Haunted by a house

One writer ex­plores the soul of a uni­fied Ger­many through the ru­ins of his fam­ily’s aban­doned home

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THOMAS HARD­ING

IN JULY 2013, I trav­elled from Lon­don to Ber­lin to visit the lake house my great-grand­fa­ther had built. Pick­ing up a rental car at Schöne­feld air­port, I headed west along the ring road, through Ber­lin’s western sub­urbs, and into the Bran­den­burg coun­try­side. Forty min­utes af­ter start­ing my jour­ney, I ar­rived at the small vil­lage of Gross Glienicke, in what had been East Ger­many.

I parked the car and set off for the house. It had been 20 years since I had last vis­ited this place and noth­ing looked fa­mil­iar. Al­though wary of tres­pass­ing, I ducked un­der a strand of barbed wire and pushed my way through a field of shoul­der­high grass, head­ing in the di­rec­tion of what I guessed was the lake.

To my left stood a row of mod­ern brick houses. To my right stretched an un­kempt hedge. And then, there it was, my fam­ily’s house. It was smaller than I re­mem­bered, not much larger than a sports pav­il­ion or dou­ble garage, hid­den by bushes, vines and trees. Its win­dows were patched with ply­wood. The al­most flat black roof was cracked and cov­ered with fallen branches. The brick chim­neys seemed to be crum­bling, close to col­lapse.

I picked my way round it slowly, touch­ing flak­ing paint­work and boarded-up door­ways, un­til I found a bro­ken win­dow. Climb­ing through, my way il­lu­mi­nated by my iPhone, I was con­fronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cush­ions, walls cov­ered in graf­fiti and crawl­ing with mould, smashed ap­pli­ances and frag­ments of fur­ni­ture, rot­ting floor­boards and empty beer bot­tles. One room looked as if it had been used as a drug den, lit­tered with bro­ken lighters and soot-stained spoons. There was a sad­ness to the place, the melan­choly of a build­ing aban­doned.

Af­ter a few min­utes, I clam­bered back out of the win­dow and walked to­wards the house next door, hop­ing to find some­one to speak with. I was lucky, for a woman was work­ing in the gar­den.

Ex­plain­ing that I was a mem­ber of a fam­ily who used to live at the house, I asked what had hap­pened to it? Who owned it now? ‘‘It has been empty for over a decade,’’ she told me and then pointed to­wards the shore. ‘‘The Ber­lin Wall was built there, be­tween the house and the lake,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s seen a lot, but it’s an eye­sore now.’’

I had been told about the lake house, or ‘‘Glienicke’’, all my life. It had been an ob­ses­sion for my grand­mother, Elsie, who spoke about it with won­der, evok­ing a time when life had been easy, fun and sim­ple. It had been, she said, her soul place.

My fam­ily, the Alexan­ders, had flour­ished in the lib­eral years of

‘ The lake house evoked a time of sim­ple life

‘ I found that the house had been the scene of tragedy

They didn’t speak of their old life; it was a closed chap­ter

1920s Ber­lin. Af­flu­ent, cos­mopoli­tan Jews, they spent ev­ery week­end and most of the sum­mer at Glienicke.

In my mind, I kept an im­age of the house, com­piled from the sepia-tinted pho­to­graphs I had been shown since child­hood: a glis­ten­ing lake, a wood-pan­elled room with a fire­place and rock­ing chair, a man­i­cured lawn, a ten­nis court. But with the rise of the Nazis, they had been forced to flee, mov­ing to Lon­don where they had strug­gled to es­tab­lish a new life.

For as long as I can re­mem­ber, my fam­ily had es­chewed all things Ger­man. We didn’t pur­chase Ger­man cars, wash­ing ma­chines or fridges.

We hol­i­dayed across Europe — in France, Switzer­land, Spain, Italy — but never in Ger­many. The elder gen­er­a­tion did not speak of life in Ber­lin, of the years be­fore the war. It was a closed chap­ter. Any emo­tional con­nec­tion to their lives in the 1920s had been sev­ered. Re­luc­tant to ex­plore the past, they chose in­stead to fo­cus on their new coun­try, be­com­ing more Bri­tish than the Bri­tish, send­ing their chil­dren to the best schools, en­cour­ag­ing them to be­come doc­tors, lawyers and ac­coun­tants.

The next day, I drove to the lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fices in Pots­dam, twenty min­utes south of the Gross Glienicke. There, in the base­ment of a mu­nic­i­pal build­ing, an el­derly wom-

an told me that the lake house was now owned by the city of Pots­dam, and that it was soon to be de­mol­ished to make way for new homes.

Af­ter an 80-year ab­sence, it looked like I had re­turned just in time to see the house torn down.

Three floors up­stairs, I found the his­toric build­ing preser­va­tion depart­ment. There I spoke with a young man and woman who were ex­cited to hear about the lake house. They said that I might be able to save it if I could prove that it had sig­nif­i­cant value — and that its restoration had wide sup­port.

I spent the next two years in­ves­ti­gat­ing the story of the house. I learned that five fam­i­lies had lived at the prop­erty — a wealthy landowner, a pros­per­ous Jewish physi­cian, a renowned com­poser, a wid­ower and her chil­dren, and a Stasi in­for­mant. All had made the house their home, and all — bar one — had been forced out.

I vis­ited ar­chives in Lon­don and Ham­burg, Ber­lin and Mu­nich. I spoke with his­to­ri­ans, ar­chi­tects, botanists, and politi­cians — and, most im­por­tantly, the house’s oc­cu­pants. In the process, I dis­cov­ered that the house had been the site of do­mes­tic bliss and of con­tent­ment, but also of ter­ri­ble grief and tragedy.

Some of the oc­cu­pants had made the house their refuge, while oth­ers had sought es­cape from the prop­erty.

It had weath­ered storms, fires and aban­don­ment, wit­nessed vi­o­lence, be­tray­als and mur­ders, had with­stood the trauma of a world war, and the di­vid­ing of a na­tion.

As I con­tin­ued, I learned that the house was im­por­tant, for its story re­flected that of Ger­many over a tur­bu­lent cen­tury. For, in its own quiet and for­got­ten way, the house had been on the front line of his­tory — the lives of its in­hab­i­tants ripped up and re­made again and again, sim­ply be­cause of where they lived.

As I re­searched, I also worked on the sec­ond part of my task: to gar­ner sup­port for the house’s pro­tec­tion. When I ap­proached the lo­cal com­mu­nity, I was im­pressed by their will­ing­ness to ac­knowl­edge the sins of the past and their com­mit­ment to help re­store the house.

Gain­ing my fam­ily’s sup­port proved harder. At a fam­ily meet­ing, one cousin ques­tioned the prac­ti­cal­ity of ren­o­vat­ing a house from England. An­other doubted that the build­ing had ever been im­por­tant to the Alexan­ders. Then my fa­ther said that he ‘‘did not want to put his hand in his pocket…’’ I fin­ished his sen­tence for him ‘‘… when the house had been stolen by the Ger­mans in the first place.’’

Feel­ing mount­ing dis­ap­point­ment, I started wrap­ping up the meet­ing, when one of my younger cousins said that she would will­ingly help in any way needed. An­other said that this project of­fered an ex­tra­or­di­nary op­por­tu­nity for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. By the end of the meet­ing, we had agreed that 14 of us would fly to Ber­lin and work with the vil­lagers to clean the house. De­lighted to now have my fam­ily’s sup­port, I re­mained wor­ried. Even if we could pull this off, I won­dered, would it be enough to save the house?

‘ Would this re­ally be enough to save the house?

Above: West Ber­lin­ers en­joy the lake­side sun­shine

Saved: The for­got­ten house by the Lake

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