Oliv­erKamm com­mends a broad per­sonal history. Mon­i­caBohmDuchen on two art fix­ers

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

IT WOULD be hard to write an orig­i­nal and mov­ing ac­count of the tor­tured 20th-cen­tury history of Ger­many. But, in The House by the Lake, Thomas Hard­ing suc­ceeds re­mark­ably. His nar­ra­tive de­vice is a small, wooden house in a vil­lage called Gross Glienicke. Hard­ing tells of the lakeside villa built as a sum­mer­house by his great-grand­fa­ther, Al­fred Alexan­der, af­ter the First World War.

This place of re­treat and soli­tude had to be aban­doned by Hard­ing’s grand­mother in the 1930s when she fled Nazism and set­tled in Eng­land. She and Hard­ing re­vis­ited the house in the 1990s, and Hard­ing re­turned to it a cou­ple of years ago. It was aban­doned and derelict.

His book is a com­bi­na­tion of oral history and painstak­ing re­search into the five fam­i­lies who had oc­cu­pied the house in the in­ter­ven­ing decades. What takes this well out of the mun­dane in the field of closely ob­served history on an in­ti­mate scale is the fate of the fam­i­lies and the skill with which Hard­ing ties it to Ger­many’s tur­bu­lent

Ber­lin cel­e­brates, in Novem­ber 2014, the 25th an­niver­sary of the wall’s fall history. All of the fam­i­lies, in one form or another, were driven out.

The most poignant pas­sages of the book weave the fate of Elsie, the au­thor’s grand­mother, with the night­mare of Nazi op­pres­sion that en­gulfed a na­tion whose history of cul­ture and learn­ing was un­sur­passed in Europe. With his­tor­i­cal hind­sight of the even­tual fate of Ger­man Jewry, it’s a pe­cu­liarly grip­ping nar­ra­tive of the pres­sures of time in the flight of Elsie and her fam­ily, es­pe­cially given the Nazis’ de­ter­mi­na­tion sim­ply to fleece those they drive out.

As Hard­ing tells it: “As so of­ten hap- pens in times of cri­sis, one per­son’s mis­for­tune pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity to another.” The other, in this case, was a noted com­poser and mu­sic pub­lisher, Will Meisl, hop­ing to get a good deal out of the catas­tro­phe in­flicted on the Jews.

And so the history of the lake house is told through his eyes, till the es­sen­tial philis­tin­ism of the Nazis de­stroys his liveli­hood, too, with the the­atres closed and mu­si­cal tal­ent driven out.

Hard­ing’s telling vi­gnettes of Ger­man history trace the di­vi­sion of the coun­try and the pass­ing of the late house to a Stasi in­former. I don’t re­call a more evoca­tive, suc­cinct de­scrip­tion of the drab­ness and — in all senses — op­pres­sion of East Ger­many than his ob­ser­va­tion of “those [in the GDR] who didn’t be­lieve all they heard, who could see through the lies of the party bosses, and who sang the oblig­a­tory songs and abided by the laws they know to be inane or, worse, un­just and dan­ger­ous and yet kept silent”.

The de­noue­ment of the book is the achieve­ment of of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion of the lake house — the soul place, as Elsie re­ferred to it — as a mon­u­ment. It is a fit­ting and mov­ing epi­taph on a tragic and beau­ti­fully told history. Oliver Kamm is a leader writer and colum­nist at The Times


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