To order Wannsee House and the Holocaust ($32.50),
The New York Jewish Week
July 27, 2001
The language brought Dr. Steven Lehrer to Germany nearly 30 years ago. A
radiologist, he had studied German in school, had become fluent, and wanted to
see the country.
Hadassah Magazine Review—January 2002
“I just had a fascination with it because of what happened there,” says
Lehrer. It means the Holocaust.
The Upper West Side resident kept going back because of curiosity. And because
of his books.
“Wannsee House and the Holocaust,” which describes the background of the
villa on a Berlin lake where the Final Solution was plotted by a small group of
Nazi leaders in early 1942, was published recently by McFarland & Co., a
small firm in North Carolina. “Hitler Sites,” a historical guide to some 150
places in Germany, Austria and France associated with Adolf Hitler’s life and
career, will appear later this year. It’s also being published by McFarland.
Lehrer, 56, who works at the VA Hospital in the Bronx and teaches at Mount Sinai
Hospital in Manhattan, calls both books the first in English on their topics.
His name on the Wannsee book identifies him only as Steven Lehrer — no Dr.
“My medical degree didn’t exactly relate to this [subject],” he says.
Working first at a typewriter, then later at a computer, Lehrer has written six
books since 1979 on such topics as great medical discoveries, cancer treatments,
and examining patients by their heart and lung sounds. He also wrote an
introduction to a reissued collection of stories by American adventurer-hunter
“I guess I’m interested in different things,” Lehrer, a Los Angeles
His interest in the Holocaust, in how a society where Jews apparently were fully
integrated could produce the most-systematic genocide in history, sent him back
to Germany some 15 times.
How? One answer, the doctor says, is the people. As a Jew — with a
German-sounding name — Lehrer says he felt anti-Semitism, in Germans’ eyes
and in their words, wherever he traveled. “It hasn’t changed at all” since
World War II, he says.
First Lehrer did the “Hitler Sites” book. He visited the houses and the
schools and the homeless shelters and the infamous Munich beer hall and the
Berlin bunker where The Fuehrer supposedly died.
“It’s difficult for people to understand how he did what he did,” Lehrer
says. “If you actually go and see these places” — many of them places of
poverty — “you see what made him so angry and bitter. You see the level of
anti-Semitism that still exists in these places.”
The Wannsee book grew out of his research for the sites book. Lehrer toured
Wannsee, a government-administered Holocaust memorial since 1992, five times.
“Everything there was in German,” discouraging foreign visitors. He
couldn’t find a book in English about the building and its history. So he
decided to write one.
“I felt this was a place American Jews should know about,” he says.
Based on research from more than a dozen German books and the on-line archives
of German newspapers, he relates the history of the villa, the fates of the 15
participants in the Jan. 20, 1942 conference, and the largely unknown story of a
Holocaust survivor who lobbied for the site’s designation as a national
The book reads like fiction.
“I like to tell a story,” Lehrer says. “I’ve always been a great admirer
of Barbara Tuchman,” the late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who related
historical events through the eyes of their participants. “I’ve tried to use
Lehrer’s next project is a study of “Jewish entertainers in the
Holocaust.” That means more trips back to Germany. “I have a reason,” he
Lehrer doesn’t encourage his readers to visit the places he has visited. “I
think reading about it is enough.”
Wannsee House and the Holocaust
by Steven Lehrer (McFarland, 196 pp. $32.50)
For most of the years after January 20, 1942, the three-story villa at Am
Grossen Wannsee 56-58, on the shore of Berlin's popular recreation lake, was a
footnote in the accounts of the Holocaust. Finally it merits its own book.
Steven Lehrer, a radiation therapist, has documented the history of the infamous
site where the Third Reich officially implemented the Final Solution. His book
is a companion piece to his forthcoming Hitler Sites (McFarland), which
is a historical guide to 150 places in Germany, Austria and France associated
with the life of Adolf Hitler.
Wannsee House traces the villa's background from its construction in 1914
by a prosperous Berlin merchant and its sale in 1921 to a right-wing
industrialist to its purchase by Gestapo chief Reinhard Heydrich with plundered
Jewish money as a vacation spa for Nazi security police. Ultimately, it was the
location for the conference at which genocide was plotted.
"'God will give him blood to drink!' was the curse of a man hanged for
witchcraft that fell upon the inhabitants of Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of
The Seven Gables," Dr. Lehrer writes in his introduction. "The Wannsee Villa
bears a certain eerie resemblance to Hawthorne's fictional creation, its
inhabitants cursed by the evil period of German history to which the house stood
The book, organized as a series of tightly written vignettes, emphasizes that
the Wannsee Conference was not the administrative genesis of the Nazis' plans to
annihilate European Jewry. Rather, it coordinated and consolidated what was
already under way. "By the time of the Wannsee Conference...the Einsatz groups,
operating behind the army frontlines, had murdered more than half a million
people. Thus there was no need of a decision at the conference to commit mass
murder. The Wannsee Conference facilitated the killing."
After World War II, the house became a center for political seminars, then a
youth hostel. Fifty years later the building was inaugurated as a historical
memorial. In its halls are photographs of Nazi persecution; one room is
dedicated to Auschwitz.
The German decision to make the Wannsee house a shrine to victims is another
part of the society's effort to remember its past. This book ensures that
Wannsee will not be forgotten. --Steve Lipman.