'East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity', by Philippe Sands - Review

By Hahn, Daniel | The Spectator, May 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

'East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity', by Philippe Sands - Review


Hahn, Daniel, The Spectator


Prosecution for genocide or crimes against humanity is now a given in international law. But before the Nuremberg Trials, these two groundbreaking notions didn't exist. Daniel Hahn describes their origins and inspiration

One of the things Philippe Sands clearly remembers from his grandparents' Paris apartment -- a rather sombre, silent place -- is the lack of family photographs. There's a single, framed, unsmiling wedding photo, and that's all. There is no mood of bittersweet nostalgia, there are no nods to memory or history. Where did his grandparents come from? How did they end up as these people, whom he knew only towards the end of their lives? Retrieving that history, that deliberately unremembered story, is the beginning of Sands's task in this remarkable book.

Generically speaking, the story is familiar enough. Leon Buchholtz -- Sands's grandfather -- was born in what was then Lemberg, in the very heart of Europe. As the first world war began to take its toll on the family, young Leon and his surviving family moved west (like so many others), to Vienna. He married Rita, their marriage witnessed by her brother, Wilhelm, a dentist. Leon ran a liquor store. Then came the Anschluss; some Jews left, some remained. Leon was one of those who left. But his wife and their infant daughter -- Sands's mother -- stayed behind. Why? Rita would only leave on 9 November 1939, the day before the borders closed. Sands's two maternal great-grandmothers were soon on a train east, to Theresienstadt.

Eventually Leon and Rita settled in Paris, where he was involved with the French Resistance, sending packages to the camps and ghettos in German-occupied Poland. Among the documents Sands examined in his research were the postal receipts for these dispatches. For the rest of his life, Leon would keep a great deal of evidence -- some of which ended up with Sands's mother, Ruth, and another trove in a plastic shopping bag with his aunt Annie -- but he did not speak of this time.

Sands is tenacious in his investigations, however. He examines construction plans and permits; he conducts careful analysis of photos (he is a lawyer, after all, a professional scrutiniser of evidence); he consults school registers and cadastral records, undergoes DNA tests, visits significant places (sometimes wandering around Lemberg with three different historical maps).

And he has a taste for detail. Does it matter that Wilhelm was a dentist? That aunt Annie's stash of letters was in a plastic bag? It does. The detail makes for vivid reading, but it also serves posterity; it is memorial. We all know there are countless stories a bit like Leon's. My family has them, and so perhaps does yours. But that very countlessness is the most grotesque kind of shorthand, especially at a time of such extreme, mechanised dehumanisation. Think of prisoners in concentration camps, all indistinguishable in their striped uniforms, their heads all shaved; think of the ghetto Jews, each distilled to the presence of his essential, defining yellow star, the four million Jews and Poles murdered in Polish territory. The things that make the stories individual should matter. The dignity is in the detail. Sands carefully assembles one such story.

But Leon Buchholz is only part of it.

Dr Julius Makarewicz was a professor of law at the university of Lemberg. His students in 1917 included a young man by the name of Hersch Lauterpacht, intelligent and intense with a striking sense of humour. Lauterpacht had been born in Zólkiew (where Leon's family was from, too), and lived in Lemberg from his teenage years. Lauterpacht's courses at the university included one on 'optimism and pessimism', while Makarewicz taught him Austrian criminal law. He, too, would move to Vienna; and 15 years before Leon would flee to Paris, Lauterpacht made for England. In England he would develop his ideas about the formation and enforcing of international law, regardless of state jurisdictions. …

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