Jewish Family Returns to Berlin to Create a Place of Welcome

Friends and neighbors of the victims of the October 27 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh continue to mourn their loved ones. Meanwhile, 25 kilometers outside Berlin, a small vacation home built by a Jewish family in 1927 is finding a new life.

Thomas Harding remembers the first time he saw his family’s lakeside vacation retreat, the one his grandmother called her “soul place,” longing for it after her family fled Nazi Germany in 1936 and established a new home in London.

The house in the village of Gross Glienicke, confiscated by the German government at the time, ended up having a front-row seat to Germany’s tumultuous 20th century.

Harding’s association with the house began in 1993, when his grandmother, Elsie, led a group of young family members back to Berlin and the house in Gross Glienicke. Harding captured the visit on video.

“She was definitely moved by the experience,” he said. “It was a profound moment for her.”

The lake house

Harding described how the tenant, Wolfgang Kuehne, welcomed them inside. Harding was surprised to see that the Berlin Wall had run right through the house’s backyard, cutting off access to the lake.

Twenty years later, at the request of villagers who wanted to know more about the house and its Jewish origins, he visited again. This time, the house had been vacant for a decade. Brush had grown up around it. Harding crawled through a broken window to get in, only to find piles of debris, dirty mattresses and drug paraphernalia.

“It was a shock,” said Debora Harding, his wife, who was with him at the time. “I couldn’t see what Thomas saw, but Thomas … just realized that he had to do something with it.”

First, Harding researched and wrote a book about it, called “The House by the Lake.” It chronicles the lives of the families who lived there through war, occupation, communist rule, and the reunification of East and West Germany. Published in Britain in 2015, it became a best-seller.

Next, riding a wave of support generated by the book, he, his family and a group of villagers from Gross Glienicke cleaned up the little house and got the city of Potsdam — its present owner — to declare it a protected monument.

It was not an easy sell to his family, especially some of the older generation. His father, Frank, was resistant. Because of their treatment in Germany, the family did not buy German products, much less travel to the country or speak its native language.

“My family were like, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy? We’ve left. We don’t want anything to do with Germany,'” Harding said.

But, persuaded to come to Germany for a “cleanup day” at the house, Frank Harding was charmed by the villagers who came to help. He even spoke German with them.

Reconciliation space

The house is now known as Alexander House, named for Harding’s great-grandfather, Alfred Alexander, who had owned it. The house has a governing board and a mission, to create a center for education and reconciliation.

Last month, on a bright fall day with the racket of construction at Alexander House going on around him, Harding said they are “not just focusing on the Jewish history, but also on East German history.”

The board of the Alexander House is “also talking about what happens today. How are we going to deal with the newly arrived refugees in Germany? How do we learn the lessons of the past so that the Muslim population is not persecuted the same way the Jewish population was?” Harding asked.

His sister Amanda Harding, a dialogue facilitator, is helping to shape the activities.

“The Jewish identity of the house is absolutely fundamental because of what it represents in Germany,” she said in October, just hours before a publicity event for the house held at the British Embassy in Berlin. But, she added, “there’s a really strong interfaith component to what we are doing and what we are planning to do.”

While the house undergoes a lengthy restoration, reconciliation projects have already begun, mixing villagers with a group of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, who are lodged in a former military barracks nearby. Participants have cooked together, created art, and even held a local soccer tournament.

The Hardings’ family synagogue in London, which was founded by Jewish refugees from the Nazi regime, has also gotten involved.

Belsize Square Synagogue’s Rabbi Stuart Altshuler and Moritz Groening, a member of the local church council in Gross Glienicke, have become fast friends. They recently conducted a joint worship service at the village church and, afterward, hosted a discussion with church members about Judaism.

Groening described the relationship between the two communities — and indeed, between himself and Altshuler — as “more like extended family than just friends or partners in some project. It’s really a very close relationship nowadays.”

And Altshuler, who is American, said the opportunity to re-establish ties with Germany has been important not just for the members of his congregation, but for all Jews.

“It’s very important for the Jewish world to know that there’s redemption, there’s a sense of moving ahead, of building new bridges,” he said. “Germany to many Jews is a place of uncertainty. We all know what happened in the past. This presents a new light for the future.”

A connection

Walking squarely in that light is Sam Harding, Thomas and Debora Harding’s 19-year-old daughter. In a phone interview, she recently recalled how her initial visit to Berlin three years ago completely changed her mind about the place.

Summoned by her father to accompany him on a research trip, she confessed, “I was kind of grumpy because I didn’t want to be away from England.” But something happened when she arrived in Berlin.

“I just immediately felt a very powerful connection with this city,” she said. “Like it was somewhere that I needed to be.”

Sam Harding decided to take a “gap year” after high school to return to Berlin to study German. She didn’t say much about her plans to her extended family, for fear of pushback.

“I thought there would be conversations about ‘it’s not safe’ or ‘you’re too young’ or all these things, and underlying it all [would be] ‘don’t go back to Germany after what they did to us,’ ” she explained.

But she arrived in January, and what was meant to be a couple of months stretched into the better part of a year. She attended the New Synagogue where her family had worshiped. And there in the synagogue, she felt profoundly moved, knowing she was following in the footsteps of her great-grandmother Elsie, the one who had called the lake house her “soul place.”

In April, Sam Harding took a couple of German friends to Gross Glienicke for an open-house event at Alexander House. It was hot, so they wasted no time getting down to the water for a swim. Again, she said, it hit her that this was exactly what her great-grandmother would have done.

That’s when she realized, she said, how important  the lake house and her own investment in Germany were. Sounding as if she had not quite gotten over it yet, Elsie Alexander Harding’s great-granddaughter Sam said: “There’s a beautiful kind of circularity about all this.”

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