Review: ‘East West Street’

Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity is a book unlike any other, a work impossible to categorise. The work has recently won the Bailie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, but to label it as such could be limiting: Sands presents no usual work of non-fiction. Combining  memoir, biography, work of history and study of international law, it could most aptly be described as a ‘biography of a generation’ (as Mark Mazower argues) or of generations — generations that still live with the trauma of genocide and try to find justice in its aftermath, generations that suffered from a lack of international law before the 1945-1946 Nuremberg Trials, and generations that benefit from it today. The Nuremberg trials are now seen as the birth of modern international law because of the actions of the lawyers – and principal characters of the book – Herscht Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. However, for Sands, these men also demonstrate the still-present irreconcilable divisions between international lawyers. Whereas Lauterpacht viewed the individual as the ‘unit of the law’, Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ to describe the mass murder of groups, two ideas which led to the institution of international law at Nuremberg but also threaten to undermine it. East West Street traces the stories of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, whose lives first intersected when they both studied in the city of Lviv, alongside that of Leon Buchholz, Sands’ grandfather, who lost most of his extended family when the city of Lviv was occupied by the Nazis.

Cover of East West Street, courtesy of the publisher.
Cover of East West Street, courtesy of the publisher.

At the centre of this book is a Ukrainian city. It is known as Lviv today, but it has had many other names: Lwow, Lemberg, and Lvov all refer to the same place. ‘Between September 1914 and July 1944’, Sands writes, ‘control of the city changed hands eight times’, control of the city eventually passing to Germany. Until that point, one of its few constants had been its sizeable Jewish population, a constant that soon disappeared. For Sands, the loss of its Jewish population caused Lviv to lose much of its identity. The city emerges early on as the fifth principal character of East West Street. Yet it is even more than a character; it is a ‘microcosm of Europe’s turbulent twentieth century, the focus of bloody conflicts that tore cultures apart’. In Lviv, the families of the two Nuremberg lawyers and Sands’ grandfather were destroyed, sent to concentration camps or murdered, along with so many more. Sands’ book itself is structured around the focal point of Lviv, which pulls the narrative threads together.

Sands’ Lviv is both real and imagined. It is a Lviv of ideas, of nostalgia, of passed-down memory, and of fiction. East West Street shows how, through family memory and through fiction, the past can be recovered, but never in its entirety. Lisa Appignanesi compares the work to a thriller: we only realise clues are clues retrospectively; letters, signatures and photos allowing Sands to piece together the story of his family. Sands quotes Nicholas Abraham: ‘what haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others’. These gaps still remain. There is a sense of the horror that permeated ordinary life haunting the book, but daily life is nevertheless there; the individual and the personal remains against the backdrop of historical turbulence.

Portrait of the author by John Reynolds, courtesy of the publisher.
Portrait of the author by John Reynolds, courtesy of the publisher.

Throughout the book one of Sands’ main preoccupations is the contrast between Lauterpacht and Lemkin’s views of how international law should operate. His deep discomfort with the idea that individual lives are deemed less valuable than the lives of those that constitute a specific group is clear from the very beginning of this work. He considers the difference between Lauterpacht’s and Lemkin’s ideas on ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’; ‘these two distinct crimes … grew side by side, yet over time genocide emerged in the eyes of many as the crime of crimes, a hierarchy that left a suggestion that the killing of large numbers of people as individuals was somehow less terrible’.  Such a hierarchy, Sands suggests, fuels the nationalist feeling that creates genocide in the first place.

Hans Frank, Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Poland, is another principal character of the book. Sands considers Niklas, Hans’ son, a friend. Niklas may be German, but he’s also a man who despises his father’s actions, who calls the room in which his father was given the death sentence ‘a happy room, for me and for the world’. The respect Sands has for Niklas Frank resounds through the book, leading him to recognise that sometimes the individual has to matter above the group.

At the centre of the work is not only the city of Lviv but also the concept of what a city can and should be, in all its heterogeneous glory. For Sands a country should be an amalgamation of cultures, religions, peoples, a source of ideas just as potent as those that led to the Nuremberg Trial and the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 1998. The loss of such heterogeneity is untenable for Sands and for him it is the task of the individual – as Lauterpacht did, as Lemkin did – to work on restoration, on restitution, to ensure that such loss does not occur again.

Sands’ book is ambivalent. He recognises the power of the law, the good that it can enact, but also the many, many times it fails. He states that ‘this is where I end East West Street, caught between poles of head and heart, of intellect and instinct’. He recognizes that Lemkin’s conception of international law allows for the protection of the group, but remains instinctively uneasy with Lauterpacht’s idea that the group is privileged above the individual. In writing about the remarkable city of Lviv, home as it was to both these lawyers as well as the writer’s own family, Sands is able to recount the history of international law while raising questions about its future.

Tilly Nevin

‘East West Street’ is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP £9.99.

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One comment

  1. This book is incredible and moved me deeply. It accounts the horror of genocide but infuses it with the most lyrical feeling of family alive and family lost. At the end of every short chapter a sentence weighed more than every word before it. Leaving the reader with a heavy heart and a desire to read on. A masterpiece. Thank you for this gift Mr Sands.

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