Soul Reason

Posted on 28th June 2016 by Sally Campbell
Thomas Harding's previous work was the Sunday Times Bestseller Hanns and Rudolf, a gripping and moving account of how his great uncle ended up arresting notorious Auschwitz commandant Rudloph Hoss. Harding's current work, The House by the Lake, has been likened to the history of twentieth century Germany as told through the prism of one single house. Here, Harding tells the story of how he first came to know the house and later, how he came to rebuild it.
Above: The House by The Lake in 1928 (c) Lotte Jacobi.
In the spring of 1993, I flew from London to Berlin with my grandmother, Elsie. Then eighty-years old, she was ready to show her grandchildren the city of her childhood, the city which she and the rest of her Jewish family had been forced to flee in 1936.

On the second day of our trip we piled into a red van and my grandmother guided us forty minutes west of Berlin’s city center to the village of Groß Glienicke where her father had built a lake house. 

A child playing on the Berlin border path just outside the house, 1980s.

Walking towards the house, I was surprised by its modesty. It was a simple, one-level wooden building, no larger than a two-car garage. 

A tenant greeted us as we approached. He was kind and hospitable, telling us the history of the place, including that the Berlin Wall had been built through the garden, between the house and the lake. At the end of our visit, my grandmother told us how much the house meant to her, it was, she said, her ‘soul place’.

A tennant's son jumps into the lake, 1990s.

Twenty years later, in 2013, I returned to the lake house to find graffiti on its walls, garbage strewn across its floors, its windows broken. The next day I visited the city offices and discovered that they planned to knock down the lake house to make way for new homes. More positively, when I spoke to the neighbours they were keen to remember the Jewish families who had lived in the village, the crimes of the past, and offered their help to save the house.

View of the house from the lake shore, 1990s.

Returning to London I called a family meeting and told my aunts and uncles, parents and cousins about the little wooden house by the lake, and asked for their support. What I had expected was encouragement, perhaps even thanks. Instead I faced hostility, even anger.

How could we save a house in Germany, one person asked, if we lived in England? Another suggested that the house had never been important to the family. My father then said ‘Do you really expect us to put our hands in our pocket…?’ I finished his sentence for him ‘… when the house was stolen from us in the first place.’

The Meisel family aquired the house in the 1940s.

Disappointed, I started wrapping up the meeting. But then one of my younger cousins raised her hand and said that she was willing to fly out to Berlin, whenever was needed.

And then another cousin, who had been on the trip in 1993 with my grandmother Elsie, said that given the village residents’ interest and support in the history of the house and the Jewish family who had lived there, we must grab this opportunity for reconciliation with both hands.

Clean up day, 2014.

A few weeks later, fourteen members of my family flew out to Berlin and, together with sixty villagers, we set about removing decades of garbage from the house and its garden. Remarkably, by the day’s end it was possible to once again imagine the building as a place of joy.

Yet, cleaning up the property was only the first step if we were to save the house by the lake. There would be many more challenges to overcome if we wanted the house to once again be, as my grandmother said, a ‘soul place.’


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