Back in 2010 the barrister Philippe Sands was asked to give a lecture at Lviv University in Ukraine on the subjects of genocide and crimes against humanity. This gave him the opportunity to visit the city, and maybe discover more about his maternal grandfather, a man who he knew so little about. Sands knew he was Jewish, had moved to Vienna as war enveloped Europe in 1914 and then moved onto Paris after the Nazis entered Austria. When he probed further he discovered that there were scant details about him; it was a life enveloped in secrecy. Little by little, he discovered details of his grandfather’s life, how the family had moved across Europe, his mother’s journey to Paris as a small child in the company of someone other than her parents, somehow staying one-step ahead as the Nazi regime started sending people to the death camps.
His visit to Lviv University also revealed that his own field of legal expertise, international humanitarian law, had been conceived by two men who had studied law there. Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht were the men who forged the ideas of genocide and crimes against humanity. These legal concepts were first used in anger in the Nuremburg trials post World War II when the prosecution of Nazi war criminals took place. He brings the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, Hans Frank into the narrative. Responsible for the deaths of over 1 million Poles and Jews in the short time he was in charge, he also had the dubious honour of being Hitler’s personal lawyer. After the war, the lives of Franks, Lemkin and Lauterpacht would come together in the International Military Tribunals in room 600 at the Palace of Justice as the world learnt of the horrors of the Third Reich .
Sands has written a poignant and personal memoir of tracing his grandfather. However, this book is so much more than that. His story of the three people that culminated in the Nuremburg trials is a fascinating account of the development of international law. It was personal for Lemkin and Lauterpacht and his grandfather Leon too as they were among the people lost numerous members of their families in this absolute tragic and pointless loss of life that swept Europe. Words like genocide and crimes against humanity should never exist, but sadly, they do. For a book that is full of much sadness, there is hope too; the legal principles that they initiated are being used to bring people to justice. These principles that they defined will never solve the problems of the world, but they do give peoples and cultures opportunity for redress. It is a influential historical account of men who were prepared to fight brutality with peaceful means. Can highly recommend this.