East West Street

Alfred A. Knopf  2016


A monumental and profoundly important book, East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide and “Crimes Against Humanity” by international human rights lawyer and law professor Philippe Sands recounts the lives and work of Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who developed and advocated for the legal concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide. Sands examines the personal and intellectual evolution and travails of these two men in a brilliant account that reads as part history, part human rights theory, and part thriller, with powerful strands of autobiographical narrative that connects the author to these two men.

Sands begins by drawing distinctions between these two seminal concepts that emerged during World War II and the Nuremberg trial process. He delineates how these approaches to justice and prevention in the face of unprecedented human cruelty, despite commonalities rested on different views of notions of rights. Genocide, a term first introduced by Lemkin, is based on the rights of groups and singles out the attempt to annihilate groups as the most heinous crime; crimes against humanity, on the other hand, is rooted in individual rights, the violation of which was believed by Lauterpacht to rise to the top of the scale of offenses. Each man devoted his efforts to having his concept as a centerpiece for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and other tribunals and to be accepted as standards of international law.

The bulk of East West Street deals with the parallel histories of these two Jewish thinkers, who were born around the same time (1900 and 1897) in a disputed part of Eastern Europe that at various times belonged to Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. Not knowing of each other, Lemkin and Lauterpacht studied at the same university in Lviv and attended lectures by the same law professor, Juliusz Makarewicz. This culturally rich city in Galicia was also home to Sands’s maternal grandfather, who was born there, moved to Vienna during World War I, married, and ultimately moved to Paris with his wife and child, Sands’s mother, after the German annexation of Austria. Much of this history was shrouded in family secrecy and Sands, like a skilled archeologist digging into the bloodied soil of Europe, discovers that much of his history leads back to the same parts of Galicia where hundreds of thousands of Jews were exterminated, including many of his family members, with little trace and information of how or where they were killed.

In a riveting melding of memoir and history, Sands weaves together his family’s history, which he uncovers detail by detail, with the stories of Lemkin and Lauterpacht, each considered to be the father of the modern human rights movement. Powerfully, all three stories converge at Nuremberg where Hans Frank, the governor-general of occupied Poland, was put on trial in October 1946. Frank was convicted of committing crimes against humanity and genocide, sentenced to death, and hanged, all under ideas and principles of international law that had their origins in Lviv decades earlier. During the trial, Lemkin and Lauterpacht discovered that Frank sent many of their own family members to their deaths: Lemkin’s parents were likely murdered at Treblinka, where Sands’s great-grandmother was also murdered.

Revealing an interconnected web of family origins, intellectual influences, the germination of new legal definitions and human rights concepts, of mass death, loss and ultimately justice, East West Street is a powerful book, exquisitely written and profound in its implications and importance. The skill with which Sands intertwines the development of human rights law through the lives of two men of single-minded determination, motivated by passion and their own losses and grief, is a singular accomplishment, and the combination of their stories with the author’s own family history produces an inspirational book that readers will cherish for years to come.

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