Brilliant view of one man’s history against the sweep of war

nuremberg trial

The defendants at the Nuremberg trial are sitting in the two rows in front of the military police. Hans Frank is the man in the sunglasses in the middle of the front row. The men in front of the defendants are their lawyers.

east west street

Review: Vivien Horler

East West Street, by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld and Nicolson/ Jonathan Ball)

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 it into the wider context of war and of the Nuremberg Tribunal that followed.

This wide view enables him to write adjoining sentence 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 1945 Nuremberg trial. The trial itself 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.

And the recognised rights of the individual 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 his work on these crimes.

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 Austro-Hungarian 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.

Another character was Rafael Lemkin, a Jewish prosecutor and lawyer, who moved to Lwów in 1921, and who introduced the charge of “genocide” to Nuremberg.

And 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 under his watch 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, Sand’s one-year-old mother, who 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 – only after the nuns insisted on having her baptised.

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 fascinating journey Sands goes on to find out the heartbreaking truth of what happened to his family in the war years. His research also involved meeting the sons of both Lauterpacht and Frank.

And there is the bigger picture of the decision taken by the Allies as early as 1942, against a background of reports of terrible atrocities in German-occupied territories, to make eventual 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 accepted in the late 1940s led to the gathering international outrage against apartheid that eventually saw it overturned.

East West Street is both personal and political, and a fascinating and sobering read.

*This review also appears in Weekend Argus on Sunday on October 29 2017.

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