The only thing I enjoy reading more than historical fiction is historical non-fiction and The House by the Lake* is one of those rare books that keeps you turning the pages even though you don’t want it to end. Author Thomas Harding (the original family name was anglicized from Hirschowitz) chronicles his family’s history in relation to a cottage in Germany built in 1929 by Harding’s great-grandfather, Doctor Alfred Alexander. Located on a small lake about twenty-five miles southwest of Berlin in a town called Groβ Glienicke the cottage serves as the main character for the story and a metaphor for the history surrounding it.
Dr. Alexander was a successful Jewish physician in Berlin after the First World War, whose famous patients included Alfred Einstein and Marlene Dietrich. As his fortunes improved, Dr. Alexander hired the same architect who designed his medical offices to design a weekend and summer country home for his growing family including his wife Henny and four children, Bella, Elsie and twins Hanns and Paul. As in Canada, these dwellings or cottages are not full-time residences and Dr. Alexander’s cottage is thereafter referred to in the book as “the lake house”.
The story actually begins in the late nineteenth century with a description of how the land on which the cottage was built was part of an estate that was later subdivided to permit the building of weekend homes on leased land. The early history is relevant as it impacts subsequent legal issues that arise surrounding ownership of the property and cottage. As the Nazis rise to power, the Alexander family is forced to flee Germany. With two daughters falling in love with and marrying British citizens, emigration to England was made possible for the entire family.
During the 1930s and 1940s the lake house was leased to various tenants according to the political climate at the time. Eventually it became obvious the Alexanders would have to give up on any claim on the cottage when the property became part of East Germany in the 1950s. An early temporary wall was built between the cottage and the waterfront which eventually became part of the Berlin Wall, a permanent concrete double-walled barricade blocking any access to and view of the lake.
When the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, Thomas Harding, the British great-grandson of Dr. Alexander became curious about the property and began researching and visiting the site over a period of several years. Although the family had given up pursuing any claims on the property, under German law any properties and buildings that had been unlawfully taken from original and legitimate Jewish owners as a result of Nazi persecution were deemed to remain titled to the original owners. Due to the progression of time and a series of increasingly disinterested tenants, the lake house had fallen in disrepair and was slated to be demolished. Harding recognized the historical significance of the building in Germany’s history and lobbied for it to be restored and made into a museum.
In a brilliant interpretation of “if these walls could talk”, the author carefully outlines the history of the lake house and the people who lived there over the years. We see the passage of time in the twentieth century in a small German community from the perspective of the people who were its owners, its occupiers and its tenants over a period of more than eighty years. The characters are well-defined, without judgement by the author and the carefully researched story is accompanied by original photographs and floor plans of the cottage as it evolved over the years. Subtitled One House, Five Families, and A Hundred Years of German History, The House by the Lake is quite simply a fascinating story and I hated to finish the book. An extensive section of footnotes at the end allowed me to learn even more after I finished reading the book. If you’re a fan of history and particularly how the history of Germany unfolded during the twentieth century, then you’ll love this book. I certainly did.
*Not to be confused with The Lake House, a book of fiction by Kate Morton.
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