Book Review: The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding

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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.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding

  1. Sounds like you read a good one this month! Also, really cool link with the restoration project. The dilapidated house transformed back to its original beauty is fascinating.

    I read a book this month from your list of books set in Germany. I read The Book Thief and just loved it! What a great story and clever narration style. I think it is the first book I have read about Germans who were not Nazis (okay, I’ll admit it, I still love to watch the Sound of Music!) and their struggles to survive and also avoid being singled out by the Nazis. Moreover, it was a funny book with some really great characters. The stepmother is a crotchety old tyrant and reminded me of my German grandmother. Yet, in the end she is a kind heart. This was a great recommendation! I was sorry when it was over since I enjoyed it so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the recommendation and review! I’m adding it to my list….Love the November challenge, too. If you don’t have a book yet, I’ll recommend my friend Jennifer Ziegler’s new book WORSER. It’s supposed to be very good.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This book sounds so much better than the one I chose (not to be mentioned!) I am already well into November’s book and excited that I will actually complete a 12-month challenge in 2022!
    Thanks, sis, for keeping me in a book:)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I thought I left a comment here on the similar fiction book about 100 years of German history based on fictional families that lived in a lake house outside Berlin but can’t find it so must have done something wrong. I have a new email so maybe that is it. Anyway, the other book on your list –Visitation by Erpenbeck– couldn’t be more different than The House on The Lake but is an engaging and challenging small book, originally written in German. I enjoyed both of them. I am super impressed with the research and notes in Harding’s book. What a masterpiece to turn all those facts into a book that I could not put down! The pictures and documents were also fascinating. I was shocked when I clicked on the site with the house’s journey to former glory, monument status and international goal of reconciliation. Thanks for finding that. Kudos to Thomas Harding for turning his family’s tragedy into something positive for all concerned. He was able to write without rancor (incredibly) and to bring diverse folks together for healing and learning that will extend into the future. Of course, he was one of the lucky one’s who has a life only because his family was able to escape from Nazi Germany to England in the nick of time. I’m not sure I could be as forgiving. This book caused me to start digging back through 50-yea -old memories and finding the places my ex-husband and I lived and worked in West Berlin. Thank you Google Maps for letting me journey to Berlin and literally “drive” down the streets to see, for example, the parks that replaced the cold war era Air Force “listening post” in Marienfelde near the wall (now invisible border) at Brandenburg. Thank you Michelle for suggesting this book and bringing back memories of my first year of married life. What you accomplish weekly without leaving your home is a priceless gift!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The 2023 Thoughtful Reading Challenge | Book Thoughts from Bed

  6. Pingback: 10 Fascinating Nonfiction Books that Will Leave You Wanting More | Book Thoughts from Bed

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