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Reconstructing the “Outlines of a Disappeared World”: An Interview with Philippe Sands

WHEN PHILIPPE SANDS received an unexpected invitation from Lviv, Ukraine — the “city of blurred borders” — to deliver a public lecture on his work on crimes against humanity and genocide, he was also presented with an opportunity to explore the interrelated 20th-century histories of four men: his grandfather Leon Buchholz, lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, and governor-general of German-occupied Poland Hans Frank. 

What materialized in the years following Sands’s 2010 trip to Ukraine was an incisively written memoir that plaits the geographically and historically related strands of his previously suppressed family history with the developing legal concepts of Lauterpacht, who worked to define “crimes against humanity,” and Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide.” Sands traces these rival concepts as they become pivotal to the prosecution of Hans Frank, the man tried and executed at Nuremberg for implementing the AB-Aktion in Poland. 

Published in 2016, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity is a deeply personal narrative for Sands, whose grandfather — the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust — was born in the city of Lviv (then Lemberg) in 1904. As a professor of law at University College London and a practicing barrister at Matrix Chambers, Sands has written a book that, as well as his and David Evans’s documentary film My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did (2015), is informed by his work on a number of high-profile international cases. In the film, we observe Sands’s relationship with Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter — the sons of two prominent Nazi officials, whose opposing views of paternal responsibility emphasize the continued relevance of the Holocaust. 

I caught up with Sands to discuss the writing of these works, the politics of wartime collaboration in Ukraine, and disparate European commemorative cultures of the Holocaust.

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EMILY-ROSE BAKER: Did you consider the emotional implications of piecing together such a traumatic and inherently personal history, and were there any points at which you felt overwhelmed by it?

PHILIPPE SANDS: You have to put this in the context that I’m an international lawyer who is involved in many cases that involve mass killing — in the Congo, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on — I’m just used to dealing, in my professional life, with really terrible things. That, in a sense, steers you, requires you to build up certain protective mechanisms.

But the reality was that I obviously had a sense for things that happened with my grandfather, and the family background. I didn’t know the details, which are always especially difficult. So, at no point did I find any part of the experience traumatic, in that dramatic sense of the word. There were some moments that I found very, very challenging … The place that always gets to me, in an emotional sense, is when I visit the mass grave near Żółkiew (now Zhovkva, Ukraine). [Once the “family hub” of Sands’s grandfather, a nearby forest is the site of a mass killing, on March 25, 1943, in which Jews from the city were lined up, shot, and deposited into pits.] I am uncomfortable in Żółkiew, there’s something about the place that I find very dark, and I’m mightily irritated by the fact that there is no formal recognition of what happened there, that it’s just an informal marking, that the bodies are still there, forgotten and ignored by the locals.

And of course, the remarkable coincidence is that you’ve got the bodies of the Lauterpacht family and my family mingling, it somehow combines … The other recollection where I begin to well up a bit is when I imagine my two great-grandmothers at the station in Vienna, en route to deportation. Somehow the image of very elderly people, or very young people who ought particularly not to be subject to these kinds of things, I find especially painful.

Early in the memoir, you describe the investigative work of compiling Leon’s documents, including his birth certificate, several passports, and the scrap of yellow paper containing Miss Tilney’s address. [Elsie Tilney was an evangelical Christian missionary who transported Philippe’s mother, Ruth, safely to Paris from German-occupied Vienna in 1939.] In what ways has your profession shaped your understanding of and approach to the Holocaust?

It’s plain that my professional background deeply informs why and how this book was written. I have spent a lifetime looking at documents and interpreting them. It’s something I love doing — that sort of muck of evidence … And you sort of learn many things: you learn that nothing is ever quite what it seems, that there are always multiple interpretations, that there are things hidden below the surface that are not immediately apparent and that you have to keep looking for. And that’s the sort of love of the chase — the love of the hunt, and the challenge of unpicking, going below the surface, to see what is really there.

I think what being an international lawyer in a courtroom, as well as an academic, allows you to do, is to step back and (it’s never possible to do it completely) to look at the facts and the material, and try to disconnect yourself … So I think of the Holocaust in a particular way: on the one hand, as a family member with a very familial eye, and on the other hand, as someone who deals with international law and cases of mass killing. And there’s a disconnect between those two aspects, and you see that come together, actually, in the film — possibly more so than in the book, where you see the conflict between the two. I’m very careful in the book; it’s an explicit choice that I made: tell the story, explain how you found things, give the reader the available material, and leave them to draw their own conclusions. Don’t impose my own emotions.

Your work enmeshes family history and the Holocaust with the trajectories of Lauterpacht and Lemkin’s work. What influenced your decision to structure the memoir this way?

I started writing in 2011, two months after I came back from Lviv, once I decided to write a book about the experience. I didn’t go expecting to write a book. I started writing about three men: Leon, Lauterpacht, and Lemkin; and then Frank came into the story, added as the fourth man. I finished the first draft at some point, probably, in early 2012, and I had structured it somewhat differently. I had told the narrative in a sort of interweaving way, so it ran straight from 1914 to 1946, the stories told chronologically, all of them interwoven.

The book was sent by my agent to Victoria Wilson at Alfred A. Knopf. I went to New York to see her and she said she wanted the book, but she imposed a particular condition: that I completely restructure it. She said the material is incredible, but a sensible, intelligent reader will not be able to master the four different characters if you present it in this way. So the way to do it — and it was her idea, not mine — was to begin with one character, Leon, tell the story up to the moment when the Nuremberg trial starts, then take another character, Lauterpacht, then a third, Lemkin, then a fourth, Frank, until the moment when the trial starts; and at that point, the intelligent reader — of which there are many — will know exactly who the different characters are.

You touch upon Ukrainian complicity and collaboration in both East West Street and My Nazi Legacy, noting in particular Lviv’s “dark and secret past.” What steps ought Ukraine be taking to better acknowledge the issue of wartime collaboration on Ukrainian territory, as well as current anti-Semitism?

It’s very delicate. When you come from the outside, you don’t want to be lecturing other communities on what they should and should not be doing. And, you know, in the United Kingdom, what do we do about slavery, what do we do about colonialism? Basically nothing. And it’s unbecoming for an Anglo-French person to come in and start lecturing them. But there’s plainly a problem. In fact, when I arrived in the city, there was basically nothing, or very, very little. There was a wonderful Center for Urban History beginning to do things, and a few isolated individuals, but there was very little. It has changed, but it’s a challenge.

At one point in 2016, a new memorial was established at the old synagogue, the Golden Rose synagogue. I was asked to send a quotation from one of the people I’d interviewed, and I’d selected the quotation from Inka Katz, when she’s standing at the window and observes her mother being taken by Ukrainians and Germans. And they said yes, they’d love to take that quote, and they did take it, but of course they removed the words “Ukrainians and Germans.” And so you’ve got a piece of granite right in the middle of Lviv, with Inka Katz’s words on it, but three crucial words are removed. I thought about it, long and hard, and decided not to make a fuss. The best is sometimes the enemy of the good. Step by step; one thing at a time. It’s ultimately for them to decide when to begin — and this is the beginning of a process. It was a brief moment of progress.

There are moments in My Nazi Legacy in which Horst’s self-deception certainly becomes frustrating, and in which your probative questions seem uncomfortable for him. Were there points at which you felt exasperated by his denial?

Well, the main one … When we’re in the aula, I was just mightily irritated by him. He asked that I show him documents; we looked at the documents, he said they don’t prove anything … I was irritated also at the mass grave, but I managed to hold that in a bit better. At the end of the day, I understand he’s a person who was damaged during the war. In a weird way, he too is a victim, and he struggles to deal with this, and he struggles to get through each day, and he found his way so long as he doesn’t cross the line into broader denials and complicity. I don’t think he’s a Nazi (and I say so in the film), and I don’t think he’s an apologist. He’s like a little boy trying to find the good in his father, but at times close to crossing the line. We continue to have a good relationship and I continue to have a good relationship with Nik — but those two aren’t really in contact any more.

How can the disparity between Holocaust memory-cultures in the European East and West be reconciled?

Different communities have different ways of dealing with things. Germany’s dealt with things one way, Austria in another, the United Kingdom in yet another, the United States in yet another. I think one has to understand that each community has its own way of coming to terms with its own history. It’s a complex matter: there’s no cookie-cutter approach, no “one size fits all” … But I’m very loath to draw from the experience of one community and say that’s how another community should do it. I’m more comfortable in some communities — I’m very comfortable in Germany, I’m not comfortable in Austria, and that’s in part a sense of perception as to how the community as a whole has addressed these issues, then and now.

In a Q-and-A with BBC Four, your co-director David Evans noted that the film “caused a stir among the festival audience it played to in Austria, more so than in Germany or Poland.” Why do you think the reception in Austria was different, given that it’s in the West? Has the film been screened in Ukraine, or are there plans to screen it there? How do you think it would be received?

I think it’s just a question of history … The reception of the book was really incredibly positive and it went on to the best-seller list in Lviv. By contrast, in Austria there hasn’t been a single invitation to talk about the book — the Vienna book fair turned it down for an event. No doubt they had decent intellectual reasons, but it says something, no? Whereas in Germany, I’ve had many invitations — that too says rather a lot, and the audiences have been big and challenging and interesting, in the best possible ways. You would have thought that a book largely centered on Vienna and its former appendage, Lemberg, would find some interest there — but it hasn’t, with just a few exceptions. That’s just how it is … They have simply not begun to come to terms with their historic role and their current responsibility.

Similarly, the film was not screened at the documentary festival in Kyiv, and I think that, in part, that was because no one in Ukraine likes the bit about the Waffen-SS admirers meeting in the field, dressing up in Nazi costumes … I haven’t been told that explicitly, but I suspect that’s what it has to do with.

At a time when the Holocaust is passing out of living memory and into history, you are, in ways, privileged as an inheritor of intergenerational Holocaust memory. Are East West Street and My Nazi Legacy influenced by the ethical and political responsibilities second and thirdgeneration survivors often feel to cultivate Holocaust memory? Do you feel a duty to pass on your family history?

I wouldn’t describe the motives for writing these pieces as deriving from a sense of duty or responsibility. I’d say that I’m principally fulfilling the role of the storyteller and providing information about my own family, for future generations. One of the most interesting reactions to the book came from my son, who was 21 when it came out. He said, “Dad, it’s interesting: I now know, at the age of 21, what my hinterland was on that side of the family, whereas when you were 21, you didn’t know that story. That makes me a different person from you.” That was an acute observation. So perhaps there is an element of the transmission of family and individual memory, and an attempt to find the connections between discrete personal stories and larger historical narratives. I wouldn’t say I’m motivated by a sense of duty or obligation, but I would say that I am motivated by a belief that individuals really matter, and what they do — or don’t do — can make a real difference.

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Emily-Rose Baker is a PhD student in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. She is researching the emergence of Holocaust memory in the postcommunist nations of Central-Eastern Europe as part of the “Future of Holocaust Memory” network at the White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities.

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