In 2006, Thomas Harding attended the funeral of his great-uncle and learned that at the end of the war his relative changed from soldier to Nazi-hunter and was instrumental in tracking down the murderous Kommandant of Auschwitz. Stunned by this little-known detail, Harding went off to investigate. The result was one of the one of the most gripping factual accounts of 2013, “Hanns and Rudolf.”
Another hitherto unexplored chapter of Harding’s family history provides the basis for his latest book. On this occasion, however, he pans out to include four other families and the seismic upheavals that rocked and ravaged Germany in the 20th century. This may sound like an author biting off more than he can chew. In actual fact “The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History” is an epic, fact-filled, multivoiced saga told with pace, verve and warmth, and rich in fascinating revelations.
At the beginning, Harding explains how in 1993 he traveled with his grandmother to visit a small house by a lake in a village outside Berlin. It had been her family’s Weekend-Haus and her “soul place” until Hitler came to power and forced them all to leave. When Harding returned to the house two decades later, he found it in disrepair. A government official informed him that unless he could prove it was of cultural and historical significance it would be demolished.
Harding’s book is a record of how he supplied that proof by exploring the history of the house and its previous occupants. His first section concerns an enterprising landowner; his second a prosperous Jewish doctor — Harding’s great-grandfather, Alfred — who in 1927 leases land and builds a holiday home as a retreat from hectic Berlin. But Nazi Brownshirts soon train on the estate and the anti-Semitic climate steadily worsens. When Alfred’s name appears on a Gestapo arrest list, the family finally flees to England.
Their beloved house falls into the hands of a music publisher who uses the place as a safe haven during Allied air raids on the capital. But his business is bombed and he too absconds. As the Soviets take control and the country is divided, so too is the house, shared by two different families. The Berlin Wall is erected in front of it and for nearly 30 years the last tenants live in a lakeside house without a view of the lake.
Harding calls his book “a story of survival,” and through rigorous research, sleuth work and a range of interviews with key players he shows how one house stayed standing throughout a world war and the Cold War. He regales us with murder, espionage, de-Nazification trials and simple family drama, and at the end of his masterful tale we understand more about Germany’s difficult past and appreciate what makes a house a home.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The House by the Lake
By: Thomas Harding.
Publisher: Picador, 442 pages, $28.