East West Street by Philippe Sands
Unusually, for a group that picks the books we read by theme – for October’s discussion, we went with a recommendation from another book group of a book that most of us would normally never have picked up. East West Street is a combination of family history during the first half of the 20th century, and a legal history of the ‘new’ crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity – which reached an initial climax at the Nuremberg trials. That all of the four main characters in this story had a connection to one city in Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Lviv/Lvov/Lwów/Lemberg – It has gone by many names during that period, as the city repeatedly changed hands – it is now in the Ukraine.
The book begins though at the end. In the Prologue, Sands, himself an International Lawyer visits the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, in the company of Niklas Frank, whose father, Hans, had been the Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Poland and had made several speeches in Lviv, and was sentenced to death at the trials in 1946. In the courtroom, Niklas…
…made his way to the place where his father sat during the trial, charged with crimes against humanity and genocide. Niklas sat down and leaned forward on the wooden rail. He looked at me, then around the room, and then he sighed. […] Niklas interrupted my thoughts. He spoke gently and firmly. ‘This is a happy room, for me, and for the world.’
It was immediately touching that Sands, whose family is descended from Polish Jews, and Niklas, the son of the man that may have sent many of them to their death, could become good friends.
We then travel back to Lemberg in the 1900s when Sands’s maternal Grandfather Leon Bucholtz was born. Leon was one of the few survivors of his family, moving to Vienna in 1937, and later to Paris. When Sands was given his papers after he died, and was invited to give a lecture in Lviv, the seeds of a detective story were sown to uncover his family’s story, setting it in context alongside Sands’s own professional interest in international law and how it developed. This first part of the book, the family history, was quite dense and complicated – reading rather like an episode of the TV genealogy series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ as Sands uncovered the hidden story of his roots. This part of the book was a little dull, but was broken up a little by the various photos, maps and documents that are included.
For me, the book really took off once we met the two lawyers, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin who essentially were behind crimes of humanity and genocide respectively. Both had lived in Lemberg at the same time as Sands’s grandfather. Having moved to London to study at the LSE in the mid-1920s, Lauterpacht was the chief advisor to the British prosecutor, Hartley Shawcross, at Nuremberg, and he was an active campaigner for human rights.
Lemkin who had an active legal career, escaped Poland via Lithuania to Sweden in 1939, but 49 of his family members were lost in the Holocaust. He’d been formulating his ideas for some time already having been interested in what is now known as the ‘Armenian Genocide’ of 1915. When he moved to become a professor at Duke University in the USA in 1941, he developed his ideas of crimes against a whole race or tribe fully – coining the term genocide.
Lauterpacht and Lemkin had a professional rivalry. Lauterpacht solidly believed that crimes against humanity, which are against an individual or group, and the much wider genocide were incompatible, and Sands tells us all about how Lemkin worked tirelessly behind the scenes at Nuremberg to get genocide into the indictments at Nuremberg. This rivalry and Hans Frank’s attempts to evade being sentenced for these terrible crimes, gave the latter parts of the book the flavour of a legal thriller which made for compelling reading.
Definitely a book of two halves, one of which was dull, the other utterly compelling, as several of our group also found. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book though as it was so enlightening about difficult topics and brought this important role of law to life. This was recognized by it winning the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction in 2016. (7.5/10)