I went to a Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction shortlist readings event in 2016 where Philippe Sands spoke about his book ‘East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity’ which won the prize that year, and I finally got round to reading it last month. Sands, an international human rights lawyer, was invited to give a lecture on genocide and crimes against humanity at the university in the Ukrainian city of Lviv in 2010 and took the opportunity to explore his family history on his mother’s side, particularly the life of his grandfather, Leon Buchholz, who was born near the city in the early 20th century.
Sands’ family history is skilfully intertwined with the lives of Raphael Lemkin and Hans Lauterpacht, two Jewish men who also lived and studied law in Lviv and were part of the prosecution team at Nuremberg and formulated the terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” respectively. The book culminates in the trial of Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor-General of occupied Poland responsible for the murder of thousands of citizens of Lviv and the surrounding regions during the Holocaust. The title of the book refers to the street in nearby Zolkiew where Sands’ grandfather lived which also happens to be the same street where Lauterpacht was born – one of the many extraordinary coincidences uncovered by Sands during his painstaking research.
‘East West Street’ is a fascinating memoir and is all the more gripping for its impressive structure in which the connections are gradually revealed as Sands details personal stories of individuals against the wider legal and historical backdrop. Sands undertook a significant amount of detective work in researching his family history over several years, such as discovering the identity of Elsie Tilney, the British woman working as part of the French resistance who smuggled Sands’ mother out of occupied Vienna in 1939 when she was just a baby.
As there are dozens of photographs and source material accompanying the text which were the keys to Sands’ research, I would recommend reading ‘East West Street’ in print rather than as an audiobook if possible in order to fully appreciate this remarkable memoir. Sands’ new book ‘The Ratline’ which is published in the UK this month sounds equally intriguing and is about the life of the Nazi war criminal and fugitive Otto von Wachter.