Does man’s inhumanity to his own species know any limit?

What’s in a name? In Romeo and Juliet we learn that “…a rose by any other name would smell as

What’s in a name? In Romeo and Juliet we learn that “…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I have just read East West Street, On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands and it is one of the most interesting books I have read in a long while.

Despite its imposing title – might it have been something along the lines of East West Street, A Poignant Journey of Discovery? – it is a great read; it will be a pity for people other than those with an interest in law to miss out on it.

East West StreetBy way of introduction to the review, Philippe Sands is a barrister who heads his own law firm in London, is Professor of Law at University College London, a human rights advocate, and a highly regarded jurist involved in international cases. He played a major role in three well-documented events in 1998, establishment of the International Criminal Court, the arrest of General Pinochet, and the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic.

In 2010, Sands received an invitation to a congress at the law faculty of the University at Lviv in the Ukraine to lecture on his experiences. He was more than happy to accept, not least because it provided an opportunity for him to further study the Nuremberg Trials which had been such a profound influence on his philosophy and his work. A further incentive was that Lviv had a connection with his grandfather, Leon Buchholz.

And thus the story develops. It is part personal journey, part 19th and 20th century Central European history, part detective story, part family heritage, part adventure, part international law, and entirely readable.

There are a number of coincidences throughout East West Street, all an added incentive to keep page turning. The first of these is that two of the book’s central characters, Horst Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, both Jews involved with the philosophy and development of international law, studied at Lviv as young men. Both had brilliant legal minds and gained advisory positions at Nuremberg.  They also evolved terms with which we now commonly describe man’s inhumanity to man: Lauterpacht initiated the expression ‘crimes against humanity,’ and Lemkin gave us ‘genocide.’

 Sands lauds Lauterpacht and his work, relating as it does to the individual rather than the state. He is guarded in his appraisal of Lemkin who was almost febrile in demeanour pushing for acceptance of genocide as the predominant Nazi crime. There are some compelling arguments; the author acknowledges justification for Lauterpacht’s suspicion of the use of the term and its effect on a number of cases in later times.

In another of the book’s twists, Lauterpacht’s son, later Sir Eliahu Lauterpacht, would also become a leading figure in law in England and one of Sands’ tutors. The two men knew each other for more than thirty years but it was not until they discussed Sands’ grandfather they discovered both of their families lived in the same street in the Polish town Zolkiew (now Zhovka in the Ukraine).

Leon Buchholz, Sands’ grandfather, managed to leave Lviv before the Nazis purged the city of its Jews and survived the war in France. The journey to Lviv was a chance for Sands to learn more about his grandfather’s background and those painful years. Among Leon’s belongings was a piece of paper bearing a pencilled name and address, Miss E M Tilney, Blue Bell Lane, Norwich. A patient and poignant international search provides answers to the identity of Miss Tilney and why, in wartime Europe, she was to prove so important to the family.

East West Street is essentially a book about the Nuremberg Trials but ever so much more. I would urge everyone to look beyond its stern title, to perhaps browse a page or two of the chapter ‘Miss Tilney Of Norwich’ before making a decision about whether or not to purchase. It is a serious work, written by a man of letters, but with a very human element. It deserves to be read by a wider audience than I fear it might command.

East West Street, On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands is available now from Dymocks.

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