‘East West Street’ by Phillipe Sands


2016, 389 p & notes.

You’ve always wanted to read a book about the philosophical differences between the crimes of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’, haven’t you? No? Ah- but you should and you should read this book in particular.

The author Philippe Sands is an international lawyer who has appeared in all the big international courts: the European Court of Human Right and the International Criminal Court.  He acted as counsel for Australia in its case against whaling in the Antarctic, and for the Philippines in its recent case against China in the South China Sea. He’s spoken out against torture and for refugee rights.

But in this book, he is also a historian as well as a lawyer.  In a narrative rather reminiscent of an extended ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ he is impelled initially by curiosity about his grandfather, Leon. He had received an invitation to speak at a university in Lviv, a Polish town which had changed its name from Lemberg under the Austro-Hungarian Empire; to Lwow as part of newly independent Poland; Lovov when occupied by the Soviets in WWII; Lemberg against under Nazi occupation, and then Lviv when it became part of Ukraine, the name by which it is known today.  He knew that his grandfather Leon had been born in Lemberg in 1904, but little else.

However, his grandfather was not the only person known to him who was born in Lemberg. Hersch Lauterpacht, professor of international law was born in 1897 in the small town of Zolkiew, a few miles from Lemberg, and Rafael Lemkin, prosecutor and lawyer shifted to Lwow from Bialystock in 1921 as a 21-year old. These two men- Lauterpacht and Lemkin- attended the same law lectures by the same professors, but each developed diametrically opposed philosophies about international law. Lauterpacht developed the principle of ‘crimes against humanity’, rooted in individual rights and offences committed against individual men and women. In contrast, Lemkin developed the concept of ‘genocide’, rooted in the rights of groups, where the intention is to annihilate the population or community from which those individuals spring.   Both these concepts emerged in the Nuremberg Trials, attended by both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, when Hans Frank, the Nazi-appointed Governor General of Poland, faced trial.

The book, then, traces mainly through the lives of these three men: grandfather Leon, Lauterpacht and Lemkin. The setting is Lemberg/Lviv , drawn through a fine-grained, street-by-street analysis, most particularly during Governor General Frank’s period in office, when as Nazi henchman he announced the extermination of the Jews in Poland. Woven through these stories are those of other lesser characters:  Miss Tilney of Norwich who organized the rescue of Jewish children into England ;The Man in a Bow Tie – a shadowy character involved with his grandmother; The Child Who Stands Alone – a mystery reference in a letter; and The Girl Who Chose Not to Remember, one of Leon’s nieces. The narrative switches back and forth, with Sands telling of his ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ encounters with descendants and documents, interwoven with a historical account based on archival sources both personal and governmental.  There are black and white pictures throughout the text, embedded in the narrative right where they are most relevant.

The book starts and finishes with the Nuremberg Trials, and here Sands writes as a lawyer, but in thoroughly accessible language.  You may not believe me, but he is able to write about the Trials that underlines their novelty, tension and the uncertainty of both approach and outcomes.  I was perplexed at first to see that John Le Carre had written a blurb for the front cover of the book, but having finished the book, I can see why.  It’s a damned good read that keeps you turning the pages.

I can’t speak highly enough of this book, which won the 2016 Baillie Gifford prize (the re-badged Samuel Johnson Prize).  It draws together personal story-telling, historical narrative and legal analysis seamlessly, and is quite frankly, one of the best books I’ve read in ages.

4 responses to “‘East West Street’ by Phillipe Sands

  1. I’ve put it on reserve at the library, though I hope it doesn’t come in too soon, I already have so many books out on loan because all my reserves came in at once.

  2. Thanks. I have this one my TBR pile, bumping it up the list now….

  3. Pingback: East West Street, On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, by Philippe Sands #BookReview | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  4. Pingback: Looking back: 2018 in review | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s