History

If These Walls Could Sprechen

The story of a small German cottage built by Jews, seized by Nazis, gifted to a Stasi informant, and taken over by punk rockers

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The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History, by Thomas Harding, Picador, 464 pages, $28

Picador

A few miles west of Berlin, a little house sits on Groß Glienicke lake, a quiet eye in the storm of Europe's worst century ever.

Nazi bureaucrats arrived at their Final Solution at nearby Wannsee. The Red Army poured through at the end of World War II. Churchill and Truman drove past on their way to meet Stalin in Potsdam. The Berlin Airlift rattled the cupboards as planes landed at and left Gatow airfield. Secret policemen lurked as the Berlin Wall rose. The house endured the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War, the fall of the Wall, and the reunification of Germany.

In 1927, during Germany's sunny Weimar interlude, Dr. Alfred Alexander, head of Berlin's Chamber of Physicians, commissioned a simple wooden cottage as a family retreat. When he tacked a mezuzah by the front door, it was a gesture to a faith worn lightly. Alexander and his family called themselves "three-days-a-year Jews": observant during high holidays, but thoroughly assimilated into Berlin's cosmopolitan upper middle class.

The Alexanders delighted in sun-drenched al fresco meals on the terrace. The children swam and rowed in clear, cool waters. Daughter Elsie was particularly fond of the peace and beauty of the lake house; she called it her "soul place."

But the rise of the Third Reich brought an end to those reveries. At university, Elsie had to display little yellow stars on her textbooks. Brownshirts demonstrated outside their city home. Whispered warnings circulated. Elsie and her sister pleaded with their father to leave Germany. He told Elsie, "I was a soldier and an officer in the war and I received the Iron Cross. Nothing will happen to me."

In the end, the Alexanders left for England, their valuables sewn into their coats, just before escape became impossible.

In 2013 one of their descendants travelled to Groß Glienicke to see the place his family had once treasured. British journalist Thomas Harding, Elsie's grandson, found an inauspicious hovel scheduled for demolition. "There was a sadness to the place," he writes, "the melancholy of a building abandoned."

He set about discovering the full, poignant history of his grandmother's soul place—the land, the house, and all who called it home. He uncovered remarkable stories, some forgotten to history, others deliberately concealed. And he shared them in his book, The House by the Lake.

Soon after the family's escape, the Gestapo seized their home and Alexander's medical practice. As Harding mentions in an endnote, the punctilious police reviewed the doctor's books and proceeded to collect on his accounts receivable. Panicked patients paid up, though some complained they shouldn't have to pay for services from a Jew.

The Reich sold the lake house at a deep discount to a cheerful, enterprising conformist named Will Meisel. A music publisher, he spent much of the war in Groß Glienicke, producing musical theater and benefitting from a pragmatic enlistment in the Nazi Party.

Flights of hundreds of Allied bombers heralded the coming end of the war. The Red Army swept through Groß Glienicke in the final days. Their victory celebrations came at the expense of a young mother at a neighboring house who, like hundreds of thousands of other German women, survived several rapes by Russian soldiers.

The war left no visible scars on Meisel or the house. After a lengthy denazification the producer was cleared to work, but he lost claim to the lake house as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe.

One great value of The House by the Lake is its wealth of fresh detail on life along the border of East and West during the long, gray decades of the Cold War. Harding gives overdue attention to a time often fast-forwarded through in our historical memory.

The line between East Germany and West Berlin cut through the back yard of the lake house, but the border was porous in the early postwar period. In Groß Glienicke, East and West German media intermingled on the airwaves and in town gossip. Residents lost friends and acquaintances in a series of grisly serial killings in the neighborhood. The mutilated corpses drew lurid wall-to-wall coverage in the West. Perhaps because suspicion focused on occupying Soviet troops, the East German media responded with a blend of denial and silence. The locals received an early education in the absurd juxtapositions between observable reality and official accounts.

While Western powers recruited or let slip individual Nazi spies and rocket scientists, the new socialist authorities in East Germany appropriated other elements of the Third Reich. The Hitler Youth transitioned smoothly to the red-kerchiefed Thälmann Pioneers. Surveillance and meticulous record-keeping persisted. Even some concentration camps were maintained with fresh shipments of political prisoners and new classes of undesirable people.

As the Soviet occupation calcified into a permanent puppet state, the Stasi—East Germany's notorious secret police—awarded residency at the lake house to Wolfgang Kühne, a newly recruited informant. Kühne's unearthed Stasi files provide surprising comic relief. His handlers were annoyed by his choice of code name, "Ignition Key," and exasperated by his laziness and tendency to let liquor eclipse his work for the Party. Somehow Kühne survived to become the longest-tenured resident of the house. He left his mark, removing large (sometimes drafty) windows overlooking the lake, sealing off the fireplace, and plastering wallpaper over Alexander's antique Delft tiles in the mantle. In Harding's words, the once-lovely cottage became "a botched product of East German utilitarianism."

In August 1961, Kühne awoke to furious construction on the lake shore. Soldiers and workers had begun to erect the "Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier"—or as we came to know it, the Berlin Wall. It began as a single barbed-wire fence, but it expanded over time. A tall concrete wall ran along the lake shore. The lake house's trees and sloping lawn were replaced by barbed wire, buried mines, tripwires, and a patrol road. Guard dogs served on rotations, lest they grow too friendly with the local human beings. An inner wall of concrete rose just 10 meters from the lake house's back door.

Now the lake was invisible from the lake house. The place's soul had been cut away.

Not-so-green East German environmental practices left the water contaminated with sewage and choked in algae, its shore lined by rusting tangles of wire and forgotten explosives. On land, Wolfgang's son Bernd and his friends played in a schoolyard close enough to the wall to make a game of tossing sticks into the death strip along the border. They tried to trigger green signal flares or, if they were lucky, to set off a more serious red flare that brought trucks full of alerted troops. Teachers would shout, "Don't throw sticks at our Anti-Fascist Protection Device!"

The teachers also asked their grade schoolers to describe the shape of the clock in the background of the news broadcasts their parents watched. "If they replied with 'rectangle,' then the teacher knew that their parents were watching Aktuelle Kamera on DDR at 7:30 p.m.," Harding writes. "But if they said the news had a circular clock, then the teacher would know that Tagesschau was being watched, an 8 p.m. news program carried by the Western channel ARD, and the child's family would be reported to the authorities."

When the Soviet Empire's slow decay became a rapid collapse, the people living in Moscow's shadow met its fall with anxiety. The absence of dictatorship does not necessarily lead to an embrace of freedom. The wary residents of Groß Glienicke elected a former border guard commander as their first post–Cold War mayor.

But the demolition of the wall reunited the lake house with its reason for being. After Kühne's death, a young stepson brought in roommates, pumped out punk and metal music, and presided over lakeside parties through the turn of the millennium.

Eventually the house came under municipal ownership as a prelude to potential redevelopment. It fell into disrepair. Only a red fox, her kits, and desperate drug addicts made use of the place until Harding rediscovered it as a haunted vacant building in 2013.

Thomas Harding's quest to recover and preserve past residents' lives led to an effort to save and restore the house itself. The property is now a historic site and an unlikely common ground for several German generations.

Josef Stalin supposedly quipped that one death might be a tragedy but a million deaths are a mere statistic. Harding's work stands in defiance of that heartless calculation. Against the No Life Matters ethos of the 20th century, The House by the Lake proves that history's lethally impersonal forces, mass displacement, arbitrary borders, marching armies, and totalitarian dictatorships cannot fully erase the private joys and sorrows of individual lives.

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59 responses to “If These Walls Could Sprechen

  1. Well does the house get demolished or not? Does the Grandson kick out all the junkies and reclaim his heritage?

    1. Thomas Harding’s quest to recover and preserve past residents’ lives led to an effort to save and restore the house itself. The property is now a historic site and an unlikely common ground for several German generations.

      1. That’s not very descriptive, it could just be a parking lot with a placard. Perhaps a footpath if it’s anything like where I live. Maybe some restrooms and an interpretive center. Anything to detract from what it was actually like to be there, usually in the name of education/preservation(lol)/handicap access.

  2. Lovely review. This book sounds really interesting.

    1. Yes, but who is this Andrew Hazlett character? Is he a descendant of Henry Hazlitt? Did he change the spelling of his last name to fool us?

      1. More likely descended from Thomas Hazlett.

  3. I never questioned the Holocaust until I saw the head of Weisenthal Center giving the benediction to Trump. I honestly don’t know what the hell to believe any more.

    1. 1. Trump uses slogan mirroring name that of pro-facist isolationist movement from the WWII era.
      2. Some guy blesses him despite that.
      3. ???
      4. “I honestly don’t know what the hell to believe any more.”

      D+ Trolling. It got me to at least open the link to get the context for your statement.

      1. Sorry dude, that’s not helping.

        1. It’s hard to help someone who thinks using the same two words together in different contexts means the same thing.

  4. desperate drug addicts made use of the place

    Yeah, see…. I have a problem with this.

    1. I have a big problem with your blithe holocaust denialism.

      1. Dude – you’re not helping either.

  5. Book Quote:

    “I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Arag?n one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life? snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.? had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.”

    ??George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, ch. VII

    Sounds like a nice place.

    1. If people choose to live that way it could be very nice. Its the forcing people to do things they don’t to bit that , even if it achieved it’s nominal goals, is a titanic waste of energy/human life.

    2. Yeah, that all worked out SOOOOO well!

      1. Yeah, it was stamped out by fascists. Whenever the working class decides to demand that it be treated with respect, rich people in collusion with the military put an end to that shit ASAP.

        1. So you’re saying we don’t actually know if socialism would work cuz in the past its always been ruined by people being selfish? I think its quite a bit more practical to base society on the way people actually are, rather than try and change people to fit into your idea of what society should be.

        2. So you’re saying we don’t actually know if socialism would work cuz in the past its always been ruined by people being selfish? I think its quite a bit more practical to base society on the way people actually are, rather than try and change people to fit into your idea of what society should be.

          1. Eman|1.22.17 @ 12:54PM|#
            “So you’re saying we don’t actually know if socialism would work cuz in the past its always been ruined by people being selfish? I think its quite a bit more practical to base society on the way people actually are, rather than try and change people to fit into your idea of what society should be.”

            Read any of the “approved” visitors to pre 1990s Red China and keep a clear eye out for the bullshit; it is there in abundance and some of them were not fooled.

        3. Actually, the Catalan Anarcho-syndicalists got stamped out by the Soviet-backed Communist Party in what is called the May Days.

          The communists themselves were then defeated by the facists.

        4. Jesus you’re an idiot.

    3. I suspect what he really saw was what he wanted to see, compounded by them playing nice for the foreigner. I doubt reality was anything close to that. Somehow statists always manage to hide reality from even themselves.

    4. “Money tainted air of England”
      Funny, capitalist England was marginally freer and richer than any region in Spain.

    5. Idealistic socialist offers up idealist account of socialist management, idiot socialist accepts it unquestioningly, news at 11.

      Many of the normal motives of civilised life? snobbishness

      Well, at least amsoc wouldn’t be welcome there.

    6. “There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life? snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.? had simply ceased to exist.”

      Probably stayed that way until, oh, the first shortage of food, when all of a sudden the ‘normal motives’ became ‘normal’ again.
      Funny how that works.
      Oh, and fuck off.

  6. Boy, I didn’t know that DJT was going to inspire such large crowds. Yesterday was proof that here’s a man who can inspire millions to come out in public. If the same ratio of people protesting Trump in California to the total population of California had come out instead for tin pot fascist’s inauguration he would have had, what, 15 million people attending his speech. #CalExit

    1. If all those idiots had come out to protest Obama’s fascist policies — war, domestic spying, summary execution — there wouldn’t be a Donald Trump presidency. Wouldn’t be a Hillary admin either. Might actually have a responsive government, slightly less fascist.

    2. american socialist|1.22.17 @ 12:50PM|#
      “Boy, I didn’t know that DJT was going to inspire such large crowds.”

      The ones who voted for him?
      Fuck off, asswipe.

    3. I’d love to see a #CalExit.

      Because, you know what would happen, 99% of the mass of California would tell you to fuck off, stay in the United States, and then laugh at you as you starved to death and couldn’t buy toilet paper to wipe your ass with in your cities.

  7. If These Walls Could Sprechen
    The story of a small German cottage built by Jews, seized by Nazis, gifted to a Stasi informant, and taken over by punk rockers

    1. If these walls could talk, it would be in German, a language I would have to re-learn, (I was stationed in what was then West Germany from 1977 to 1983.) or at least have a translator.
    2. If these walls could talk, I’m pretty sure they would ask someone to clean them. Punk rockers like to spray paint anything that doesn’t move.
    3. I wonder what the property tax is on that building.
    4. This building suffers from what the Chinese curse that says, “May you live an interesting life.”

  8. Dallas Stars announce attendance of 1.5 million at hockey game:

    https://goo.gl/ECkNiQ

    Everyone is trolling the Con Man now.

  9. “Don’t throw sticks at our Anti-Fascist Protection Device!”

    1. Beat me to it, Warren; wunnerful pussy-march sign.

  10. What shape is the clock on Faux News?

    1. Your mother finds it quite satisfactory.

      Sorry, you said “clock.”

      1. See what being on H&R does to me? You’re all to blame.

    2. The shape of a rooster running out of Georgia

  11. Against the No Life Matters ethos of the 20th century, The House by the Lake proves that history’s lethally impersonal forces, mass displacement, arbitrary borders, marching armies, and totalitarian dictatorships cannot fully erase the private joys and sorrows of individual lives.

    But then again,
    Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time,
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    There’s a billion houses with a billion stories and they all mean nothing to all but a few and everything to but a few. You’re born, you live, you die and you think the story begins and ends with you but you’re only one thin thread in a vast tapestry and the whole story stretches from one end of eternity to the other. And then you wake up.

  12. “Teachers would shout, “Don’t throw sticks at our Anti-Fascist Protection Device!””

    Pretty sure I saw a sign to this effect at one of the marches.

  13. Amazon reviews are favorable, but not particularly helpful; sounds like a good read, but I’m not sure what the point is. Anyone read it?
    BTW, some of the reviews (pathetically) refer to ‘walls’ someone (and I think you know who) threatened to build. FFS!

  14. Gentlemen, we are not off to a good start.

    1. “Gentlemen, we are not off to a good start.”

      Regarding?

      1. The 30ish comments thus far are littered with the worst of Reason’s degenerate retards. This thread deserves a mercy kill.

        1. Whoever had duty this evening blew it.

        2. BTW, it looks like you folks are getting wet also. Aren’t you yet convinced that AGW means CA drought is the new normal?
          I had a nice LOOOONG shower today, just in memory of moonbeam.

          1. Sevo, this is the worst sustained bout of rain I can remember down here. Big waves too. (taken at breakfast this morning, the swell is still increasing)

            It wasn’t a crazy downpour or anything, just steady showers for about 36 hours. I had to go get sandbags.

            As I was about to go to the grocery store, my wife said “Don’t go outside, It’s Berkeley raining right now”.

        3. Jesus, my blocker must be working overtime because i only saw like 10 comments.

          1. I’m here and that’s all that matters. Both my comments are on-topic and one is quite informative.

            1. indeed.

              although i confess i have no idea what the ‘shape of the clock’ was a reference to.

  15. How ’bout:

    “‘Russian’ prankster organizes fake Berkeley protest but hundreds still march”
    http://blog.sfgate.com/inberke…..ill-march/

    The folks ‘marching’ on Saturday were supposedly ‘sending a message’.
    I posted a link last night to some interviews with those who ‘marched’ or claimed they did in SF; not a one had any specific gripe with anything Trump had done. Nor did any ‘message’ get anywhere close to any other ‘message’.
    What we had was ‘I’m pissed my candidate lost’, ‘I think he’s a bad man’, ‘I want free shit’, ‘I want more free shit’.
    Now we have someone who understands the focus of the anti-Trumpsters!

    1. That sounds about right. I am left wondering just what “movement” these characters will coalesce around that would keep them relevant.

      No matter, It was a good day for Mow Donna to drop a few f bombs make some publicity points to bring attention to her has been pop queen career.

  16. http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/…..ball-shock

    OT: Your 2017 sports deaths are already going great guns. Andy Marte died the same damn day.

    1. I have come to the conclusion that it’s very bad to be a driver or passenger in a car in the Dominican Republic.

        1. Actually, it wasn’t a single car accident: he collided with a bus. But it did happen in the Dominican Republic.

  17. Interestingly, this area is now gentrifying like mad as a bedroom community for Berliners. That will probably be the next chapter for this house — tatooed erstwhile hipsters who now have 2.5 kids, move to a suburb with decent commuter rail and a lake view, and bitch about the local schools and doctors. Berlin never ceases to have its contradictions. At least the Freiek?rperkultur is still strong in the former East.

  18. Nazi bureaucrats arrived at their Final Solution at nearby Wannsee. The Red Army poured through at the end of World War II. Churchill and Truman drove past on their way to meet Stalin in Potsdam. The Berlin Airlift rattled the cupboards as planes landed at and left Gatow airfield. Secret policemen lurked as the Berlin Wall rose. The house endured the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War, the fall of the Wall, and the reunification of Germany.
    ????? ????
    ?????
    In 1927, during Germany’s sunny Weimar interlude, Dr. Alfred Alexander, head of Berlin’s Chamber of Physicians, commissioned a simple wooden cottage as a family retreat. When he tacked a mezuzah by the front door, it was a gesture to a faith worn lightly. Alexander and his family called themselves “three-days-a-year Jews”: observant during high holidays, but thoroughly assimilated into Berlin’s cosmopolitan upper middle class.

  19. i have an company in saudi arabia which is specialist in water lake it’s name : http://waterlakecity.com
    finally thanks for sharing

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