LONDON — Seven years ago British human rights lawyer and law academic Philippe Sands was asked to deliver a lecture in a university in Lviv, western Ukraine.
Up for discussion were two topics: Sands’ specialized knowledge about the Nuremberg Trials, and his work as a barrister in helping to set up the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague in 1998.
But there was more at stake than just a professional opportunity for Sands — he had family history connecting him to the city, too: Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, was born in Lviv in 1904. And while Sands had enjoyed a close relationship with Leon — who died in Paris in 1997 — he knew little about his life in central Europe before 1945.
“I’ve come to understand that within every family there are secrets and silences,” Sands explains from his home in Hampstead, north London. “But eventually they come out.”
A hitherto unknown narrative began to unfold itself as the lawyer and author looked back through old correspondence and found subtle hints in faded black and white photographs. He traveled to Israel to interview close relatives who brought him closer to his family tree.
The skeleton that came out of the closet was that Sands’ grandfather Buchholz was most likely gay, and had a male lover called Max for many years.
Sands also learned that his grandmother Rita, while estranged from her husband and Sands’ mother, Ruth, who were back in Paris at the time, almost certainly had an affair with another man in Vienna during these years too.
“I’m careful not to draw strong conclusions,” Sands says rather cautiously, “because you learn litigating cases that nothing is ever as it seems.”
Family history is not the only topic unearthed in Sands’ intriguing but rather complicated book, “East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity” which he’ll be promoting in Israel on April 23 at an event at Djanogly Hall in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem.
Using Lviv as a mysterious and mythological milieu, Sands attempts to explain an especially dark epoch of European history. He does this by interlinking a number of biographical stories that run parallel to one another — all of which, rather bizarrely, connect to the history of the city, but also to the Holocaust, and the international world legal system that followed it.
Sands’ book introduces us, for instance, to the two Jewish legal masterminds Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin — both born, raised and educated in this central European city — who were key players in developing the international legal system that arose during the Nuremberg Trial of 1945 and 1946.
The former became known as the father of the human rights movement, coming up with the legal term “crimes against humanity” during the Nuremberg trial. The latter was a public prosecutor and lawyer who worked on the trial too, and coined the term “genocide.”
The phrase “crimes against humanity” was used in the final judgment of the Nuremberg Trials in October 1946 by the four Allied powers, as they passed down the death sentence to 12 Nazis by hanging.
While “genocide” was mentioned, it did not feature as an official legal term in the final judgment.
This difference of formal legal opinion that took place over the course of the Nuremberg Trials — regarding war crimes committed in the Holocaust — becomes a central theme debated in Sands’ latest book.
Lauterpacht, with his term “crimes against humanity,” opted for protecting the rights of the individual over a racial or religious group, Sands explains.
Lemkin, on the other hand, claimed that the stark reality was that mass murder and violence took place because individuals were members of a group, and were consequently targeted because of it.
“What both men had in common was that they were trying to use international law as a way to protect people who were under threat, irrespective of their nationality, race, or religion,” says Sands.
“The essential issue that Lemkin and Lauterpacht were struggling with is how individual human beings who form part of a minority group define themselves. And how the bigger community protects them,” Sands adds.
Since publication last year, Sands’ latest book has been translated into over 14 languages — although interestingly, not yet into Hebrew.
It won the Baillie Gifford Prize, and was recently announced as joint winner of the Jewish Quarterly Wingate literary prize.
‘The issue is how individual human beings who form part of a minority group define themselves and how the bigger community protects them’
The book’s mass popularity may come from the fact that its themes are universal ones — love and betrayal in complicated family narratives; a study on the modern European conscience; a compelling analysis of how the Holocaust was first talked about in legal and moral terms in the international community. An important discussion emerges, too, about how universal human rights first emerged in the West, and indeed the wider world, after World War II.
Sands describes just how integral the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and 1946 were for creating a binding international legal system that we still feel today.
“This was an absolutely crucial moment in human history,” he says, “because states came together at the Nuremberg Trials and said for first time [that] the power of the sovereign is limited, and it cannot treat its nationals as it wishes.”
Fundamentally, Sands believes the issue debated over the course of the trials regarding how the crimes of the Holocaust should be defined, comes down to three primal questions about human identity: who we are; how we want to be defined; and how we want the law to protect us.
Numerous attempts have been made by the international community to work out the specific legalities of crimes committed in war — viz., the UN charter in 1945, the Nuremberg judgement in 1946, and then eventually the emergence of modern universal human rights law in 1948.
And each time, the same question reemerges: Do war crimes constitute the violation of an individual or a group?
Sands emphasizes how that tension between group and individual has never been properly resolved.
“International law protects both [the individual and the group], but neither particularly successfully,” says Sands.
Around the time that Sands began researching the initial stages of his book, he began to read extensively about the city of Lviv, which is located on the eastern outskirts of what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
After all, it was the place that brought all the characters in his book together — albeit not directly.
Throughout the 19th century, the city became known as Lemberg, a place journalist and novelist Joseph Roth once described as the “city of blurred borders.”
After World War I, Lviv became an epicenter for would later become known as “the bloodlands” of central and eastern Europe — and the place where most Jews perished in the Holocaust.
First, the city became part of a newly independent Poland until it was occupied by the Soviets, when it became known as Lvov. Then in July 1941, the Germans made it the capital of the Distrikt Galizien in the General Government in Poland — an area that became a dustbin for the Third Reich and the final destination point for the millions of Jews murdered in the Final Solution.
After visiting Lviv in 2010, Sands found out that Lauterpacht, Lemkin, and Buchholz were all from there. And so the lawyer knew he wanted to write a book interconnecting the stories of these three men.
Then a fourth individual, Hans Frank, entered into what was already a complex narrative. Frank had once been Hitler’s personal lawyer, as well as the governor of the General Government in Poland.
“I discovered that Frank had arrived in Lemberg in August 1942, and implemented the Final Solution, which included the mass killing of the entire Jewish population of the city,” says Sands.
“What Frank had in common with the other three men was that he had overseen the killings of the entire families of all of them,” Sands adds.
‘He had overseen the killings of the entire families of all of them’
Frank was finally sentenced to death in October 1946 at the Nuremberg Trials for the mass murder of millions of Jews. Offering no remorse, nor ever giving a reason why he carried out such barbarous crimes, Frank just gently nodded his head and said of his sentence, “I deserved it and I expected it.”
“As I was getting to know Hans Frank through his writings and diaries, I was trying to understand how he could [oversee these crimes],” says Sands, visibly emotive.
“You really come to understand that this is an incredibly weak individual, not a principled person, and certainly not a decent person,” he adds.
While carrying out his research on Hans Frank, Sands came across a book called “In the Shadow of the Reich” by Frank’s son, Niklas, who was just seven years old when his father was sentenced to death in October 1946.
“I eventually tracked Niklas down,” Sands says.
“We met in Hamburg in early 2012. And it was tense. But I liked Niklas immediately. We got on. And we became friends,” he says.
Sands wrote a profile piece for the Financial Times four years ago about this experience and eventually made a film two years later with British director David Evans called “What our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy.” The film stars Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, the son of Baron Otto Gustav von Wächter, another prominent Nazi.
In one scene, they went back to Nuremberg and filmed Niklas in the same courtroom where his father was sentenced to death by hanging.
‘That is the only time in five years that he has shown any tenderness to his father’
Sands recalls that rather strange but emotional moment.
“It was a very powerful sentiment to be with a child of defendant number seven, sitting in the courtroom [in Nuremberg],” he says.
“That is the only time in the five years that I have known Niklas that he has shown any tenderness to his father. Otherwise it was just vitriolic hatred,” adds Sands.
Of the four Allied countries prosecuting at Nuremberg in October 1946, three accepted Lemkins’ term of genocide.
However, the United States never endorsed the concept.
Sands explains that “Crimes against humanity was in the Nuremberg statute, under article six. Genocide, as such, was not in that text.”
Then, in December 1946 the UN General Assembly decided the tribunal got it wrong — thus the term “genocide” became incorporated as a proper legal term in international law.
‘Over time, I’ve come to see that the word “genocide” gives rise to many problems’
Today, Sands works as a lawyer on cases of war crimes all over the world. And seven decades on from when the first terms of war crimes emerged in a new legal binding international world order, that debate between crimes against humanity and genocide still persists, he says.
“Over time, I’ve come to see that the word ‘genocide’ gives rise to many problems,” says Sands. “You reinforce the sense of ‘them and us.'”
“I’ve [seen] this in cases that I have worked on all over the world. You reinforce the sense of victimhood as a group too. And the sense of hatred of the perpetrators as a group,” he adds.
On the other hand, Sands says he understands why the international community and the world at large would want a legal term in place which protects individuals who are killed as part of a group.
“The fact is that we all feel affiliations with a particular group,” says Sands. “It’s simply part of human nature. And I suspect inherently unresolvable.”