Book: East West Street

“Let us take the case of a man who owns some chicken…He kills them. Why not? It is not your business.” For which Raphael Lemkin replied, “People are not chickens!”

The exchange between Lemkin and his professor happened 70 years ago, where countries were free to ‘prosecute their enemies and “their Jews”, without an international jury to interject, nor did they want to.

No matter how horrid the sentence or how morally wrong it may seem, at the time, no one could over rule a sovereign state. It wasn’t until a trial in Nuremberg where the fate of 12 men in the higher ranking of the Nazi regime was to be determined. The decision was influenced by an addition of a previously unheard phrase, ‘crimes against humanity’. The phrase allowed today’s international court to contest inhumane acts and serve as a global protector.

East West Street tells the stories of four people whose lives were affected by that trial. The first is one close to the author’s heart, his grandfather. Two Jewish lawyers, both involved in the makings of modern international law. One, Hersch Lauterpacht whose creation of the term crimes against humanity found international recognition, and the other Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word ‘genocide’. Finally, Hans Frank, the piano maestro, art stealing “Butcher of Poland“and Hitler’s personal lawyer.

Author, Philippe Sands is currently practising as a barrister at the Matrix Chambers and is a human rights activist, most notably for his efforts in extraditing Chilean dictator, Augustus Pinochet. His mastery of law combined with strong writing brings a higher level of insight to the makings of international law while still being entertaining.

That said, the chance to write about the mystery that Leon, his grandfather has left for many years and of his heroes in university has made him overexcited. This resulted in a book that is cluttered with out of place thoughts and useless information, written like it may be of great importance, but never mentioned again. He asks rhetorics only to be answered in the next line. I sometimes wonder if I am still reading the thriller escape story that the author has unearthed or his unedited notes.

Sands was offered an invitation to speak at a university in Lviv, his grandfather’s hometown, on his work surrounding the origins of crimes against humanity. The visit reignited his interest to uncover the patchy journey that Leon took to escape from Nazi occupied Austria to France.

After the lecture, a young woman asked Sands, “No one in the city cares about Lauterpacht and Lemkin because they were Jews….but isn’t your grandfather the one you should be chasing? Isn’t he the one closest to your heart?’

In the few years that Sands had known his grandfather, he had refused to talk of the past with understandable reasons. Among the 71 of Leon’s family members, he is the only survivor. One of the biggest mysteries about Leon was why he left his wife and daughter in Vienna during his escape. Thankfully, Sands is a clever sleuth himself, tracking the person who sheltered and smuggled his daughter from a letter written in an old napkin.

Each new chapter to Leon’s story focuses on a person who may have had a connection with him. His haunting writing made the beautiful cities of Lviv, Paris and Vienna we know of today, feel ghostly for the people affected by the war.

Despite the effort, the author seems to have trouble finding more pages to write about his grandfather. Leon hardly gets a mention after his initial introductory chapter. His story appears in between the Nuremberg trial arcs, at first like an intermission, then as a sub-plot. By the last three chapters, Leon is only spoken of once. Leon’s story ends up becoming distracting to an otherwise engrossing courtroom thriller.

After discovering that Lauterpacht and Lemkin lived in the same Polish town as Leon, and for a short time, so did Hans Frank, the book shifts away from the author’s ancestor, to show the lives of some of the champions of human rights. The bulk of the book follows their upbringings to their involvement in the Nuremberg trial. If there were any recognition to be made on the creation of modern internation law, it would be given to the creators of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’. Today genocide is considered the crime of all crimes.

Despite being neighbours and studying under the same professor in Vienna, Lauterpacht and Lemkin both approach law in different manners. Sands puts great distinction between the two phrases coined. Crimes against humanity weigh offenses done by the individual. This philosophy is probably a result of a young Lauterpacht witnessing friends and family prosecuted as Jews, not as persons. While genocide intends to put blame onto the entire group or gang prosecuting the same sentences to be carried out to all participants of the crime. According to Lauterpacht, by focusing on a group, not the person, we strip away a person’s unique thinking, making human beings look more like ants, or rather rats. Under crimes against humanity, the words ‘Nazi’ was never mentioned.

Lauterpacht was a quiet and talented student in Lviv, formerly Lemberg, but could never sit the law exam, being a Jew. In 1918, just after the First World War, Lemberg became a land split by the conflicting powers of Poland and Ukraine. The resulting tug of war led many Eastern European countries to sign a Minority Treaty which allowed treatment of ethnic minorities, including Jewish citizens, to be dealt within the law of each country without the help of international law as protection.

Quickly realising the constricting laws against Jewish citizens, Lauterpacht made his way to London with some of his family, while Lemkin moved to the United States with no one. It did not take long for both men to attain a professorship, and gain respect among their peers. Lauterpacht’s quick success, gained the attention of many which led him to help with the speech by Robert Jackson for the trial, where he introduced crimes against humanity as a solution to ideological conflicts between the prosecutors.

The underdog of the lawyers involved in Nuremberg, Raphel Lemkin, wrote Axis Rule In Occupied Europe, where genocide made its first appearance in a published work. He was written just as intelligent and brave as Lauterpacht, but with much more reserve having questioned the intent behind genocide.

By the end of the second chapter, we start to see a pattern that will continue throughout the book. Each chapter introduces a new person, starting with an investigation of their childhood. Sands clearly has more to write about their personal lives, but the format becomes tiring and dreadfully long. It makes it seem like the person on the title of each chapter will play an important role in the future, yet many of them are never mentioned again outside their respective chapters.

After dragging the readers through hordes of background information, we are presented with a clash between the three lawyers. Lauterpacht, Lemkin and Frank. There were no recorded audio or transcripts of Lauterpacht or Lemkin. Therefore, the trial was told through the imagined thoughts of the two lawyers.

The real trial was a celebration for justice and is a success story for international law. Sands proves that it can serve to protect people in a rightless land and is an agent to aid prosecuting mass murderers, dictatorships and otherwise bleak crimes. International law is a human right as much as having a home. Future additions allowed Lemkin to reunite with his family.

As for Leon, poor references to his story were forcefully injected to those involved in Nuremberg to almost no avail. I suppose it was an attempt for the author to find a connection between his beloved grandfather and his heroes. While still an emotional tale, I cannot hope but wonder if the two stories could have been separated into different books. Perhaps the young student in Lviv was right to have suggested on focusing on one story.

The book was a long time coming, and understandably he had a lot to say about the personal lives of his admired lawyers, outside of his research on them as an academic. I can clearly see the passion woven into Leon and the anger for Frank. It is hard not to reciprocate.




Arts Centre Melbourne will host a musical version of this acclaimed novel called East West Street: A song of Good and Evil. The event will be held in Hamer Hall on Wednesday the 21st of February. Tickets and further information can be found here.

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