Over the course of six years the author, Philippe Sands, toiled to trace the movements, ideas and political currents underlying two seminal terms in modern international law: ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity.’ In this undertaking he has interwoven the history and fate of his own family in Galicia (Poland and Ukraine), as well as that of a number of incidental characters, who were involved directly or indirectly in the rescue of some of hia family members and the failure to save others.
The book opens with a description of the scene at the 1946 Nuremberg trial of leading Nazis held accountable for the exile, deportation, dispossession, enslavement and murder of part of the Polish population as well as the four million Jews who lived in Poland. Sands focuses on one of the accused, Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and the ruler of Poland under Nazi control, who was held responsible for the atrocities committed in the territory at that time.
The team of lawyers comprising the British prosecution team included Hersch Lauterpacht, distinguished professor of international law at Cambridge university, and the originator of the term ‘crimes against humanity,’ which has since become accepted into international law. As fate would have it, Lauterpacht came originally from that same part of Poland-Ukraine known as Galicia, and had managed to escape the fate that would inevitably have been his since he was a Jew by having carved out an academic legal career for himself.
Another person on whom Sands shines a light is Rafael Lemkin, another Jew and academic lawyer, also originally from the same part of Poland-Ukraine. He managed to flee to America in 1939. His contribution to international law lay in his formulation and definition of the term ‘genocide,’ in the sense of the intent to annihilate an entire national entity or ethnic group. The difference between the two terms is slight, albeit seminal with regard to their respective focus on the individual or the group.
Philippe Sands’ own family also originated from the same part of the world, so that the town of Lviv, Lwow or Lemberg, as it is called at different times and under different regimes, serves as the physical fulcrum around which the events and individuals mentioned in the book revolve. The city was the administrative, academic and cultural centre of the region, serving to attract diverse elements of the population from all over the region, which included many of the villages and small towns where Jews had settled.
Layer by layer (and lawyer by lawyer) Sands constructs the edifice that brings together the annals and fates of the various members of his family over several generations and those of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, the academic lawyers whose formulations have left their mark on international law. The tracks left by the various individuals seem to converge on a certain street in Lvov – East West Street – where almost all the individuals mentioned lived or worked at one point or another. Without knowing of one another’s existence, each one of them may well have passed one another or been familiar with common sights and sounds.
The author has undertaken extensive research to locate and identify a large number of individuals associated in one way or another with the history and fate of his family members, as well as those of Lauterpacht and Lemkin. He has created a fascinating and intricate tapestry revealing the associations between actions, connections and coincidences, leaving the reader with an awareness of the significance of the story behind every human life, whether it be one of academic distinction, human decency or simple survival. And dominating it all, without this ever being expressly stated, is the strand that constitutes the fate of the Jews of Europe in the twentieth century.