Books: The origins of ‘genocide’

Law professor Philippe Sands recounts how war crimes charges came to be.

Nazi defendants listen to testimony at the Nuremberg trials, which set a precedent for prosecuting crimes against humanity (photo credit: US HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM)
Nazi defendants listen to testimony at the Nuremberg trials, which set a precedent for prosecuting crimes against humanity
Philippe Sands, the internationally renowned human rights lawyer, lost his 94-year-old maternal grandfather in 1997.
Sands knew his grandfather well into his own adulthood, but there was an agonizing silence that surrounded him that made Sands keep his distance; something he now deeply regrets.
When Sands was invited to speak in 2010 about human rights at Lviv University in the Ukraine, also his grandfather’s birthplace, he began thinking much more about him. His maternal grandfather, Leon Buchholz, was a Galician Jew who moved to Vienna at the outbreak of World War I and then fled to Paris before the Germans occupied it in 1938; a Jewish man on the run.
Sands’s lecture at Lviv University focused on the Nuremberg Trial and two seminal Jewish thinkers who helped shaped the prosecution’s case against the high-ranking Nazis on trial; 19 of the 22 would be sentenced to death. Ironically, both of these men had attended Lviv University before the war and studied under the same professors, but thought very differently about the law, which fueled their rivalry. Hersch Lauterpacht thought it essential that the Nuremberg trial be shaped under the umbrella of “crimes against humanity” and individual human rights. His colleague Rafael Lemkin believed the term “genocide,” which focused on the protection of groups, should be the primary focus.
Lemkin meticulously collected the decrees the Nazis established beginning in 1941 that systematically targeted all Jews for extinction. He showed how the Nazis first forced the Jews to register, then wear the Star of David badge, then move into designated areas like the Warsaw Ghetto, and then threaten the Jews with death if they attempted to escape. Lemkin showed how this seizure of property and forced labor left the Jews destitute, and showed the undisputed intentionality of the Nazi master plan. Both men’s ideas were used by the prosecution at Nuremberg.
Sands spends considerable time weighing the merits of both men’s arguments, but sides with Lauterpacht, fearing that the very concept of genocide might reinforce group identity which he believes is not necessarily a good thing. This confuses the reader, who senses Sands’s commitment to fairness and the establishment of international law as the best check on war crimes and torture. Although he intellectually clings to his rationality like a life raft, we sense that his trip back to the Ukraine and his exploration of his own maternal family’s almost complete obliteration has shaken him.
Sands writes movingly about his maternal grandfather, saying: “Leon locked the first half of his life into a crypt. That must have been significant for my mother in the years after the war, but they were important for me, events that left lingering traces and many unanswered questions.
Why had I chosen the path of the law? And why law of the kind that seemed to be connected to an unspoken family history? ‘What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others,’ the psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham wrote of the relationship between a grandchild and a grandparent. The invitation from Lviv was a chance to explore these gaps...”
His grandfather, Leon Buchhol, lost both of his parents and a brother and two sisters to the Nazi’s carnage.
Sands travels to Lviv, now the Ukraine, with his 15-year-old son and his mother Ruth. His mother barely escaped the Nazi assault, and spent the first years of her life in hiding near Paris before being reunited with both her parents after a miraculous escape from Vienna that involved her father arranging for a gentile woman to bring her to Paris. Her father had already left and her mother remained there for a short while longer for mysterious reasons that become evident as his investigation continues.
Once in Ukraine, Sands sets out to find his grandfather’s apartment building and locates it, but when he rings the bell and is let in by neighbors, they tell him quietly that all the Jews have simply gone. The apartment his grandfather once occupied is currently empty. His research uncovers that his great-grandmother Malke – his grandfather’s mother – was killed at Treblinka 15 minutes after stepping off the train when she was 72. Everything he discovers seems to prompt more questions than answers.
Sands’s narrative voice begins to quiver with a raw sadness that one senses he has kept hidden for decades. He visits Treblinka and finds that nothing tangible remains except for a modest museum that holds a cheap model of the camp that once existed and patches of flattened grass.
He can’t help but think of all who perished there, remembering that this is where Freud’s sisters met their death. He travels to Warsaw where he gives a lecture about Lauterpacht and Lemkin.
He is troubled by the questions of the audience members, which center on whether he believes Lauterpacht and Lemkin considered their primary identity to be Jewish or Polish. He responds quietly that he could not see why it mattered. We sense that Sands, this modern-day London-raised secular Jew, is having trouble absorbing the strong residue of anti-Semitism that seems to linger everywhere. It is challenging his long-held beliefs about the universality of mankind.
His search for information about his own family intensifies.
He looks for relatives that may have survived; his rationality morphing into hot-blooded obsession. He finds a friend of his now deceased maternal grandmother and grandfather who is living in Tel Aviv and is a spritely 92.
The woman remembers his grandparents and tells him what she recalls, but she does not know what happened to her own parents. His research has discovered how they died and he asks her if she wants to be told. She nods quietly and listens to what happened. It is a moving scene that shatters the reader.
Since 2010, Sands has gone back yearly to Ukraine, and describes it as a “wondrous place with a dark and secret past, where its inhabitants occupy spaces made by others.”
He feels drawn to walk the streets at night and think about those who are no longer there; signs of which he sees everywhere.
He sees it in the fading Polish signs and in the “angled empty indents in which a mezuza once hung.” He sees it in the windows of stores, but also in the empty aching spaces in his own heart. Terrifyingly, he sees danger, too, in the most unexpected of places.
On a recent trip back to Ukraine with his son, he was advised to visit the Golden Rose restaurant, which he was told serves Jewish cuisine. When he entered the restaurant, he observed that there was Orthodox garb hanging on pegs for diners to put on in preparation for a unique culinary experience. There were some Jewish delicacies served, alongside pork sausage, but the most horrifying shock came at the end of the meal. The patrons were advised to negotiate a deal regarding the price of their meal with their waiter; since there were no prices listed on the menu. Sands notes sadly that the restaurant is located in the old medieval center in the shadow of the ruins of a synagogue constructed in 1582 and destroyed upon orders of the Germans in the summer of 1941.
Sands has frequently appeared before international courts and has been involved in important cases prosecuting atrocities committed in the Congo, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq, and Guantanamo. In his compelling and moving narrative, he interweaves the history of the international law that began at Nuremberg with his own family story, but it is his personal struggle to understand the incomprehensible that stays with us.