“East west street” by Philippe Sands: piecing together family history and human rights

This book made me reflect for the first time how in the early C20 when long-established stable empires were beginning to crumble, “Each country, old or new, was free to treat those who lived within its borders as it wished. International law offered few constraints on the majority’s treatment of minorities, and no rights for individuals”. The European Convention on Human Rights was not signed until 1950.

A few years before writing this book, lawyer Philippe Sands received an unexpected invitation to lecture in the Ukrainian city of Lviv on the human rights cases in which he had been involved,  his academic work on the Nuremberg trials and their consequences for the modern world. The location of Lviv proved a remarkable coincidence on several counts. Being in the “Bloodlands” of Eastern Europe, it represents a microcosm of a succession of human rights abuses, not least the Holocaust. In three decades from 1914, the city changed hands eight times, passing from the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire between Russians, Poles and Germans before ending up in Ukraine, by turns named Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov and Lwów. It  also happened to be the home town of the author’s Jewish grandfather Leon, who  ended up living in Paris with his wife, never speaking of events which had destroyed most of their relatives.

The initial letter “L” appears again in the names of the two Jewish lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin who played a significant role in the development of international human rights legislation, and happened to study in Lviv, being taught by the same lecturers in some cases but apparently not meeting each other in person at the time.  The final coincidence lies in the fact that Hans Frank, one of the key Nazis tried at Nuremberg, committed or turned a blind eye to  his atrocities when he was appointed Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland  which included Lemberg, as it was then called.

Lauterpacht argued that “the well-being of the individual is the ultimate object of all law”, while Lemkin coined the term “genocide” to describe the destruction of groups. At first, Lauterpacht’s argument that a focus on the protection of groups would undermine that of individuals seemed to me like academic hair-splitting. It seems undeniable that people may be persecuted both as individuals or as distinct groups, from the Jews to the Palestinians and the Rohinjas of Burma in the present day.

However, I was swayed in the end by the author’s argument that, “the need to prove the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, as the Genocide Convention requires can have unhappy….. consequences. ….The crime of genocide has distorted the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, because it stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs (as in the case of Armenians massacred in Turkey)….. People feel compelled to belong to groups and …… are killed because they happen to be members of a certain group…..The recognition of this fact in law tends to make more likely the possibility of conflict between groups by reinforcing the sense of group identity….  Defining the crime of genocide will end up giving rise to the very conditions it seeks to ameliorate”.

With its focus on this theme, the book is saved from unbearable bleakness by the author’s vivid evocation of life in Lviv, when Jewish communities lived with others on stable, reasonably amicable terms. Perhaps inevitably pursuing a forensic approach, Philippe Sands sometimes indulges in too much detail, as when he deploys a pair of law students to help him trawl through records from 1915-1919 to piece together Lauterpacht’s precise course of study, subjects, tutors and dates. The purpose is to understand what ideas may have influenced him, in common with Lemkin, but the inclusion of the details in the main text rather than an Appendix seems a bit excessive. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the photographs of the Nuremberg courtroom for which Sands  identifies individuals.

There is an unexpected human touch in the evident friendship formed between the author and Niklas, remorseful son of the unrepentant Hans Frank, eventually hanged at Nuremberg. The gentle Niklas keeps a photograph of his father’s body after the hanging, “To remind me, to make sure, that he is dead”.

Although overlong, also a little dry and repetitious in places, this distinctive book, hard to categorise by reason of being part detective story, part painstakingly discovered family history, but also a reflection on the impact of crimes against humanity,  is  certainly worth reading and lingers in one’s mind.

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