‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands

I’m going a bit highbrow this week – any lawyers in the room? I’m not a big reader of non-fiction, so a few months ago I set myself the task of reading a couple of books from the shortlist of the Baillie Gifford Prize, one of the most prestigious non-fiction awards in the world. I read Negroland by Margo Jefferson, which I really enjoyed and reviewed here back in February. East West Street actually won the prize; I enjoyed this a little less than Negroland, I have to say, but it is a remarkable work and it wasn’t what I was expecting.

East West Street img

These days we take for granted the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’; they are used fairly frequently, especially since the Balkan war in the 1990s, and fairly interchangeably, it seems to me. But did you know that these were only established as legal terms at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War? The gravity and scale of the crimes committed by the Nazis is largely undisputed, but when it came to actually bringing individuals to justice at the court of law in Nuremberg in the post-war atmosphere, charges had to be specified and evidence had to be considered. In many ways, it seems to me, it was a piece of theatre, but the legal minds at the time were severely exercised. And I guess if you are on the winning side, both militarily and morally, the pressure to maintain the moral high-ground is immense. The victors had to be seen to be following a path of rectitude and adherence to international standards of law.

“Jackson [presiding judge at the Nuremberg trial] crafted each word with care, signalling its significance. He spoke of the victors’ generosity and the responsibility of the vanquished, of the calculated, malignant, devastating wrongs that were to be condemned and punished. Civilization would not tolerate their being ignored, and they must not be repeated. ‘That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengenace and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgement of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to reason.'”

(p.288, quote from Judge Robert H. Jackson, opening the Nuremberg trial)

This book provides a historical account of the intellectual tussle between two of the finest legal minds of the time: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Lauterpacht fought for the term ‘crimes against humanity’ whereas Lemkin wanted ‘genocide’. To most of us the differences between the two might seem inconsequential, but the differences are in fact, as is discussed in the book, fundamental to the basis of international law. This is not the place for me to rehearse the arguments (even if I could!). I did struggle with the legal minutiae of the book, though I was able to grasp the broad concepts and it certainly made me think about an issue which I can honestly say I have never thought about before. And it was interesting, honestly!

So far I have probably made the book seem dry and dull to the average reader (though perhaps sexy to any of you legal eagles!), but prizes are not won by being dry and uninteresting and the author is far more successful than that; by far the more engaging aspects of this book are the human stories. East West Street is a thoroughfare in the city of Lviv, in modern day Ukraine, but which has previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of Poland. It is also a town with which both Lauterpacht and Lemkin were linked. Lviv plays a central role in the book because it provides a snapshot of the Nazis’ ambitions and methods.

The heart of this book, however, is the author’s own quest to find out about his grandparents, Leon and Malke Buchholz, a young Jewish couple from Lviv who were forced to leave their home with their baby daughter Ruth, the author’s mother. Leon and Malke have revealed little about their early life and the author has many unanswered questions. Now dead, he sets about researching his grandfather’s early life, the circumstances of his marriage and how it was he came to be in England with Malke and Ruth. The author becomes a detective investigating his own family history and confronts some difficult truths, as is often the case. He conducts this search alongside his research into the legal basis of the Nuremberg trials and finds links and parallels.

The book is broken up into distinct parts: for example, the opening chapter is about Leon and his early life and then there are similar chapters on Lauterpacht and Lemkin. These were the chapters I found most engaging and most moving. Towards the end is a very long chapter about Nuremberg itself which was fascinating as it was not something I knew very much about before. Some parts of the book were for me overly detailed and I skimmed through some of these.

Unquestionably, however, there lies at the heart of this book a deep and terrible tragedy about which it is always worth being reminded: how prejudice, ideology, lies and propaganda, stupefied a nation, and, combined with power and determination, saw the murder of millions of people and displaced or traumatised many millions more and the consequences are still being felt down the generations today.

This is a powerful book which I recommend if you have an interest in history or the law, or if you just like to read about uncovering family stories. It looks daunting but it’s actually a quicker read than you might think.

Have you read any non-fiction books that recently that you recommend?

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Author: myfamilyandotherbooks

Reader. Writer. Mother. Partner. Friend. Friendly.

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