Philippe Sands | 'I’ve been to a lot of mass graves'

Philippe Sands | 'I’ve been to a lot of mass graves'

From a file in his Hampstead study, Philippe Sands draws out a thin scrap of paper. On it is a name and address, hastily written in pencil: “Miss Elsie Tilney, ‘Menuka’, Bluebell Road, Norwich, Angleterre.” Thanks to his book East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, I know exactly who this woman was, and I know why she was brave beyond imagining. I take the paper into my palm and hold it with reverence. “It moves me. It really moves me,” says Sands.

After three years of sleuthing, his discovery of the identity of Miss Tilney of Norwich helped unlock the riveting story of what happened to his mother Ruth, and her parents, Leon and Rita, during the Second World War. They were among the very few members of their extended Jewish families to survive the Holocaust. Miss Tilney’s name and address were discovered among some papers which had belonged to Sands’ grandfather Leon. “I knew he had kept these things for a reason.” Though Leon died in his nineties, having lived out his post-war life in Paris, the past remained a “no-go area”. “Pas important”, he would say. “I grew up in a household where there were a lot of silences,” remembers Sands.

A renowned human rights lawyer, and professor of international law at UCL, Sands has acted in numerous cases of alleged mass killing and torture in countries including the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Congo, Iraq and Sierra Leone, and at Guantánamo. His previous books for a general audience—Torture Team: Uncovering War Crimes in the Land of the Free and Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules—could be characterised as trenchant holdings-to-account of Western governments. The catalyst year for Sands’ legal career was 1998. “The International Criminal Court was created, General Pinochet was arrested and Slobodan Milošević was indicted. Suddenly, international criminal law had come of age and I was involved in all three stories.” His extensive CV is testament to the many headline cases he has handled since.

In 2010, Sands was invited by the law faculty in Lviv, Ukraine, to give a lecture on his work on crimes against humanity and genocide. He accepted the invitation eagerly, partly because it would enable him to further explore the history of the Nuremberg Trials—Sands calls their influence on his work “profound”. But he was also keen to go because of one fact he did know about his grandfather. Lviv—or rather Lwów, as it was then known—was Leon’s birthplace.

Then, in preparing for the lecture Sands unearthed the astonishing fact that two of the Nuremberg lawyers, Horst Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin—who coined the now familiar terms “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” respectively—both studied in Lviv. “You could not invent a better story. The two men who put these terms into international law came from the law faculty that had invited me.” By another amazing coincidence, Sands had been taught law at Cambridge by Lauterpacht’s son Eli. “We’ve known each other for more than 30 years, and suddenly we discover that our origins are on the same street in the same town. I’m not a new-age hippy type person. But I do think there’s more than coincidence at play here. Something made me accept the invitation and then start ferreting around.”

Soon came the idea of writing a book about Lauterpacht and Lemkin. The story of Leon and his family remained peripheral to it however until Sands starting reading about Hans Frank, the seventh Nazi defendant at Nuremberg, who was later found guilty and executed. Formerly Hitler’s personal lawyer, Frank was made governor-general of the Nazi-occupied Polish territories, which—post-Operation Barbarossa in 1941—included Lviv. He oversaw the segregation of the Jews into ghettos and, after the institution of the Final Solution, organised their mass murder. “Frank is a completely fascinating figure because he’s so evil and weak and awful. He’s also the common link between my grandfather, and Lauterpacht and Lemkin. When the trial begins, these two Jewish lawyers don’t realise that Frank is the man who has killed their entire families.” Having fled Nazi-held Europe before the war —Lauterpacht to Britain, Lemkin to the US—it was only in 1946 that both lawyers learned that almost all their family members had perished, just as Sands’ grandfather discovered, in 1945, that he was the only survivor among his family of more than 70 people.

Sands’ research led him to Hans Frank’s son Niklas, a German magazine journalist who has written a book about his notorious father. With Niklas and Horst von Wächter, the son of another Nazi war criminal, Sands made an enthralling film entitled “My Nazi Legacy”, directed by David Evans, in which he returns with both sons to the scenes of their fathers’ crimes and documents their dramatically contrasting responses. Sands has also devised a dramatised performance with music, entitled “A Song of Good and Evil”, which tells the stories of Lauterpacht, Lemkin and Frank. Performances will take place in the UK and around the world, starting in May 2016 at north London arts venue Kings Place.

East West Street pulls off the considerable feat of interweaving the lives of these three men with a brief history of international law and its origins; and some profoundly moving revelations about Sands’ own forebears, including the heroic role played by a spinster lady from Norwich. The absolute heart of the book is encapsulated, says Sands, by its Nicolas Abraham epigraph: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”

East West Street (the title is a quotation from Joseph Roth’s book The Wandering Jews) will inevitably invite comparisons with The Hare with Amber Eyes and Hans and Rudolf. But East West Street, for which John le Carré helped with the German translation, is also an eminently topical book because it directly considers the impact of the past on our present. Its publication in the 70th anniversary year of the Nuremberg Trials couldn’t be more apposite. Though the trials were “flawed”, they were also seminal, says Sands. “It was the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial. Nuremberg was also so revolutionary that it took five decades for the next steps to take root. Fifty years later, the UN Security Council created two new tribunals which have jurisdiction over genocide and crimes against humanity. But were it not for Nuremberg—and Lauterpacht and Lemkin—none of it would have happened.”

Researching and writing East West Street has enriched my sense of the role of the individual in the legal process. And it’s also made me recognise the dangers of forgetting about history

Researching and writing East West Street has, says Sands, “enriched my sense of the role of the individual in the legal process. And it’s also made me recognise the dangers of forgetting about history. This generation of politicians, as they prepare to shred the Human Rights Act and take the UK out of the EU, has no sense of where we came from. And no sense of the risks of taking us back to where we were. That makes me really angry. What a remarkable generation of people they were in the 1940s, thinking through a new legal order, a new world order. The legacy of that generation is one that needs to be taken forward.

“I’ve been to a lot of mass graves. I’ve dealt with cases of crimes against humanity and cases of genocide. You get hardened to these things, you deal with them in a professional way. But a part of you is conscious that each and every victim is an individual with a family life and a family story.”

Photo © Antonio Zazueta Olmos

Picture: Antonio Zazueta Olmos