East West Street – Philippe Sands

East west streetEast West Street defies categorization. It is part memoir, part history, part biography and part a commentary on International Law. Whatever the category, it is deeply researched, very well written and tightly edited. While it is a non-fiction book, it has the pacing of a thriller. Who would have thought you can build so much suspense around the inclusion (or not) of a particular legal concept in a dense legal document! Philippe Sands achieves this through the structure of the book. It broadly follows the life stories of 4 principal characters in the book – his own grandfather, two law academics and a very high ranking Nazi official – all of whose seemingly unrelated lives cross paths multiple times throughout the book. Most of the action happens in Polish towns of Lviv (Lemberg, Lwow) and Zolkiew, but also Vienna, London and Nuremberg – around the time of German aggression in Poland during the second world war culminating in the Nuremberg Trials, to which the book is building up from the first page.

Philippe Sands – an international human rights lawyer – is invited to give a lecture in Lviv, where he knew his Jewish forbears emigrated from during the second world war. What started as curiosity about his family’s origin resulted in more than 5 years of painstaking research and ultimately this book. He discovered that the two cornerstones of modern international human rights movement – laws against Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide – were both conceived and passionately propagated by academics who hailed from this city. They were also both largely forgotten in this city. Thus begins his incredibly patient research into recreating the lives of these individuals – his own grandfather and the two academics – Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. He and his assistants trawl through family archives, letters, photographs, university records, train tickets and museum archives. He deciphers handwriting, uses facial recognition and gets himself DNA tested. The result is a rich narrative – of sometimes minute detail  – secret love affairs, closet homosexuality, last moments before a cruel death. For his research, he traces various branches of his own family but also those of the other protagonists; how the family members have reconciled to this legacy of their ancestors – is in itself interesting reading, if harrowing and tragic in parts.

It also includes the evolution of the two legal concepts. Both academics passionately believed that their own version was best suited to prevent atrocities like the holocaust. To a lay person, it is difficult to see the distinction. But the author explains the key differences and how both lobbied hard to have their version included in the Nuremberg trials – which leads to this unusual topic for a suspense buildup – only to be revealed in the last few pages. This inclusion of dense legalese has been done very cleverly interspersed within the personal lives of the protagonists and against the backdrop of the war and Nuremberg trials; it never becomes heavy going and I never once found my interest wavering.

The Nuremberg trials for the first time established the supremacy of International law over National law. They established the human rights of individuals and groups of individuals – irrespective of nationalistic considerations. This was a subject of a recent unrelated debate with a friend; the author has put some of the arguments we went over much more eloquently and hence particularly resonated with me when I read the book a few days later. Also by coincidence, I came across this book immediately after reading Simon Schama’s authoritative history of Jews. Both books also happen to be associated with the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction, Simon Schama’s book a nominee in 2017 and this one a winner in 2016. The price was earlier known as the Samuel Johnson Prize. I have made a mental note to keep an eye on future nominations and winners.

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