The Ratline in Manhattan

BBC's The Ratline (Omnibus 1)

Late last week I attended my first book party since COVID and it was well worth the wait. Phillipe Sands, international lawyer and author of the acclaimed East West Street (2016) and host of the BBC’s “The Ratline” was in town to tell us about his new book, named after his podcast. Activist Patti Kenner hosted in her beautiful apartment. It was one of many such gatherings at Ms. Kenner’s; while we awaited Mr. Sands’ remarks, someone quipped that her inspiring salons should be called “FOP”––for (ever expanding) Friends of Patti, who sits on the board of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

The Ratline is in some ways a sequel to East West Street so Mr. Sands, whose grandfather, like my father and grandfather, was from Lviv, recapped how he came to write that book. Published in 2016 with the evergreen subtitle, “On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ it is, in turn, partly based on Sands’ 2015 documentary, My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did. The film documents a meeting between Ukrainian neo-Nazis, the son of a German Nazi (the notorious Governor-General of occupied Poland, Hans Frank), and the son of an Austrian Nazi, Otto von Wächter (Governor of Kraków and later of Galicia). East West Street details the thinking of two Jewish graduates of the University of Lwów law school who were Nuremberg prosecutors. One coined the term “genocide,” the other the phrase “crimes against humanity.” East West Street is once again receiving attention due to the shocking war Russia is waging against Ukraine.

Now in The Ratline (Knopf) Mr. Sands portrays the relationship between Otto von Wächter and his wife Charlotte based on post-war letters in the family archive which their son Horst invited Sands to peruse. The result is his analysis of the love affair of these two Nazis and insight into their minds, for Charlotte was thoroughly aware, Sands says, of her husband’s murderous activities in Lviv/Lwów during World War II. “Their correspondence sheds light on the daily lives and thinking of two Nazis,” Sands said, “in a very personal way that other archives cannot do.” Von Wächter and Charlotte were separated after World War II when he went into hiding in the Austrian mountains for four years and then mysteriously died. Sands suggested that von Wächter may have succumbed to leptospirosis and possibly was poisoned by Israeli agents.

Mr. Sands went on to comment on the atrocities in Ukraine right now; we were all reeling from the news of dead bodies strewn about Bucha near Kyiv, and left to rot for weeks. But while acknowledging that the atrocities are horrific, Sand’s commented, “It is regrettable that President Biden called Putin a war criminal,” because that makes it politically impossible to negotiate with him and has a very specific meaning in courts of law. Unfortunately, the United States is in a weak position because of atrocities committed by American soldiers during the 2003 Iraq War, when George W. Bush was president, Sands argued. I sat there and smarted, remembering the photographs of nude Iraqi prisoners being mistreated in a pyramidal pile up in Abu Graib while American guards wielded truncheons and laughed.

Furthermore, Sands predicted that Putin and other higher ups responsible for brutalizing Ukrainians and destroying entire cities will probably get off, while a few officers on the ground will be prosecuted. He also faulted Israel for aligning itself with Russia and Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria. He said Ukrainians are having trouble gaining entry to Israel whereas Russians do not.

It was painful to hear these criticisms. I had been so pleased to see reports of Israeli youths traveling to Ukraine to aid refugees. I remembered thinking “Not in our name,” when the press reported the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques used on POWs during the Iraq war.

At my table afterward, I focused on the Nazi love story. It annoyed me to hear about their romance. Love between monsters? The monsters who were responsible for murdering my uncle, three of my grandparents, and countless other Jews? What about my grandparents’ deep love for one another, which no one will ever know? What about my uncle who was a newlywed? I had a hard time hearing about any positive emotions between two bloodthirsty demons even though intellectually I recognize the value of the backstory because it may offer insight into violent, evil minds.

All I could do that evening, though, was remark caustically on Nazi lust. “I’m wondering about Charlotte and Otto,” I said to those at my table. “Maybe she was turned on by his escapades.” And everyone nodded; they had been pondering that, too. Who else, today, gets titillated when they see people suffer? Who else besides Horst Wächter is in denial about his Nazi parents’ actions and those of Hitler’s other henchman?

My interest was piqued, and I am reading Sands’ new book. I must understand the minds of classic Nazis. It is my responsibility to learn about neo-Nazis rising up the world over—from Charlottesville to Eastern Ukraine. For years the 1,500-strong Azov Battalion (members of Ukraine’s fringe Nazi party of 15,000) have been training fellow neo-Nazis who then return to their nations with military experience.

But it is equally our duty to distinguish between terms and expedient use of them by poisonous minds of authoritarians. Putin is throwing around the Nazi label today for everyone across his southern border who wants democracy; he’s deliberately blurring terms to gain support in Russia, where no free press exists. Those of us in the western world still benefit from the luxury of a free press. But it behooves us to be aware that just as classic Nazis spread their warped ideas through radio, the new technology of their day, people are still deeply susceptible in the age of social media to propaganda.

About the Author
Karen A. Frenkel is an award-winning technology journalist, author, and documentary producer. Her documentaries, "Minerva’s Machine" on women and computing, and "Net.LEARNING" about elearning, aired on Public Television. Other articles appeared in,, Science Magazine,, and Communications of the ACM. Ms. Frenkel co-authored with Isaac Asimov Robots: Machines in Man’s Image. She is producing a documentary, "Family Treasures Lost and Found," and writing a memoir about her parents' WWII wartime experiences.