stand as a memory of a time that used to be. Thomas’s Grandmother, Elsie, spent summers at the house on Groß Glienicke Lake… on the edge of Berlin.
The land around Groß Glienicke lake was owned by the Wollack family, and part of a huge estate. Alfred Alexander (Harding’s Grandfather) was a wealthy Jewish doctor in Berlin, a WW1 Veteran and hero, who leased a plot land, and built a rustic summer house in view of the lake, with access to the water. The house was close enough to the city to commute if needed, but far enough from the center to provide a real break from the bustle of Germany’s capitol.
Glienicke was not your typical “German style” home. It was built without insulation from simple materials. Rooms were small and the children’s bedrooms had “pull down” beds or bunk beds. The dining area was an L-shaped bench around a table, and there was an open fireplace in the corner. French doors showed off the primary focus of the home, the outdoors. This was a place where kids could roam free, splashing in the water and adventuring in the woods. And it was also a place for the adults to really let their hair down, to wear comfortable clothes, and live with fewer restrictions. Life at Glenieke was idyllic.
Political Changes, and a New Family in the House
The original owner, Alfred Alexander always assumed that his military service in WW1, and his status in the City as a prominent doctor, would make him immune to Jewish persecution, but it was not to be. The Alexandar family left for England, and composer August Meisel and his wife moved in.
In time, 5 families would have an impact on the little house. It survived active families, bombing raids, and the Russian Army. It remained standing when the Wall was built across the backyard, separating it from the lake.
The Border between East and West ran right down the center of the Lake…
When Thomas Harding was able to find the home again, it was a filthy mess. The last tenant used the cottage as a party house, and the locals wanted the eyesore torn down. Still, there was hope. The building was still structurally sound… and contained beautiful architectural elements. Harding was able to convince his family to lend a hand, and they managed to clean the house, and convince the city that the little house at Groß Glienicke lake was worth saving.
What makes this book so fascinating is how much information there is about the lives of ordinary people who lived in the house. These weren’t particularly famous people, yet Harding was able to piece together the stories of their lives through research and interviews. The composer, the Stasi informant, even the children who lived in the house are fleshed out and made real. And central to it all… there is a house.
The House by the Lake is a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times. I think part of what drew me to the story, is the parallels to my own life. My mother had to leave the home her grandfather built in Silesia, and today a Polish family lives there. Do they ever wonder about the people who lived there before?
Buy Your Copy of The House by the Lake Here
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