“East West Street” by Philippe Sands

I’m a great believer in bookish serendipity; I often find that a seemingly random series of events will lead me to a book; and although I may not read it straight away, the right time or circumstances will arise when I know that I need to read this particular volume NOW. That’s kind of what happened to me with “East West Street”; I first came across Philippe Sands when I reviewed the lovely little Pushkin Press volume, “City of Lions”, back in 2016. This consisted of Jozef Wittlin’s essay on the city of Lemberg/Lviv/Lvov/Lwow and was accompanied by a piece by Sands on the city of his ancestors. I hadn’t come across Sands or his work before that book, but it transpired that he was a noted human rights lawyer who was also an author; and his “East West Street” sounded fascinating and very much a book I’d like to read. So I added it to the enormous wishlist…

Fast forward a few years, and at the start of 2020 (a time known as Pre-Covid, when I could still go into book and charity shops…) I stumbled across a copy of “East West Street” in the local Oxfam book shop. I was happy to bring it home at last, but although I was keen to read it, somehow it didn’t make its way to the top of the pile straight away. But it’s been in my sightline a lot recently, the more so because I’ve seen Sands giving some very interesting talks on his work and research on the online literary festival circuit this year. And my recent reads seemed to be pushing me in its direction; including “Paula”, “Stanley Brent” and particularly Stefan Zweig’s “Journeys”, all of which touched on the conflicts of the 20th century in some way. After I finished reading “Paula”, I knew this would be the next book I picked up.

As I mentioned, Sands is a human rights lawyer, known for his work on crimes against humanity; indeed the book is subtitled “On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity”. Its genesis came when he was asked to give a lecture on his work at Lviv University, an invitation he gladly accepted. As he explains in the introduction, his work has been informed by the Nuremberg Trials and the judgements handed down, which were responsible for introducing the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” into the lawbooks. But Sands had an additional reason for wanting to visit Lviv; for his maternal grandfather Leon Buchholz had been born there and this was the perfect chance for Sands to do a little research into family history. However, as Sands prepared his lecture he stumbled upon a fact which seemed not to have been noticed before: the two men who were responsible for the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity reaching Nuremberg, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, had both lived and studied in Lviv. This was the spark which set Sands off on a long journey exploring not only his family history, but also Lviv’s connections with the men who were so important to the Nuremberg trials; and also the effects on the city and its inhabitants by Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of the region.

‘What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others,’ the psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham wrote of the relationship between a grandchild and a grandparent. The invitation from Lviv was a chance to explore those haunting gaps. I accepted it…

So in alternating chapters, Sands traces the lives of his grandfather, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, as well as the people around them and other family members; and he looks at the Nuremberg trial in respect of Frank’s part in it and the struggle to get the new terms accepted by all the countries involved. We find out about grandfather Leon’s life, the fate of many of Sands’ family members, who survived and how; we follow the tortuous path taken by the two men trying to brings their crimes into legal existence, as well as their own personal lives and losses; and we witness (fortunately not too often, but enough to spell out starkly how vile it was) the disgusting behaviour of those in the Nazi regime. Truly, man’s inhumanity to man is shocking and horrifying.

Despite their common origins, and the shared desire for an effective approach, Laterpacht and Lemkin were sharply divided as to the solutions they proposed to a big question: How could the law help to prevent mass killing? Protect the individual, says Lauterpacht. Protect the group, says Lemkin.

The story told in “East West Street” is often dramatic, and although there is by necessity discussion of the legal concepts, this is never dry or dull, as Sands writes so well. In particular, the differentiation between the concepts of “crimes against humanity” (the mass killing of individuals) and “genocide” (the attempt to wipe out a specific ethnic group) might just seem to be technicalities, but Sands makes it very clear how complex that differentiation is. All of the stories told, whether of Sands’ grandfather and family, or the men attempting to bring mass murders to justice, are incredibly powerful and moving; even those with a smaller part in the tale are memorable, and although I am fairly familiar with histories of the Holocaust and the Second World War, I was brought up short sometimes; for example, when Curzio Malaparte made a few fleeting appearances. His presence was unsettling and made me even less sure what I thought of him…

In many ways this a book which is hard to write about in anything but broad terms, because the amount of detail in it is incredible and you really just need to read it yourself! Interestingly, there is often reference in the book to the Wittlin essay; it’s a touchstone for Sands throughout the narrative, although Wittlin’s view of the past of Lviv is perhaps a little idyllic. As I mentioned in 2016, control of the city changed eight times in the three decades between 1914 and 1944 (it’s currently part of Ukraine), and in his essay Sands was realistic about the difficulties faced by Jewish residents; those hardships are clearly spelled out in “East West Street”, and the reader is left in no doubt about the horrors meted out to Jewish people over the years (and indeed decades and centuries). The pogroms in particular were revolting, and the liquidition of the Jewish Ghetto in 1943 was unspeakable.

Market Square, pre-War Lviv (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“East West Street” is one of those books you go on a journey with and which changes your life. It’s a monumental work of scholarship, meticulously presented with notes and maps and copious photos (often quite emotive); and it’s also a deeply personal book which weaves together the fate of Sands’ family, the horrors of the 20th century and the long-term effects of attempts to create justice for all. Sands seems impressively indefatigable in his researches, doggedly following up the most tenuous lead to see where it will take him. One particular aspect which surprised me (although it shouldn’t have, bearing in mind what I think about politics and politicians…) is that strong resistance to the introduction of the term “genocide” came from America – apparently they feared it could be applied to their treatment of Native Americans and their Southern Black population… 😦

Reading this book was definitely a case of right book, right time. In the middle of a global crisis, at a time when we had already been seeing how horribly intolerant we humans are of each other and how right-wing nationalistic behaviour is on the increase, it’s a sobering and timely reminder of how these things can creep up on us and what the results can be. I guess it’s shocking too that Sands is still in demand as a human rights lawyer and that nations have not stopped slaughtering their citizens. However, it’s also uplifting to hear the stories of those people who helped their fellows survive, hiding them, smuggling them out of danger and standing up for their brother and sister human beings. I was in the right frame of mind for “East West Street”, particularly after spending time with Stefan Zweig; and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a fascinating, sometimes harrowing, work, skilfully combining autobiography and history, and Sands has created an absolutely gripping and moving read; one that will certainly stay with me for a long time. I can highly recommend it – one of my books of the year – and I actually can’t wait to read the follow-up, “The Ratlines”.


As I mentioned above, Philippe Sands has made a number of appearances at online literary festivals this year, mostly talking about his current book “The Ratlines”. He’s a fascinting speaker, and some of these sessions are still available online:

Edinburgh book festival – in conversation with Ian Rankin:

Charleston Festival – discussion with Eva Hoffmann:

Sands also had a wonderful talk with Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival, but you have to register and pay to see these talks now.