“East West Street”: A Book about how two lawyers from Lviv changed the world

Philippe Sands at the launch of his book in Lviv, 16 September 2017 (Copyright: Marta Hrytsaniuk)

Our guest on today’s broadcast of Encounters is Philippe Sands, a lawyer who works at Matrix Chambers. He is also the director of the Centre on International Courts and Tribunals, Queen’s Counsel, and Professor of Law. He has taken part in examining a number of international disputes within the framework of procedures established by the United Nation’s International Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.

Philippe Sands’s roots lie in Lviv, and his research on his grandfather, Leon, serves as a springboard for the history that is recounted in his book, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity. This work is devoted to the life and work of the Lviv lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who laid the foundations of international law by formulating the concept of “ethnocide” and “crime against humanity.” The Ukrainian translation of East West Street came out in 2017. The French translation was published almost simultaneously—one week earlier.

This interview originally appeared on the Hromadske Radio website on September 23, 2017.

Iryna Slavinska:  How did you become interested in Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin?

Philippe Sands:  Everything began by accident. I came to Geneva for the World Economic Forum in Davos. There I met a girl who had come from Lviv. I asked her where Lviv was located and what kind of city it was. We talked, and she told me that Lviv was once called Lemberg. My grandfather was born in Lemberg. Apart from this fact, I didn’t know anything else about his past.

That girl was a student at Lviv University. In 2010, I was invited to give a lecture there on international law, crimes against humanity, and genocides. I agreed because I wanted to go to Lviv in order to locate my grandfather’s house. I recount this story in the book.

I spent part of the summer in Lviv and during this time I conducted research. I was surprised to learn that Lemkin, the person who formulated the concept of “genocide,” and Lauterpacht, the person who formulated the concept of crimes against humanity, were both born in Lviv. That was a wonder!

My first visit was fascinating. I was in Lviv with my mother, aunt, and son. After some time, once I returned to London, I decided that I would write a book about these three men’s stories. But later I learned about a fourth one, Hans Frank, who had been in Lviv and had also appeared at Lviv University. It is ironic to know that the PEN Congress [happened] in the same place where Frank spoke, but exactly 75 years later. So, I added Hans Frank to my story, and it became the story of four men, two crimes, and one city. That city is Lviv, which I investigated thoroughly. In the last seven years, I was here no fewer than twenty times. But everything began by accident.

Iryna Slavinska:  I recall an instant from the interview with Ivan Horodysky, the scholarly editor of the Ukrainian edition of your book. He said that in the UCU law students’ auditorium no one knew about Lemkin and Lauterpacht. How can this be?

Philippe Sands:  Not just the students but the professors, too! When I arrived in Lviv, I met with the dean of the Faculty of Law, the wonderful professor Petro Rabinovych, a famous professor who deals with the topic of human rights. He, too, did not know this history. As we say in English, no one had connected all the dots in a single line. No one knew that someone who was an inspiration to his students had taught in the very same building, and two of those students turned out to be Lemkin and Lauterpacht, and eventually they developed the knowledge they had acquired here. Why is no one talking about this? That’s a very complex story.

Between 1915 and 1920 Lviv was very different from the city it is today. Three communities lived here: Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. Today we’ll say that it is only the Ukrainian community.

Iryna Slavinska:  It may look that way.

Philippe Sands:  Yes, yes, it may look that way. Each time I come here, someone up and says that s/he is really a Pole or a Jew, keeping in mind their background. But not everyone wants to talk about this very loudly.

Iryna Slavinska:  But in fact they are all Ukrainians, in terms of citizenship.

Philippe Sands:  What is interesting to me is that Lemkin and Lauterpacht were Lvivites, that is, part of Ukrainian history. I think that because they were not part of the community that was dominant at the time, people simply forgot about them.

But people are very open today. I did not feel resistance. No one says that they are not interested in these people. No one says that they are not interested in someone because of their Polish or Jewish background. Everyone with whom I spoke realizes that something happened in this city and that the two of them are part of the city, just like my grandfather is part of the history of this city.

Iryna Slavinska:  You, too, are part of this city.

Philippe Sands:  I am from Lviv. My DNA is the DNA of a Lvivite. I am proud of this. I do not conceal this: I laud it.

It is interesting what happened with the writing of the book, and I see this by readers’ reactions. First and foremost, the book is about two things. It is not a book about the Holocaust, Jews, or Germans. It is a book about silence and identity, about how our identity is formed in a complex way—in multiple and diverse ways. The identity of this city is Ukrainian and Polish and Jewish and Armenian and Russian and Soviet. To my mind, this is good, and this must be valued.

Iryna Slavinska:  Speaking of silence: It would be interesting to talk about Lviv’s contribution to international law, especially after the Holocaust. Can one speak here of a certain Ukrainian contribution, if one can put it this way? Or perhaps the contribution of the Lviv school of law?

Philippe Sands:  Lviv’s Faculty of Law is very well known, although I myself knew nothing about it. If my book does anything, it certainly helps people to realize that the history of Lviv University was very interesting and bloody. Its professors were killed by the Soviets, Germans, even Ukrainians. This university is fascinating, and it has a fantastic Faculty of Law, although the generations of students and professors have been torn asunder. The only one who still has a connection to this past is Professor Rabinovych, whom I mentioned already. He arrived in Lviv in the 1950s and remembers Makarevych, for example, who taught Lemkin and Lauterpacht.

Replying to your question, I will say that it was difficult for Ukrainian scholars. In 1945 Ukraine was completely annexed to the USSR, and everything was contolled from Moscow. In addition, horrible events took place in the 1930s. It turns out that the Ukrainian spirit in the approaches to international law was suppressed for decades. Let’s remember that Ukraine was represented in the UN as a separate country, but in fact it was simply part of the USSR until 1991.

Ukraine took part in the negotiations on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but this was on Moscow’s initiative. To a certain degree, the Ukrainian approach to international law had no possibility to be expressed. This really came about only after 1991.

At the Faculty of Law, I was very lucky to become acquainted with Oksana Holovko and Petro Rabinovych. They want to know history, to talk about history, because history is part of their DNA.

As you know, Ivan Horodysky, who was the scholarly editor of the Ukrainian translation of the book East West Street, is now in charge of a new center that deals with human rights issues. I think that we will soon see a blossoming, like in springtime, of a whole group of young people. You know, I teach law at university, and I know how good it is when young people get fired up. At the same time, we know that Ukraine is experiencing difficult times. The old people remain in power, there is also the problem of corruption. That is why it might be complicated. But I remember my conversations with the students; they are truly very interested.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is this history of Lviv’s Faculty of Law the history of traditions or, rather, your own personal interest?

Philippe Sands:  My grandfather never talked to me about Lviv. I knew that terrible things had taken place there. Eventually I realized that he was communicating with me in a different way. As often happens between grandfather and grandson, there are various types of communication. I think that for university professors who teach in the same university building as did previous generations of professors there is a culture and a special way of thinking; the culture of transmitting knowledge. I can’t explain it. I’m not a psychoanalyst or an archeologist, I’m only a lawyer.

When I entered the auditorium at the Ukrainian Catholic University, people wanted to talk about this. They were interested, history was not alien to them; they understand the issue, they feel a connection. I think there are secrets and concealments that are transmitted from generation to generation, just like recollections or facts. They pass through institutions, buildings, streets. To a certain degree, we continue to carry them within ourselves without understanding all of it because history is very complicated.

Let me give you another example; it’s very funny. Last week, I was in Strasbourg, because the book just came out in a French translation in France. In Strasbourg I met with a French judge of the European Court of Human Rights, and in November he is planning a trip to Lviv to meet with Ukrainian judges. He told me that the book moved him very much, and I thanked him. He asked whether I knew why. I don’t know. And he asked if I knew his name. Yes, I knew it; the judge’s name was André Potocki. His great-grandfather, Andrzej Potocki, was assassinated in 1908. And now his great-grandson is a judge of the European Court of Human Rights, and for the first time in his life he is supposed to go to Lviv in November. There is simply an incredible network of people around Lviv. After the book appeared, I had nearly 150 events regarding the book East West Street all over the world. And after every event—literally after each one—someone would come up to me and tell me about his mother or father from Lviv. It is incredible, and we’re talking about an incredible diaspora.

Iryna Slavinska:  Tell us more about working on your book. How can all these lacunae and concealments be filled?

Philippe Sands:  A lot of time and a lot of energy are required. This was something of an obsession. Someone wrote that it was a “labor of love.”

When I arrived in Lviv, I instantly felt very comfortable. I wanted to come back and learn more. You know there are places where you come and right away you understand that it is terrible here, and you don’t want to be there anymore. But that did not happen with Lviv. I arrived, and that seed sprouted in me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Six months later, in 2011, I began to write the book. At first, there were three men in it: Leon, my grandfather, Lauterpacht, and Lemkin. Hans Frank was added later. And each one had his own complex history. I worked for thousands of hours, even on documents whose language I did not understand: Ukrainian, Polish.

Besides the work on the book, I have other work. I teach at university, and I also work as a lawyer. When I need to work on a case at the International Court, I have to prove facts, and here I am simply obsessed, and I find all the necessary information and facts, I conduct investigations. Over the past thirty years I have learned to find evidence where I am told it doesn’t exist.

Philippe Sands at the launch of his book in Lviv, 16 September 2017 (Copyright: Marta Hrytsaniuk)

Iryna Slavinska:  Philippe Sands then offers several examples from the book to illustrate how the very ability to find evidence helped supplement the research for his book. For example, finding a name connected with his mother’s being rescued during the Holocaust.

Philippe Sands:  For example, I happened to show this photo here to Lauterpacht’s son and asked whether any photos existed of his father in court. He said no. But I didn’t believe it. I did find a photograph, and it’s in the book.

And in my mother’s papers I found a scrap of paper with English writing, and there was the name of an English lady there, Miss Tilly. I assume that it is she in this photo, which is also in the book. When I asked my mother whose name this was, she said she didn’t know. I didn’t believe her either. I searched for her identity for four years. This woman was from an evangelical mission that saved my mother’s life—an incredible story.

Iryna Slavinska:  Which episode in the book moved you the most?

Philippe Sands:  You will see. I happened to find this piece of paper, this photograph in my grandfather’s notes. And everything began from the circumstance that, in getting ready to go to Lviv in 2010, I asked my mother to look for family documents; I wanted to know the street where my grandfather was born. I was fifty years old at the time, and I didn’t know anything about this. She went to her bedroom and came back with two large suitcases. In one of them I found a photograph with a signature, and asked my mother who was in this photograph. She said she didn’t know.

Someone had taken this picture seventy years ago, and I wanted to dig up the story behind it. It turned out that this was grandmother’s lover. There is even a photograph of her together with him, taken in 1941 in a park in Vienna. This led to even more questions. My grandfather and grandmother got married in 1937, my mother was born in 1938, my grandfather left Vienna for Paris in 1939. He left by himself. Eventually my mother went to Paris. But my grandmother stayed in Vienna. What happened? They were married, they had a child. What was wrong?

After some time, I found another photograph. My grandfather had a lover, too—his best friend. And that’s how the question of lineage emerged: Who was my mother’s father? I located the granddaughter of this man and wrote to her. Eventually she suggested that I do a DNA test to see whether we were related. It was precisely this which became the most complex feature in the writing of this book, not even for me—I really don’t care if my grandfather is my biological grandfather—but for my mother. It was very important for her. For me this was the most complicated feature of the work.

Iryna Slavinska:  Philippe Sands also recounts a singular “encounter with the enemy.” Of course, it’s not about a real enemy; it’s a story about a descendant of a Nazi and his acquaintance with him.

Philippe Sands:  The second most complex episode was my first meeting with the son of Hans Frank. That was difficult. Hans Frank was hanged for the killings of four million people, including Lauterpacht’s entire family, Lemkin’s entire family, and all of my grandfather’s relatives in Lviv and Zhovkva.

And here I was meeting with the son of this man. That man had met Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels; with everyone. That was complicated. Since then five years have passed, and we have become great friends. We—Niklas Frank and I—will soon be speaking live for two hours on public television in Paris. We truly like each other and are very good friends.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s talk about the stereotype of Ukrainian anti-Semitism. Does this story line appear in the book?

Philippe Sands:  No. From all my work experience I have learned not to pin labels on people. I hope that I truly treat every person on earth as an equal. I have been traveling for seven years to Lviv, where I have met some of the most estimable, humane, and wonderful people in the world. I also encountered fascists, anti-Semites, racists, but they exist in all countries; they are in Great Britain and France.

I came with open eyes. Yes, I had heard a lot of stories about Ukrainian anti-Semitism. Yes, but there are anti-Semites in a lot of other places. There are anti-Polish moods in Ukraine, and anti-Ukrainian ones in Poland. Right now, you and I are talking, but I am not telling myself that I am sitting with a Ukrainian woman who is probably an anti-Semite. That would be absurd.

Iryna Slavinska:  Next, Philippe Sands offers the following illustration from his book.

Philippe Sands:  But interesting incidents happened; I write about them in the book. For example, I went to Zhovkva to locate where my great-grandmother, Amaliia, was born. Lauterpacht was born on the very same street. And Lauterpacht’s son was my university professor, and my friend as well. He passed away recently; in a week I will be giving a speech at the commemorative ceremony. We had been friends for 30 years when we discovered that both of us had roots in the same street. This is Lembergstrasse, East West Street.

So, I went to Zhovkva, where I tried to find the house where my great-grandmother was born and lived. I succeeded in finding that place. And I told Liudmyla, the wonderful woman who was accompanying me, that it would be good to find old people who have been living here for a long time, elderly neighbors who might remember the year 1943, when the entire Jewish population of Zhovkva was killed. We actually found an elderly woman, who was ninety years old, and she and I started talking. She remembered everything and began to tell us about it. That woman and I agreed to meet one more time within a few days. But later she didn’t want to communicate with us anymore. I think the reason was that Ukrainians were involved in the destruction of the Jews. The executions of the Jews in Zhovkva were organized by the Germans, but in fact the act of killing was carried out by Ukrainians who were working in the police.

I also met Lauterpacht’s niece. She is the only person in that entire family who survived. She managed to save herself in Lviv because she hid in a monastery. The nuns asked her to accept Catholicism, and she was baptized. She hid there during the war and was saved, and later she moved to Paris. I met with her in Paris in 2012. This story is described in the book. She describes seeing Germans and Ukrainians taking her mother somewhere. It was August 1942.

Iryna Slavinska:  This testimony is recorded on one of the stones forming The Space of Synagogues memorial in Lviv.

Philippe Sands:  I sent the quotation, “And I saw my mother being taken somewhere by Germans and Ukrainians.” The words that are inscribed on the monument do not include the words “Germans and Ukrainians.” I feel that this is truly a painful question.

Iryna Slavinska:  I ask if one can speak here about self-censorship. Philippe Sands says that various countries have their own painful topics.

Philippe Sands: There is no museum of colonialism in Great Britain. Nor are there museums commemorating the people who were killed in India or Africa. The only country that is truly dealing with what it did is Germany. Likewise, you will not find monuments in Lviv that speak about those events.

I hope that my book will at least help people learn about the history of the two or three preceding generations, and become interested in history and in their own ancestry. There is a very important tone here. I am not criticizing anyone, I remain neutral and am simply recounting history. I do not feel anger toward the people of today.

Returning to your question about stereotypes of anti-Semitism—this is a complicated history. I think that Lviv has to absorb what happened. The city must recognize its own role in those events and who is responsible. This is complicated and difficult.

Iryna Slavinska:  Here I will comment that, let’s say, it will not be so easy to maintain neutrality with a French audience. France has its own traumas, connected with the experience of collaborationism, as well as its own stereotypes about the role of the local population in the Shoah, the Holocaust. What does Philippe Sands say about this from his own experience of book launches in France, where a translation of his book was also published?

Philippe Sands:  I have already noticed this. A week ago, I had book launches in France and there was a lot of press. The book was covered in Le Monde, Le Figaro, L’Express, and other newspapers. I noticed that readers have different reactions from the ones I observed in Great Britain. For example, in England there was no experience of collaborationism. But there was in France. When I mention this, I see how strongly the audience reacts.

Yes, they were involved, but not everyone. For example, in the book I talk about many famous people from France. Ukrainians and Poles, too, saved people. But terrible things also occurred in France, in Poland, and in Ukraine.

So, I see that reactions to these conversations are very different. For example, in France I gave an interview to Le Figaro. The journalist began the interview with me with the thesis that my book is about the Holocaust. But I challenged him. It is not a book about the Holocaust. It is a book in which the Holocaust is the driving force behind conversations about universal issues: silence, identity, horrible things that take place.

Now I am very interested to see the reactions of readers in Ukraine. I think that the reactions will remind me of those that happened in France. Here, too, you have sensitivity and the painful nature of certain topics. I think that readers will be asking whether I am accusing Ukrainians of something. But I am not accusing anyone. I am simply trying to recount history honestly and openly.

You know, it’s funny to point the finger and accuse somebody of what our grandfathers’ generation did. When I am sitting with Niklas Frank, I’m not telling him that he’s a disgusting person because he had such a father. I think that people understand this. It’s possible that this is precisely why the book is selling well all over the world.

Iryna Slavinska:  To conclude our conversation, I ask a question, not about the book per se, but about the work of Lemkin and Lauterpacht that it describes. Is their work helpful today in the context of the war in Ukraine, in the context of the war in Syria, and other conflicts?

Philippe Sands:  I hope, I very much hope that it will be helpful. Just think about this in a new light. Imagine, that until 1945, throughout the entire history of mankind, a state could do whatever it wanted with its citizens. A sovereign had complete power over his people. For example, if someone came up right now and said that all the people from the second floor of the World of Coffee café will die tomorrow, international law would not find any problem with this. ‘They’re your people, do whatever you want with them.” Today this seems unbelievable.

A change took place in 1945, and Lauterpacht and Lemkin and the city of Lviv were involved in it. It was recognized at this time that it’s enough. And the rules were changed—after thousands of years of complete power over citizens. I usually explain to students that law is a “long” game; changes here do not happen overnight.

Today, terrible things are happening in Russia’s war against Ukraine, in the war in Syria, Iraq, the Congo, Myanmar. Yes, international law will not put an end to all these horrors. What can it do then? It says: “You cannot act this way.” There will be accountability for a crime, although, perhaps, not in all issues. There are forms of human behavior that are impossible to accept. And they will have consequences. For example, the leader of Myanmar, who until recently was an international heroine and even received the Nobel Peace Prize. In just one week she destroyed her reputation because she allowed the persecution of part of the population of her country.

A fundamental change took place in international law in 1945. If you look back, it becomes clear that Lviv was the catalyst and played a great role.

The text is read by Andriy Kulikov.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared on September 23, 2017 in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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