When personal meets political
A remarkable book tackles a family’s fate – and war crimes, writes Vivien Horler
MANY people have written accounts of their experience of World War II or the Holocaust, each story becoming part of a mosaic that contributes to a bigger picture of a time that tore the world apart.
What Philippe Sands has done in this extraordinary book is to write an account of his family’s experiences, but set in the wider context of the war and of the Nuremberg Tribunal that followed.
This wide view enables him to write adjoining sentences like: “The elderly living in Austria or Germany would first be sent to an old people’s ghetto in Theresienstadt. My great-grandmothers Malke Buchholz and Rosa Landes were among them.”
Sands is a professor of law at University College London and has worked as an international lawyer in cases involving the Congo, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq and Guantanamo.
The sub-title of this book is On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, terms that were first used in the Nuremberg trial that followed the end of the war.
The trial was ground-breaking, being the first prosecution of a country’s leaders for crimes against its own citizens.
While in the past international law had allowed a state to treat its nationals as it wished, the court found that after the horror of
World War II, this was no longer acceptable. People’s fundamental human rights trumped those of the state.
The recognised rights of the individual also extended to the responsibilities of the individual, so that Germans were unable to hide behind the “just following orders” defence.
In the late 1990s, Sands was involved in the case brought against Augusto Pinochet, the former president of Chile, who was arrested in London to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. This led to Sands being invited to give a lecture in the Ukrainian town of Lviv on such work.
He explains the difference in the charges: crimes against humanity are the killings of individuals on a large scale, while genocide is the destruction of groups.
The invitation offered him the chance to explore how the two charges had developed side by side in international law and also to travel to the town where his grandfather Leon Buchholz had been born.
Before World War I, Lviv was part of the AustroHungarian empire and known as Lemberg.
After the war, it became part of newly independent Poland, known as Lwów, until the outbreak of World War II, when it was occupied by the Soviets under the name of Lvov.
In 1941, the Germans took the city and renamed it Lemberg, only for it to become Lviv, as part of Ukraine after the war.
During WWI, Sands’s Jewish grandfather Buchholz was 10 when the family left the city for Vienna after the death of his brother and father.
Another character around whose life this story is woven is that of Hersch Lauterpacht, a Jewish, later British-based professor of international law whose family moved to Lemberg in 1911.
The charge of “crimes against humanity” was part of his contribution to the Nuremburg trial.
Rafael Lemkin, a Jewish prosecutor and lawyer, who moved to Lwów in 1921, had introduced the charge of “genocide” to Nuremberg.
The final major character of this story is that of the German Hans Frank, Hitler’s former lawyer who, in 1939, became the Fuhrer’s representative in German-occupied Poland. It was on his watch that millions of people were sent to the gas chambers. Frank was one of the 21 defendants at Nuremberg.
There is so much to say about this book, the wider stories and the personal stories like that of Ruth, Sands’s mother who, aged 1, was escorted from German-held Vienna to Paris in the early years of World War II by an English missionary called
Miss Tilney. Or that of Inka, Lauterpacht’s niece, who as a 12-year- old saw her parents taken by the Germans in Lemberg and who survived the war by sheltering in a Catholic convent, after the nuns insisted on baptising her.
There is the information preserved in Frank’s diaries detailing his “achievements” in ridding Poland of Jews and other “undesirables” that he took with him when he fled back to Germany after the Soviets reached Krakow and which formed the basis of the Nuremberg prosecution against him.
There is also the experience Sands undergoes to find out the heartbreaking truth of what happened to his family in the war years. His painstaking research included meeting the sons of Lauterpacht and of Frank.
Then there is the bigger picture of the decision taken by the Allies, in 1942, against a background of reports of terrible atrocities in Germanoccupied territories, to make punishment for war crimes an official aim of the war.
Much of what emerges is echoed in my mind in the South Africa of the apartheid years – the idea that what people were doing was all right because it was legal, in terms of government legislation, although not legitimate in the eyes of the world.
A recognition of individual human rights in the late
1940s led to the gathering of international outrage against apartheid that eventually saw it overturned.
East West Street is personal and political, a fascinating and sobering read.
This and other reviews by Horler can be found on www. thebookspage.co.za.
The Nuremberg Tribunal marked a change in the way states were allowed to treat their citizens.