Author Thomas Harding's fight to reclaim his family's German history
PUBLISHED: 09:23 21 December 2015
The writer tells Bridget Galton about his new book, The House By The Lake, which looks at the history of Germany through the families who lived in his grandmother's old house.
In 1993 Thomas Harding travelled to Berlin with his grandmother Elsie to see the lakeside house she called her “soul place”.
The wooden holiday home with brick chimneys was filled with happy memories of family summers before the war, swimming in the lake and entertaining friends.
Years later, while writing his acclaimed book Hanns and Rudolf, the Hampstead-raised writer returned to Germany to research the history of his Jewish family. The book, about Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoss and Harding’s great uncle, Hanns Alexander, who arrested him, made him realise that the family’s pre-war life had been wiped out – except for their house in Gross Glienicke, 15km west of Berlin.
“When I visited the house with Elsie it wasn’t in bad shape – there were tenants living there. But when I went back I was shocked by the state of it. It had graffiti, broken bottles everywhere and the back bedroom was a drug den. I was surprised by my reaction.
“This house that had barely survived was an emblem of the family’s survival. To see it like that was disturbing.”
But Harding’s relatives had no time for a country that had taken so much from them. His father, who lives in Hampstead, said: “Do you expect me to put my hand in my pocket when the house was stolen from us?”
It was the interest of the village community in rescuing the house that spurred him on.
“My family’s anger was legitimate and understandable. Growing up, no members would buy a German car or washing machine. But I thought if I can work with the local community, this is a real, extraordinary opportunity for reconciliation.”
He adds: “Elsie always had a sense of longing for Germany; she found it harder to adapt to Britain. She wanted to be a journalist but none of that happened here. This beautiful place had a powerful emotional hold on her.”
Harding’s The House By The Lake (Heinemann £20) is a history of Germany through the families who lived in the house – built in 1927 by Elsie’s father Alfred, a doctor whose clients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich. When the family fled in 1936 it was taken over by music publisher Will Meisel, who in turn had it seized from him under communist rule. East German families who lived there included a Stasi informer. In 1961 their views of the lake were marred for 25 years by the Berlin Wall in the garden.
The book is filled with their stories. The son of the wealthy German family who sold Alfred the land was a Brown Shirt whose band of extremist Right wingers terrorised the village. One occupant in 1989 ran over the death strip and swam 500 freezing metres to a West Berlin restaurant where he drank until 1am, then returned as his wife would be worried.
When Harding, who attended The Hall School, discovered the house was scheduled for demolition, he petitioned for it to have ‘denkmal’ status as a historic property and with a joint party of 60 villagers and 14 family members cleared the site. They now hope to restore it as a place of reconciliation.
“At first I wondered should I do anything? What changed it for me was the local people; they were researching the Jewish population of this tiny village and their interest was astonishing. I had grown up in a family that had strong anger towards Germans but this community was embracing and facing up to the past. I said ‘I will work with you and we will do it together.’
He adds: “The Meisel photographs of people in bathing costumes could have come from our own family albums. They also loved that house and also had it taken from them. At one point the villagers were amazed to see a photo of Elsie in tennis whites looking so German. They have all been so open hearted and this whole project has been transformative. We are all Germans all part of this story.”