Posts tagged ‘genocide’

January 22, 2017

City of Lions by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

josef-wittlin-and-philippe-sands-city-of-lions

Paperback, £12, Pushkin Press, out now

This beautifully made small book is an excellent companion read to Philippe Sands’ award winning East West Street: on the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (see my review here, https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/east-west-street-on-the-origins-of-genocide-and-crimes-against-humanity-by-philippe-sands/).  It comprises two essays on what is now known as the city of Lviv, in Ukraine.  Exile Józef Wittlin, writing in 1946, recalls the city when he knew it before the Second World War.  Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, whose mother’s family were from Lviv and whose story is told in East West Street, gives his account of the city in 2016.

The book’s striking cover shows the many names the city has had over the last 100 years – Lviv, Lwów, Lvov, Lemberg.  Europe’s sometimes brutal twentieth century history has overrun this place over and over again.  Evocative black and white photographs and maps add a ghostly and sometimes melancholy note throughout.  Small publisher Pushkin Press can be proud of this book – read it, then read their republished The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig from 1942 (http://www.pushkinpress.com/book/the-world-of-yesterday/).

Both Wittlin and Sands’ accounts show their great attachment to the city, while dealing with the terrible things that happened there. They speak to each other, providing a vivid addition to the literature on exile and belonging.  Wittlin writes: “Balabans, Korniakts, Mohylas, Boims, Kampians – what sort of a motley crew is this?  That’s Lwów for you.  Diversified, variegated, as dazzling as an oriental carpet.  Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans are all Lvovians, alongside the Polish, Ruthenian and Jewish natives, and they are Lvovians ‘through and through’” (p. 49).  Visiting the local museum 70 years later, and thinking about Wittlin’s quote, Sands asks: “… where were the spaces devoted to the former residents of the city, the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans?… What of the legacy of the Polish and Jewish inhabitants whose presence had been eclipsed?” (p. 130).

These memories of and reflections on the City of Lions, where many of Wittlin’s streets and buildings remain though their names and occupants have changed, help us to process and acknowledge the past. In our troubled present, inhumanity and change continue.  But there is also hope, as Sands concludes: “We too can play at games, as the world erupts once more.  We too can close our eyes, and imagine that beyond the dark clouds that settled over this unhappy city, a ray of light broke through, and that it still offers hope today” (p. 130).

Review by Bethan

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May 31, 2016

East West Street – On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, by Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Orion Books, £20, out nowPhilippe Sands EAST WEST STREET

International human rights barrister Philippe Sands opens his remarkable new book with a quote from Nicolas Abraham: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others”.  Sands tries to fill some of these gaps in the stories of both his family and two lawyers who developed the legal concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity that featured for the first time in the Nuremberg tribunal – Hersch Lauerpacht and Rafael Lemkin.  Remarkably, there turn out to be connections between all of these people and the (now Ukrainian) city of Lviv, a site of mass murder of Jewish residents during the Second World War.

The best thing I’ve read this year, East West Street is both personal and international in scope.  Sands undertakes remarkable archival and other research and succeeds in uncovering surprising and illuminating stories, which help to explain both how international law developed as it did and why it was important that it did so.  In this he echoes the approach of Hartley Shawcross, British prosecutor at Nuremberg, who in his closing trial address used a single devastating case study to force home the inhumanity of Nazi war crimes (Sands recounts this at p. 346-7).  It takes a skilful and confident writer to manage the risks involved in bringing the huge themes of history back, over and over again, to real individuals.  He does so seamlessly, creating a book that reads as compulsively as a detective story.  The photos of people and original documents scattered throughout the text make it even more engaging.  The related film, My Nazi Legacy: What our Fathers Did, is also well worth watching (http://www.wildgazefilms.co.uk/my-nazi-legacy-2015/) .

Sands’ perspective as a lawyer involved with the International Criminal Court and war crimes tribunals from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia makes the work highly relevant when thinking about human rights now.  70 years after Nuremberg, how do we deal with crimes against humanity?  Do we have the courage required to remember that real individuals are caught up in these huge convulsions, and the greater courage not to look away?

Review by Bethan