The House by the Lake reveals the story of Germany through the inhabitants of one small wooden building: a nobleman farmer, a prosperous Jewish family, a renowned Nazi composer, a widow and her children, a Stasi informant. Read an extract from the new book by Thomas Harding.
In July 2013, I travelled from London to Berlin to visit the weekend house my great-grandfather had built.
Picking up a rental car at Schönefeld Airport on the city’s southern edge, I set off around the ring road. Following the example of other motorists, I stuck to the speed limit, before turning off at an exit next to a radio mast that looked a little like the Eiffel Tower. I continued on, past signs pointing towards the old Olympic stadium and the suburb of Spandau, and then left by a sprawling petrol station, and into the countryside. The road took me through a thick birch forest. Occasionally the trees broke to reveal flat, open farmland beyond. Somewhere to my left I knew the River Havel was flowing parallel to the road. It had been twenty years since I had last visited this place, and nothing looked familiar.
Fifteen minutes later, I turned right at a traffic light and saw a sign welcoming me to the village of Groß Glienicke. A few metres beyond, another sign marked what had once been a border crossing between West Berlin and East Germany. I slowed to a crawl. Half a kilometre further, I spotted the landmark I had been looking for, the Potsdamer Tor, a cream-coloured stone arch standing opposite a small fire station. I drove under the arch, and parked.
From here I wasn’t sure where to go. I didn’t have a map of the area, and there was nobody around to ask for help. Locking the car door, I walked a few paces down a narrow lane, overgrown with weeds and brambles, until I saw a green street sign for Alter Weinberg, or old vineyard. Was this it? Hadn’t the lane been sandy? I vaguely remembered a vegetable patch and a kennel, a neatly ordered garden and tidy flowerbeds. Fifty metres on, the lane suddenly stopped at a wide metal gate marked ‘Private’. Although wary of trespassing, I ducked under a strand of barbed wire and pushed my way through a field of shoulder-high grass, heading in the direction of what I guessed was the lake.
To my left stood a row of modern brick buildings. To my right stretched an unkempt hedge. And then, suddenly, there it was: the house. It was smaller than I remembered, not much larger than a sports pavilion or double garage, hidden by bushes, vines and trees. Its windows were patched with rotting plywood. Its almost flat black roof was cracked and covered with fallen branches. The chimneys seemed to be crumbling, close to collapse.
I picked my way round it slowly, touching flaking paintwork and boarded-up doorways, until I found a broken window. Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by 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. One room looked as if it had been used as a drug den, littered with broken lighters and soot-stained spoons, a table covered in candle wax. There was a sadness to the place, the melancholy of a building abandoned.
After a few minutes, I clambered back out of the window and walked towards the house next door, hoping to find someone to speak with. I was lucky, for a woman was working in the garden. I hesitantly introduced myself in broken German, and she responded in English. I explained that I was a member of a family who used to live at the house. Did she know, I asked, what had happened to it? Who owned it now? She shook her head. ‘It has been empty for over a decade’, she told me. She pointed towards the shore, ‘Did you know the Berlin Wall was built there? Between the house and the lake? It’s seen a lot,’ she said ‘but it’s an eyesore now.’ Confusingly, I appeared to be the focus of her anger. I only nodded, staring back to the house.
I have been told about the lake house, or ‘Glienicke’, all my life. It had been an obsession for my grandmother, Elsie, who spoke about it with wonder, evoking a time when life had been easy, fun and simple. It had been, she said, her soul-place.
My family, the Alexanders, had flourished in the liberal years of 1920s Berlin. Affluent, cosmopolitan Jews, theirs had been the values of Germany: they worked hard and enjoyed themselves when they could; attending the latest exhibitions, plays, concerts, and taking long walks in the surrounding countryside. As soon as they could afford it, they had built themselves a little wooden lake house, a symbol of their success. They had spent every summer at Glienicke, enjoying a rustic, simple life, gardening, swimming in the lake, hosting parties on the terrace. In my mind, I kept an image of the house, compiled from the sepia-tinted photographs I had been shown since childhood: a glistening lake, a wood-panelled room with a fireplace and rocking chair, a manicured lawn, a tennis court.
But with the rise of the Nazis, they had been forced to flee like so many others, moving to London where they had struggled to establish a new life. They had escaped when so many had not, but they left with next to nothing. In my family, this was Glienicke’s story: a place once cherished, then stolen, located in a country now reviled.
For as long as I can remember, my family had eschewed all things German. We didn’t purchase German cars, washing machines or refrigerators. We holidayed across Europe – to France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy – but never to Germany. I learned Spanish and French at school, even Latin, anything but German. The elder generation – my grandmother and grandfather, my uncles and aunts – did not speak of their life in Berlin, of the years before the war. It was a closed chapter. Any emotional connection to their lives from the 1920s had been severed. Reluctant to explore the past, they chose instead to focus on their new country, becoming more British than the British, sending their children to the best schools, encouraging them to become doctors, lawyers and accountants.
As I became older, I realised our relationship with Germany was not as black-and-white as I had been led to believe. My grandfather refused to speak another word of German from the day he arrived in England but my grandmother, Elsie, sometimes spoke of her old life and kept up her German, regularly chaperoning coachloads of German tourists around the country, pointedly eulogising Shakespeare, the Magna Carta, and what she called ‘British fair play’. From her memories, her comments, jokes occasionally spoken, I caught traces of a life now lost.
It was in 1993, four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that I had last seen the house. I was twenty-five years old, on a weekend trip to Germany with Elsie, and my cousins. She was ready, at last, to show us her childhood city. For us, the younger generation, it was a fun family excursion, a walk down memory lane with our grandmother. It was only on the aeroplane to Berlin that I began to see what the trip really meant – what this other life was. Halfway through the flight, my grandmother walked down the aisle and sat on my armrest. ‘Darling’, she said in her thick German accent, ‘I want you to see this,’ and handed me a brown envelope. Inside were three objects: the olive green Nazi-era passports belonging to her husband and father-in-law, and a piece of yellow fabric emblazoned with a black J. I knew that the Nazis had forced the Jews to wear such marks. The message was clear: this is my history, and this is your history. Do not forget.
And I didn’t forget. Upon returning to London, I began asking questions, seeking information about our family’s past, and why it had been so carefully covered up.
It was an interest that never abated. Which is why, almost two decades later, I had booked a flight to Berlin, to find out what had happened to my grandmother’s ‘soul place’.
The next day, I drove from Groß Glienicke to the local government offices in Potsdam, twenty minutes south of the village. There, in the basement of the courthouse I found an information desk staffed by an elderly woman busy at her computer. Pulling out my phrasebook, I haltingly asked for a copy of the house’s official land records. The woman informed me that I needed permission from the property owner to view the documents. When I explained that my great-grandfather had died in 1950, she only shrugged. I attempted to plead, and after producing my passport and credit cards, and sketching out a rough family tree, the woman finally relented, disappearing into a back room. Eventually she reappeared with a sheaf of papers. Jabbing her finger at the top page, she explained that the house and the land upon which it stands were now owned by the city of Potsdam. I asked what that meant – what was to become of the house? She turned back to her computer, and after typing in the lot and parcel number, swivelled the monitor to face me. ‘Es wird abgerissen,’ she said. It will be demolished. After an eighty-year wait, it looked like I had returned just in time to see the house destroyed.
Leaving her office, I looked at the list of government departments hanging on the lobby wall. One caught my eye: Einsichtnahme in historische Bauakten und Baupläne. I knew enough German to understand that Bau meant building and historische had something to do with history. I headed upstairs, entered a long corridor filled with similar-looking white doors, and knocked. Inside, I found two architectural preservationists, a tall thin woman in her forties, and a short bearded man of the same age. Asking first if they spoke English, I told them the little that I knew about the house, and the city’s plans to tear it down. Despite my sudden appearance, and my garbled explanation, they were polite and eager to help. The man grabbed a statute book from the shelf and leafed through the pages until he found the section that he was looking for. The ‘Castle Clause’, he said, holding the book out to me. If I didn’t want the house to be knocked down, he continued, I would have to prove that the house was culturally and historically significant.
Before I left Berlin, I returned to the house. Could it really be saved? I wondered. It would be an enormous task, not to say expensive. I spotted new details – broken shutters on the ground, rusted gutters, trees growing through its brick steps. I lived hundreds of miles away, and spoke little German. My life was busy enough. I had no time to take on another project and, in any case, it looked like I might be too late.
But more than this, should it be saved? Standing before me it seemed so unimpressive, a fragment from some half-forgotten memory. It was nothing really, barely more than a shell. Yet, there was something about the house, something intangible, something compelling. Most of all, it had been the focus of my grandmother’s attention for as long as I had known her. It had meant a huge amount to her, and she had made clear that it should mean a lot to us, her grandchildren, too. It would have been so easy to walk away.
This is the story of a small wooden house built on the shore of a lake near Berlin. A story of nine rooms, a small garage, a long lawn and a vegetable patch. It is a story of how it came to be, how it was transformed by its inhabitants, and how it transformed them in turn.
It is the story of a building that was loved and lost by five families. A story of the everyday moments that make a house a home – of morning chores, family meals around the kitchen table, summer afternoon snoozes and gossip over coffee and cake. It is a story of domestic triumphs and tragedies – of weddings and births, secret trysts and betrayals, illnesses, intimidation and murder.
It is also the story of Germany over a turbulent century. A story of a building that withstood the seismic changes that shook the world. For, in its own quiet and forgotten way, the house was on the frontline of history – the lives of its inhabitants ripped up and remade again and again, simply because of where they lived.
Above all, it is a story of survival, one that has been pieced together from archival material and building plans, recently declassified documents, letters, diaries, photographs and conversations with historians, architects, botanists, police chiefs and politicians, villagers, neighbours and, most importantly, its occupants.
This is the story of the house by the lake.
The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding (William Heinemann) is out now.