It was my mother who first encouraged me to read Thomas Harding’s ‘The House by the Lake’. She left it in our flat, a few months after we’d moved to Berlin. Foolishly, it took me a while to pick up this extraordinary book. But when I finally did, it was hard to put down. 100 years of German history condensed into a few hundred pages and all centred around a small summer house not far from Berlin.
That house was built in the village of Groß Glienicke outside Potsdam. From the descriptions and the old photos, it was pretty idyllic. Not the most beautiful of properties, but situated in stunning surroundings with a lake at the bottom of the garden. All perfect – until the Nazis forced Jewish families such as Thomas Harding’s to leave Germany altogether. And that meant leaving The House by the Lake.
Harding has done sterling work in uncovering what became of the house and who went on to live there. Residents included a German musician who composed for the Nazis and a family who discovered the foundations of the Berlin Wall being built at the bottom of the garden. Once erected, the wall not only blocked access to the lake but also the views. It’s incredible to think what history this house has seen.
If it hadn’t been for Thomas Harding’s tenancity and perserverance, the house, which had lain empty and almost forgotten for several years, would probably be no longer. With the help of villagers from Groß Glienicke he persuaded members of his own family and council officials in Potsdam that this was a house – and a story – worth saving.
A few days ago I was fortunate enough to hear Harding give a talk about the book at the British Embassy here in Berlin. We discovered just how important the house had been for his own Grandmother, Elsie, up until her death – even though she had been forced to flee it all those years ago. We learnt that the family was going to celebrate the Jewish Shabbat the following night – the first time the Sabbath had been marked at the property in more than eighty years.
Through a charity that’s been set up, the house is being slowly restored and will become a centre for education and reconcilliation. The aim is to keep alive the history of what went on there and to ensure lessons from the past aren’t forgotten. I’m looking forward to visiting the house myself because this is a story that really is worth telling.