Holocaust memoir opens new worlds
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.