‘East West Street’ – a remarkable Holocaust biography

“East West Street” is a most remarkable book and deserves the widest possible readership.

A book (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A book (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
“EAST WEST STREET” is the outstanding collective biography of four men. Three were lawyers, one the owner of a liquor store.
The merchant and two of the lawyers were Jews. The remaining lawyer, whose most notable client and patron was Adolf Hitler, was part of the Nazis’ extermination machinery. That lawyer would have happily sent the others to Auschwitz, Belzec or Treblinka. The three managed to elude that fate. But scores upon scores of their relatives did not.
The two Jewish lawyers, like the author of this book, became world-renowned experts on international criminal law. The liquor store owner was the author’s grandfather. All of them lived and studied in the city of Lemberg, which was also known, depending on who was the occupying power, as Lwow, Lviv, and Lvov. Between World War I and the end of World War II, eight different nations ruled the city. Then, mostly Poles lived there: now the population is mainly Ukrainian. The third lawyer in this story was German and was the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland.
Just as Lemberg was a common factor in the lives of Prof. Sands’s four central figures, so too was Nuremberg. It was there after the war that the victorious Allied nations conducted the war crimes trial of the 21 highest-ranking surviving Nazis. Among the defendants was that former governor-general, Hans Frank, also known as “the Butcher of Poland.” The prosecution’s case against the Nazis was to a large extent formulated by those two Jewish lawyers, namely Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin.
It may be difficult for us today to appreciate just how unprecedented and problematic the Nuremberg trials were. Just what exactly constituted war crimes? What about a regime’s crimes that took place before a state of war existed? Did outsiders have the right to judge a state’s actions against its own citizens, especially when the state in question deemed its actions lawful? What precisely were the charges to be brought against Hans Frank, Hermann Goring, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer, Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and the others? How were the charges to be defined? And could the Americans, the British, the French and the Soviet Russians, with their different legal systems, agree on any of these things?
These issues and many related questions were resolved to a great extent by the efforts of those two Lemberg legalists, Lauterpacht and Lemkin. But interestingly, while the pair frequently came close to crossing paths and were acutely aware of each other’s work, the two actually never met. Even more piquantly, they remained at loggerheads for decades over a crucial issue in international criminal law.
Lauterpacht, who held three doctoral degrees, became a professor of international law at Cambridge University. He is chiefly remembered today for promoting the notion of “crimes against humanity,” which became a central charge in the Nuremberg prosecution. (Lauterpacht did not actually coin the term, but he largely provided the legal reasoning for its application in the trial.) Lemkin, who taught international law at various American universities and, like Lauterpacht, was a consultant to government agencies on war crimes, is credited with the invention of the term “genocide.” Chiefly because it was a neologism, “genocide” was not readily embraced in the immediate post-war era. In addition, the Americans feared the term could be used against them in regard to their treatment of Native Americans and blacks, and the Brits were concerned that the charge could be brought against them in respect to colonialism. With good reason, the concept of genocide also worried the Soviets.
Lauterpacht and Lemkin, meanwhile, were opponents in a manner that perhaps only legalistic pilpulists could appreciate. Lauterpacht favored the phrase “crimes against humanity” because he believed it endorsed the notion of a universal right of the individual, something never previously established in law. Just as doggedly, Lemkin demanded recognition of a term for a war of extermination against a group, because Jews, gypsies, and other minorities had been victimized precisely because they belonged to groups. Lauterpacht and his supporters argued that this simply reinforced the notion of group against group action, diminishing individual responsibility – and individual suffering. Perhaps this was hairsplitting, but it pales in comparison with a related question of international jurisprudence that hinged on the interpretation of a comma – a determination that I admit remains beyond my layman’s comprehension. Round and round went the ar guments, with crimes against humanity becoming enshrined in international law first, and only much later genocide earning the same recognition.
Philippe Sands recounts this history with, on the one hand, the widest possible scope, and on the other hand with obsessive scrutiny. He puts the legal questions in illuminating perspective, even as he relates the stories of his principals with stunning detail. He not only quotes every relevant document, he often unearths the handwritten versions to winkle out marginalia. He examines every surviving photograph and map as through a jeweler’s loup. He visits every pertinent site, including the cells that held the Nuremberg defendants. It seems he interviews every germane witness, survivor, relative and descendant. These, many of them nonagenarians, he tracks down in country after country.
And he puts a human face on this story of international law and criminality by uncovering the life of that liquor store owner, Sands’s maternal grandfather, Leon Buchholz. This is a story well worth telling. As a child Sands knew his grandfather but knew nothing of his wartime experience, because to the end of his life Leon refused to discuss the matter. Working from scant documents, unidentified photographs, scribblings on scraps of paper, old school records, telephone directories and much more, Sands does an utterly amazing job of piecing together not only how Leon Buchholz managed to survive the Holocaust, but also how his daughter, who was Sands’s mother, escaped as well. (Most of Leon’s other relatives perished.) In doing so, Sands contrives to solve numerous mysteries in a manner that would put many a seasoned investigative reporter to shame.
Folding an author’s personal story into a work of history is not uncommon these days. A notable example is James Carroll’s much acclaimed 2001 history of Church antisemitism, “Constantine’s Sword,” in which the writer, a former priest, interwove his biography into 2,000 years of history. To my mind that made for an unwieldy, overstuffed and ultimately frustrating book. But Sands’s family history brings to life what might have been merely an academic discussion of the underpinnings of the Nuremberg trials, a legal procedure in which all too often the victims of the Final Solution were overlooked.
Sands goes beyond bringing just the victims into focus: his research leads him to the sons of two Nuremberg defendants, Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, the governor-general of Poland, and Horst von Wachter, the son of Otto von Wachter, the governor of Krakow and later of Lemberg and Galicia. Both of the fathers were enthusiastic antisemites and did their utmost to facilitate the Final Solution. The two sons had widely varying views of the fathers, a matter explored in “My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did,” a chilling documentary film Sands made with the sons in 2015.
A professor at University College London and a practicing barrister, Philippe Sands himself has had a distinguished career in international law, involving himself in such issues as the legality of the American invasion of Iraq, the CIA’s use of torture, the Guantanamo detainees, the international arms trade, the law of the sea, numerous environmental matters, and the prosecution of such murderous heads of state as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević. Sands has written books on these and other subjects – and indeed, there is no accounting for why this academician and lawyer is such a gifted writer. “East West Street” is brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed.
And what research. Who else might discover that when he was studying law in Vienna, Hersch Lauterpacht was in charge of a Jewish student dormitory where the housekeeper was one Paula Hitler, the future Fuhrer’s sister? Who else would find that in 1942 Hans Frank would induce Baedeker to publish a guide to occupied Poland, a book for which Frank wrote the introduction? Who else would determine that his great-grandmother had been shipped to Treblinka on a thousand-kilometer train journey that included among its 1,985 prisoners Sigmund Freud’s three sisters, aged 78, 81 and 82?
“East West Street” is a most remarkable book and deserves the widest possible readership.