Friday, October 21, 2016

THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE by Thomas Harding (non-fic)


Thomas Harding, a British journalist has written an absorbing account of a house on the shores of Gross Glienicke Lake between Potsdam and Berlin.  If you are fascinated by old houses and wonder who lived there and what dramas took place, then you will love this book as much as I did.  Five families occupied this house through its history, each family with their own particular loves, fears, illnesses, and crisis, yet each family took shelter, pleasure and comfort from the house. The house always possessed something magical which drew people to it, especially the children who lived there.  To them it was a paradise of waiting adventures to be had on both the land and the water.  The author's grandmother said it was her "soul place."

The first owner of the large piece of property the Lake House is built on was Otto Wollank, a gentleman farmer who built a large house and built up a model farm as the 19th century drew to a close.  By the end of World War I, the farm was losing money and Wollank began to sell off parcels of land to wealthy Brandenburg professionals during the 1920s.  The economy was stabilizing and Berlin was again a center of learning, society and nightlife.  The author's great-grandfather and his family now enter the story.  Alfred Alexander, a brilliant physician had just been elected to the Berlin Chamber of Physicians, a high honor which brought him many notable patients; Nobel Prize winners like Albert Einstein, actress like Marlene Dietrich, his services were in high demand.  The Alexanders were drawn to the lake as an escape from the pressures of city living.  The Bauhaus Movement was changing people's minds about architecture and drawing them away from opulent ornate homes to simpler functional designs.  This was just the type of home, Alfred wanted for his retreat.  The Lake House brought years of happiness to the Alexanders through the 1930s until the end of the Weimar Republic.  With the rise of the Third Reich and its suppression of Jews, the family realized it was time to leave. They fled to England, never to return.

Alfred leased the house to Willy Meisel a famous composer and musical arranger and his actress wife.  The Meisles stayed until 1944 when events forced them to leave.  Meisel's creative director, Hans Harmann then moved in with his Jewish wife, an opera singer.  The Lake House was a refuge for them, and they peacefully remained until the end of the war and the partition of Germany.  Choosing not to live under communism, they fled to West Germany.  The house was then taken over by Wolfgang Kuhne and his family.

With the takeover of the Soviets and the partition of Berlin, the lake and area, quickly declined.  The house also was a victim of this decline.  The Berlin Wall separated the two banks of the lake, and those on the Eastern side, no longer had access to the lake or its views.  A barbed-wire fence and the wall separated them from any enjoyment of the shore.  Yet the beauty of the lake was unchanging, hidden by the wall but alway there, waiting for liberation.

Harding first saw the house and lake in 1993 when he was a student. His grandmother, Elsie, who grew up there took all her grandchildren to visit the house.  It is a poignant and bittersweet moment for the Alexander family.

There are some wonderful home movies of the Alexanders available on YouTube showing the house throughout its history, not to be missed if you read the book.

I loved this book and highly recommend it to all readers.  It was a prize winner and best seller in Europe.  It is an excellent choice for all book groups.

No comments:

Post a Comment