When per­sonal meets po­lit­i­cal

A re­mark­able book tack­les a fam­ily’s fate – and war crimes, writes Vivien Hor­ler

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - WORLD IN PICTURES -

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.

Her­sch Lauter­pacht

Hans Frank

Rafael Lemkin

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