East West Street: On the Ori­gins of Geno­cide” and Crimes Against Humanity”

  • Review
By – May 3, 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.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions