In 1938, within days of the Nazi orgy of violence called Kristallnacht, German banker Paul Wallich, an assimilated Jew who considered himself Christian, drowned himself to avoid arrest by the Gestapo. His widow, Hildegard Rehrmann, a non-Jew, fled to the U.S., abandoning the family estate, a 19th-century villa in Potsdam. This once elegant, now dilapidated house, which East Germany converted into a combination boarding school/child care center in 1950, is the focus of freelance writer Hafner's memorable, poignant story, which grew out of an article for the New York Times Magazine. Christine Wallach, daughter of Paul and Hildegard's banker son Henry (who emigrated to New York City in 1935), developed a strong attachment to the lost villa during her Connecticut childhood, viewing it as a symbol of a time when her scattered family was together. In 1992, Potsdam authorities' preliminary decision restored the house to the Wallich family, whose efforts to sell it, amid a wave of xenophobic and anti-Semitic violence, have thus far been unsuccessful. The Wallich house, which survived Allied bombing during WWII, serves in these pages as a prism of modern German history. Teachers in the child care center witnessed the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and saw the Wall torn down in 1989. They also observed East-West spy exchanges on nearby Glienicke Bridge, including the 1986 release of Soviet Jewish human rights activist Anatoly Shcharansky, exchanged for five Eastern Bloc agents. Photos. (Feb.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hafner, an American journalist, uses the history of a "once elegant, now dilapidated nineteenth-century villa in Potsdam" as a device to examine the social life of post-war Germany and the tensions created by reunification. Located by the Glienicke Bridge (which was known as the "bridge of Spies" in the 1960s), the house belonged to the Wallich family, which was headed by an influential Jewish banker. The rise of the Nazi regime led to death or exile for the Wallichs. Hafner tracks the postwar activities of family members who returned to Germany and the fate of the house, which became a "Kinderwochenheim"-a weekly home for children. She parallels her story of the house with accounts of political changes (centered around the construction and destruction of the Berlin Wall) and the legal claims by the Wallich grandchildren for the house. This fascinating story reveals the impact of postwar politics on ordinary Germans. A greatly abbreviated version appeared in the New York Times Magazine in November 1991. Recommended for public libraries and for academic libraries with strong German collections.-Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, Pa.
When Germany's reunification government moved to restore houses and properties to their original pre-World War II owners, it received more than one million claims. Hafner explores the sociopolitical ramifications of that decision by focusing on the efforts of the Wallich family to reclaim an elegant, nineteenth-century Italianate villa on the Havel River in Potsdam. Paul Wallich, the son of a prosperous Jewish banker, drowned himself in November 1938, in the wake of "Kristallnacht", the violent anti-Jewish riots spurred on by the Gestapo. The Nazis and the Russians occupied the premises on occasion during the fighting, and after the war, the East German government turned the estate, located 50 feet on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, into a boarding school. After reclaiming the house, Wallich's 12 grandchildren voted to sell; with the postreunification real-estate boom having fizzled, however, and with the vicious right-wing violence that has plagued the country, the house remains on the market. Hafner, an accomplished journalist, brings this odd material to life primarily through her marvelous descriptions of the house and its environs.