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In The House by the Lake, Thomas Harding chronicles the history of the summer lake house his Jewish great grandparents built near Berlin in the 1920s. He also weaves in one hundred years of German history and its impact on the house’s different residents, creating a fascinating story.
I read The House by the Lake as part of the 2022 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. October’s challenge was to read a book that takes place in Germany in honor of Oktoberfest. (Let’s just ignore the fact that the big Oktoberfest in Munich actually takes place mostly in September.)
Harding’s great grandfather, Alfred Alexander, was a successful physician in Berlin, treating well-known patients such as Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich. To escape the heat and crowds in Berlin, he and his family decided to build a simple summer house on the shore of a lake in Groβ Glienicke, a suburb of Berlin. The family spent many idyllic summers here and Elsie, Alfred’s daughter and Thomas’s grandmother, remembered it fondly and frequently spoke about it to her grandchildren.
Life at the lake house came to an abrupt and horrific end when Nazi persecution of the Jews forced the family to flee to England. The Nazis confiscated the property and sold it to a music producer for a fraction of the value. All told, there were five different families that lived at the lake house until it was abandoned in the two thousand teens and taken over by the city of Potsdam.
Through the years, the lake house was in the thick of twentieth century German history. For example, a military airfield was built next to the lake and made the village’s safety precarious during World War II. At the end of the war, the British took over the airfield and it became central to the success of the Berlin airlift.
The lake house was also impacted by the Soviet occupation. While the lake was considered part of West Berlin and West Germany, the lake house and most of the village were within East German boundaries. In fact, when the Berlin Wall was erected, it was within meters of the lake house and cut off access to the lake.
The author weaves this history in with the stories of the residents, which made the history very personal. For example, one of the residents who had lived in the house for decades during the communist regimes was terrified of being displaced by a West German returning to reclaim their property once the Wall came down. And, needless to say, what the Alexanders suffered at the hands of the Nazis was heartbreaking.
To sum it up, The House by the Lake is an excellent read. I was glad to find out at the end that the author, his family, and the villagers were able to save the house from demolition by convincing the government to designate it as a monument. You can find out more about the project to restore the lake house at this link.
I think history buffs, especially those into WWII and the cold war, will enjoy The House by the Lake. It’s well-researched and very well-written.
How about you? Did you read a book set in Germany this month? Please share!
**Reminder – November’s challenge is read a young adult (YA) novel and then give it to a young person to enjoy.