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X-Ray Visions

The New York Jewish Week
July 27, 2001

cover of Wannsee House and the HolocaustThe 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.

“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 Frank Buck.

“I guess I’m interested in different things,” Lehrer, a Los Angeles native, explains.

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 monument.

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 her approach.”

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 says.

Lehrer doesn’t encourage his readers to visit the places he has visited. “I think reading about it is enough.”

Steve Lipman

Hadassah Magazine Review—January 2002

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 witness."

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.