With East West Street, Philippe Sands maps the intersection of unspeakable crime and modern justice

The international lawyer and award-winning writer delves into the implications of being other.
International lawyer, Philippe Sands, documents his grandfather's life under Nazi rule in the family memoir, East West Street. (John Reynolds/Vintage)
Listen to the full episode58:51

Philippe Sands' award-winning book East West Street is a work of nonfiction that's as gripping as any novel. It tells the remarkable story of four men who never actually met, but whose lives intersected in a moment of great historical significance; connected by a place — the city of Lviv, in what's now Ukraine — and the horrors of the Second World War.

One man was Sands' own maternal grandfather, Leon Buchholz, whose family were murdered in the Holocaust. Two others, Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, were leading international lawyers who developed the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide — first applied in the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46. The fourth man, Hans Frank, was Hitler's own lawyer, a high-ranking Nazi official, who was tried and hanged at Nuremberg.
 
As a specialist in international law in London, England, Philippe Sands was instrumental in the negotiations that led to the founding of the International Criminal Court in 1998. An invitation to Lviv to speak about the Nuremberg Trials led to the journey of discovery, both personal and professional, that becameEast West Street.  
 
Sands spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from the CBC's London studio. 

Before genocide

"In essence, the project and the book are about identity. I started off as an academic and went into the field of the environment, then human rights and international criminal law. That was the area I was working on when East West Street came along. I'd written many other books before, but this one was different because this one was deeply personal. I was looking to discover who I was. As with many people who've been through traumatic experiences, my grandfather never talked about what happened before 1945. As I went through documents, I discovered the house where he was born. I noticed that my great-grandmother was born in a small town just outside Lviv, on a street the writer Joseph Roth would call 'east west street,' hence the title of the book. It is a place where a great deal of blood was spilt. What happened in the course of writing the book was that I came to understand that, for each of us, our relationship with the one or many groups with which we happen to be principally associated, is very much a part of our existence and who we are."

The growing pains of justice

"The Nuremberg Trials were a revolutionary moment. It was the first time in human history that the leaders of a sovereign state had been held to account before an international court. Until 1945, if a country wanted to kill half of its population, there was nothing international law could do to stop that from happening. No one intervened because there was no right to intervene. Of course, countries which themselves had difficult track records — the United Kingdom as a former colonial power, the United States in relation to the American Indian community and to African Americans in the southern states — were very anxious. 1945 was the moment when concepts like crimes against humanity and modern human rights and genocide came into being. I've asked myself, what is it that causes people to react more strongly to the destruction of groups than the destruction of large numbers of individuals? Underlying those issues is the question how do we treat the 'other' — and that is essentially a question of identity."  

Implications

"Hans Frank was a lawyer and became Adolf Hitler's closest legal confidant. He was appointed Governor-General of occupied Poland and constructed many of the most notorious concentration camps. The Frank diaries became one of the most important items of evidence in the Nuremberg Trial. Why did he not destroy them? I can't really answer that question, it makes no sense at all. He can't truly have believed that the diaries would actually help him in his defense because they contain such devastating material in terms of the things he said and ordered. Fascinated in hearing the stories of those left behind, I made a film about my relationship with the son of Hans Frank, called My Nazi Legacy. It deals with the different ways in which the children of these perpetrators have had to live with the burden of what their fathers did. They, of course, are not responsible for the actions of their fathers; but how they live under the shadow of what their fathers did or what their mothers did is a really huge thing."

Philippe Sands's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott from Johann Sebastian Bach's Matthäus-Passion, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe performed by La Chapelle Royale.