ONDON — Seven years ago British human rights lawyer and law academic Philippe Sands was asked to deliver a lecture in a university in Lviv, western Ukraine.

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Up for discussion were two topics: Sands’ specialized knowledge about the Nuremberg Trials, and his work as a barrister in helping to set up the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague in 1998.

But there was more at stake than just a professional opportunity for Sands — he had family history connecting him to the city, too: Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, was born in Lviv in 1904. And while Sands had enjoyed a close relationship with Leon — who died in Paris in 1997 — he knew little about his life in central Europe before 1945.

“I’ve come to understand that within every family there are secrets and silences,” Sands explains from his home in Hampstead, north London. “But eventually they come out.”

A hitherto unknown narrative began to unfold itself as the lawyer and author looked back through old correspondence and found subtle hints in faded black and white photographs. He traveled to Israel to interview close relatives who brought him closer to his family tree.

The skeleton that came out of the closet was that Sands’ grandfather Buchholz was most likely gay, and had a male lover called Max for many years.

Sands also learned that his grandmother Rita, while estranged from her husband and Sands’ mother, Ruth, who were back in Paris at the time, almost certainly had an affair with another man in Vienna during these years too.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz with Max in 1936. (Courtesy)
Philippe Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz with Max in 1936. (Courtesy)

“I’m careful not to draw strong conclusions,” Sands says rather cautiously, “because you learn litigating cases that nothing is ever as it seems.”

Family history is not the only topic unearthed in Sands’ intriguing but rather complicated book, “East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity” which he’ll be promoting in Israel on April 23 at an event at Djanogly Hall in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem.

Using Lviv as a mysterious and mythological milieu, Sands attempts to explain an especially dark epoch of European history. He does this by interlinking a number of biographical stories that run parallel to one another — all of which, rather bizarrely, connect to the history of the city, but also to the Holocaust, and the international world legal system that followed it.

Cover of ‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands. (Courtesy)
Cover of ‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands. (Courtesy)

Sands’ book introduces us, for instance, to the two Jewish legal masterminds Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin — both born, raised and educated in this central European city — who were key players in developing the international legal system that arose during the Nuremberg Trial of 1945 and 1946.

The former became known as the father of the human rights movement, coming up with the legal term “crimes against humanity” during the Nuremberg trial. The latter was a public prosecutor and lawyer who worked on the trial too, and coined the term “genocide.”

The phrase “crimes against humanity” was used in the final judgment of the Nuremberg Trials in October 1946 by the four Allied powers, as they passed down the death sentence to 12 Nazis by hanging.

While “genocide” was mentioned, it did not feature as an official legal term in the final judgment.

This difference of formal legal opinion that took place over the course of the Nuremberg Trials — regarding war crimes committed in the Holocaust — becomes a central theme debated in Sands’ latest book.

Lauterpacht, with his term “crimes against humanity,” opted for protecting the rights of the individual over a racial or religious group, Sands explains.

Raphael Lemkin. (Public domain)
Raphael Lemkin. (Public domain)

Lemkin, on the other hand, claimed that the stark reality was that mass murder and violence took place because individuals were members of a group, and were consequently targeted because of it.

“What both men had in common was that they were trying to use international law as a way to protect people who were under threat, irrespective of their nationality, race, or religion,” says Sands.

“The essential issue that Lemkin and Lauterpacht were struggling with is how individual human beings who form part of a minority group define themselves. And how the bigger community protects them,” Sands adds.

Since publication last year, Sands’ latest book has been translated into over 14 languages — although interestingly, not yet into Hebrew.

It won the Baillie Gifford Prize, and was recently announced as joint winner of the Jewish Quarterly Wingate literary prize.

‘The issue is how individual human beings who form part of a minority group define themselves and how the bigger community protects them’
The book’s mass popularity may come from the fact that its themes are universal ones — love and betrayal in complicated family narratives; a study on the modern European conscience; a compelling analysis of how the Holocaust was first talked about in legal and moral terms in the international community. An important discussion emerges, too, about how universal human rights first emerged in the West, and indeed the wider world, after World War II.

Sands describes just how integral the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and 1946 were for creating a binding international legal system that we still feel today.

“This was an absolutely crucial moment in human history,” he says, “because states came together at the Nuremberg Trials and said for first time [that] the power of the sovereign is limited, and it cannot treat its nationals as it wishes.”

Fundamentally, Sands believes the issue debated over the course of the trials regarding how the crimes of the Holocaust should be defined, comes down to three primal questions about human identity: who we are; how we want to be defined; and how we want the law to protect us.