In 2013 Thomas Harding published an award winning double biography, Hanns and Rudolf, about his great uncle Hanns Alexander, the son of a prosperous German family who fled Berlin for London in the 1930s, and Rudolf Hss, a farmer and soldier who became the Kommandant of Auschwitz and how their two very different lives intersected.
In the House by the Lake Harding has again mined his family experience – this time exploring the reason why his Alexander great grandparents fled Germany and the summer house they were forced to leave behind – and produced an equally original and highly personal take on this corner of history. The House by the Lake is the biography of a small wooden house with nine rooms, a long lawn and a vegetable patch, from the time it was built in 1927, through the Third Reich, Communism and reunification, until it was threatened with demolition in 2013, at which point the Harding and Alexander families, together with local historians and neighbours, decided to do whatever it took to preserve it. This involved large numbers of extended family flying out one weekend to undertake a major clean-up of the house, by then not merely derelict but piled high with mountains of smelly detritus, broken baths, blocked toilets and rotting floorboards inside and totally overgrown outside. In the last decade of its life the house had been used for wild drug parties and been vandalised. Nobody seemed to know who actually owned the house, which became known to the local authority as Parcel Number 101/7 and 101/8.
In 1927 Hardings great grandfather Dr Alfred Alexander, a fashionable Berlin doctor, and his wife Henny commissioned the house to be built as a place to escape the summer heat. It was the first weekend houseon Lake Glienicke, which soon became a popular location for such homes and the lifestyle the Alexanders and others established there, far from grand, forms part of theGerman-Jewish historyof 1920s and early thirties Berlin. The house was a meeting point for the cultural and intellectual eliteof Berlin with likely guests, Harding surmises, scientist Albert Einstein,impresario Max Reinhardtandphotographer Lotte Jacobi.
But in1936 Alexander and his four adult children were forced to fleefrom the Nazis and managed to get to England. They had had fewer than ten years to enjoy the pleasures of swimming in the lake and retreating for tea to the house on its shore. The rest of the book is about all the other families who subsequently lived in the house, interspersed with accounts of how Harding traced their descendants and their feelings for the house and connections to it. Shortly after the Alexanders left, a well-known composer and publisher, Will Meisel, and his actress wife Eliza Illiard and their young son lived there. But they never owned the land underneath the house. From 1952 the Fuhrmann and Khne families moved in, sharing the house for a while and living through the years when the Berlin Wall, dividing East from Western Europe, separated the house and lake. By the early 80s the Stasi had a large presence in the village of Gro Glienecke and inhabitants of the house were asked to join the Stasi.
Some of the most moving sections of the book are the insights into family cross currents which emerged during Hardings research. He writes of how his grandmother Elsie, for whom he says the house became an obsession – her soul-place – found it hard to adapt to her new country, England, never totally mastering the language nor the climate. She had left in a hurry in the wake of an unfulfilled love affair, and in 1940, by then mother of a son, her husband was interned in Britain as an enemy alien. In 1990, almost ten years after her husband died, Elsie is eventually reunited with her first love, now a widower in South Africa, and devotes three years of her life to caring for him before returning to England, one can only assume, to a degree fulfilled.
At first there was family resistance to further involvment with the house at all as it was a reminder of a painful experience for their ancestors. Yet, just a few months ago, following a second clean up day, Harding and his family reached an agreement with the city of Potsdam. The newly established Alexander Haus charity would in future manage the property and take responsibility for renovating the house and making it available to the public. The house is now officially protected but much work remains if it is to be properly restored and maintained as an education centre, or place of remembrance and reconciliation with some kind of permanent exhibition explaining its architecture and history.
Those looking for the excitement of a chase, the thriller-like elements that made Hanns and Rudolf such a gripping read, risk being disappointed by the new book, an altogether quieter affair dealing with an often rather dull and unexciting cast of characters. But that is also its strength. Hardings neutral tone as he tells the stories of a range of ordinary Germans – a nation which the British all too often treat simplistically as either Nazis or lager louts – falling in love, becoming pregnant, getting divorced, suffering in road accidents, is appealing. He writes engagingly and sympathetically about them all because what he cares about most is how they interact with the house of his great grandparents. Its an uplifting story too as it shows what can be achieved when people come together from different communities with a common purpose.
Anne Sebba is writing Les Parisiennes; How women lived, loved and died in Paris from 1939-49 due for publication in 2016