I just finished this book in three days flat – reading through the night and on planes while on a business trip. It is one of the most memorable books I have read.
Philippe Sands is an internationally renowned lawyer specialising in international criminal law. He is Jewish, and knew his grandparents came from Lvov (or Lwiw) in what is now Ukraine. Using a few scraps of paper left behind by his grandparents he reconstructs the lives that intertwined with his grandparents, and weaves in the story of two legal luminaries who also came from the same city. These two luminaries – Sir Hersch Lauterpracht and Raphael Lemkin – were authorities in laying the foundations of international criminal law, the creation of the law around crimes against humanity, the creation of the term genocide (which credit goes to Lemkin), and to the War Crimes Trials in Nuremberg. For what killed his grandparents’ families was a gigantic crime against humanity perpetrated by the Germans. Investigating what those crimes were is not the subject of the book but Sands reaches out to and connects with the sons of Hans Frank and Otto von Wachter, the two leading Nazis responsible for most of the Holocaust in Poland, and gets them to experience what Sands experienced when he uncovers the ghastly story.
The Holocaust and studies around it are now considered passe because they are so prominent in public memory and of course Israel does not fail to refresh your memory at every occasion they get. Anyone who has been to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem will attest to the overpowering nature of Holocaust memorification. But when these events are reduced to an individual, personal story around all those affected or were a part of it – either as victim or oppressor – they become glowing memorials to a vast tragedy.
Sands writes with the keen eye of a lawyer and for me, it was an education on international criminal law. Though what the Nazis did could be described as genocide, Sir Hersch – whose entire family was wiped out in Poland – was reluctant to use the term Genocide, because it placed emphasis on groups and by accusing the Germans of genocide one was victimising the entire German race. Raphael Lemkin collated and collected all the laws and notifications of German rule in Europe and deduced that the purpose of German rule was to kill off entire races. Instead Sir Hersch preferred the construct of Crimes Against Humanity, in which the individual was paramount and hence no state could claim legal immunity for acting under its own unjust laws just because those laws were legal according to the jurisprudence in that country – which was the claim of the Third Reich. High minded legal discussion illuminates the entire book. At the same time it is imbued with sadness and grief that does not congeal any of the writing at any point.