Holo­caust mem­oir opens new worlds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

East West Street: On the Ori­gins of Geno­cide and Crimes against Hu­man­ity By Philippe Sands Ha­chette, 464pp, $32.99

It is sur­pris­ing, some­times, to re­alise that words car­ry­ing huge moral weight in our lan­guage have ar­rived only re­cently. “Crimes against hu­man­ity” and “geno­cide” are such words, coined in the af­ter­math of World War II to de­scribe the most heinous crimes — in­clud­ing the at­tempt to ex­ter­mi­nate Euro­pean Jewry, the mass mur­der of Pol­ish in­tel­lec­tu­als and other ide­o­log­i­cally driven atroc­i­ties — com­mit­ted by the Na­tional So­cial­ist regime in Ger­many.

Philippe Sands, a Bri­tish bar­ris­ter and in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights spe­cial­ist who has worked on some high-pro­file cases, in­clud­ing at the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court and the ex­tra­di­tion of Chilean dic­ta­tor Au­gus­tus Pinochet, has writ­ten a re­mark­able book about the birth of those con­cepts. It is a per­sonal mem­oir cou­pled with foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his own fam­ily his­tory, the his­tory of the Holo­caust, and the his­tory of law, all of which he weaves into a com­pelling mas­ter­work: vivid, mov­ing and in­struc­tive.

His jour­ney be­gan when he was in­vited by Lviv Uni­ver­sity in Ukraine to de­liver a lec­ture on in­ter­na­tional law. He de­cided it was a chance to ex­plore all the “haunt­ing gaps” in his fam­ily his­tory that he be­lieved were some­how con­nected to his choice of pro­fes­sion.

Sands’s mother, Ruth, and his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Leon Buch­holz, came from Lviv, though he knew lit­tle of their wartime ex­pe­ri­ence. Like many who sur­vived the Holo­caust, they con­veyed the hor­ror only by hints and looks and sighs. He re­calls his grand­par­ents’ Paris flat as or­dered and dig­ni­fied, his grand­fa­ther as “re­strained”, his grand­mother as “de­tached”. In his pro­logue he quotes psy­cho­an­a­lyst Ni­co­las Abra­ham on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween grand­child and grand­par­ent: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the se­crets of oth­ers.”

Be­fore trav­el­ling to Lviv in the au­tumn of 2010 for his lec­ture, he spent the sum­mer go­ing through old fam­ily doc­u­ments, talk­ing to his mother and study­ing the lit­er­a­ture of the re­gion: books, maps, old pho­tos, news­reels, po­ems, songs. The town had been se­quen­tially known as Lem­berg, Lvov, Lwow or Lviv, de­pend­ing on whether Aus­tro-Hun­gary, Poland, Rus­sia, Ger­many or Ukraine had con­trol of it. Be­tween Septem­ber 1914 and July 1944, the city changed hands eight times.

He quickly re­alised the first, and keen­est, of the many co­in­ci­dences that arose in his re­searches. The in­ter­na­tional lawyers who coined those two in­dis­pens­able terms of con­tem­po­rary in­ter­na­tional law — Her­sch Lauter­pacht and Raphael Lemkin — had lived in Lviv, or Lem­berg as it was then, for a time. Sands’s ti­tle refers to Lem­berg Street, the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian name of the street that ran in that di­rec­tion in his great-grand­mother’s home town, Zolkiew, nearby: the street where most of Lauter­pacht’s fam­ily also lived. The ar­chi­tect of the Nazis’ Fi­nal Solution in Poland, Hitler’s former lawyer Hans Frank, ad­min­is­tered the ter­ri­tory that in­cluded both those towns.

Sands be­friended Frank’s son, Niklas, dur­ing the course of his re­search. He also be­came close to Horst, son of Otto von Wachter, the gov­er­nor of Gali­cia who was im­me­di­ately in charge of the Fi­nal Solution in Lem­berg. Both be­came key fig­ures in Sands’s re­cent film, My Nazi Legacy. The core pe­riod of his new book

East West Street is book­ended by the Nurem­berg laws, which be­gan to strip civil and po­lit­i­cal rights from Ger­man Jews in 1935, and the Nurem­berg tri­als, which be­gan in 1945 and re­sulted in the death penalty for 10 Nazi ad­mi­nis- tra­tors, in­clud­ing Hans Frank. The story of Sands’s fam­ily, and his path to find­ing all the fugi­tive de­tails that fi­nally came to­gether in the nar­ra­tive, is grip­ping. He would find out that most of his ex­tended fam­ily — and Lauter­pacht’s and Lemkin’s — died in the Holo­caust. It is the his­tory of Lauter­pacht’s and Lemkin’s fight to get their le­gal con­cepts in­cluded in in­ter­na­tional law, how­ever, that is the most in­tel­lec­tu­ally thrilling.

“Imag­ine the killing of 100,000 peo­ple who hap­pened to come from the same group, Jews or Poles in the city of Lviv,” Sands ex­plained to a stu­dent who asked about the dif­fer­ence be­tween crimes against hu­man­ity and geno­cide af­ter his lec­ture there. “For Lauter­pacht, the killing of in­di­vid­u­als, if part of a sys­tem­atic plan, would be a crime against hu­man­ity. For Lemkin, the fo­cus was geno­cide, the killing of the many with the in­ten­tion of de­stroy­ing the group of which they were part.” The dif­fer­ence in law turned on the in­ten­tions of the killers.

Lemkin is al­ready quite well known: the lone, im­por­tu­nate fig­ure, who sin­gle-mind­edly worked in Europe and the US to have his coinage in­cluded in law. Lauter­pacht is per­haps less well known, but he was a more es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure and he worked closely on the word­ing of the Char­ter of the Mil­i­tary Tri­bunal that over­saw the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court. Their sto­ries in­ter­sect with that of Jan Karski, the non-Jewish Pole who tire­lessly sought to get Al­lied au­thor­i­ties to re­alise and act on the hor­ror un­fold­ing in the War­saw ghetto and the ex­ter­mi­na­tion camps.

In fact, Sands’s scrupu­lous re­search into these men’s lives and work — and Franks’s less ad­mirable ca­reer — is in­ter­spersed with any num­ber of interesting mi­nor char­ac­ters as well as side is­sues in law and pol­i­tics that il­lu­mi­nate the his­tory of the era. It is also leav­ened by colour­ful vi­gnettes. In 1922, for ex­am­ple, when Lauter­pacht was elected chair­man of the World Union of Jewish stu­dents in Vi­enna, where he was writ­ing his doc­toral the­sis on the new League of Na­tions, he hired a house­keeper for the stu­dent dor­mi­tory. Her name was Paula Hitler: they were un­aware her brother was the leader of the fledg­ling but fast-grow­ing Na­tional So­cial­ist Party.

Sands’s own prej­u­dices slip through: he is clearly less en­am­oured of Lemkin the man, as well as his con­cept, than he is of Lauter­pacht. There is also the odd slip: he says for ex­am­ple, that Yu­goslavia en­tered the war on the side of Ger­many, even though it was oc­cu­pied and its king fled to Lon­don — one of the gov­ern­ments-in-ex­ile Sands men­tions a scant few pages later. But these are less than quib­bles. This is not just an­other Holo­caust mem­oir to add to the shelf of es­sen­tial moral and his­tor­i­cal read­ing. Sands’s fine study opens up worlds within the worlds we thought we al­ready knew.

Miriam Cosic is a jour­nal­ist and au­thor.

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