East West Street


Author: Philippe Sands

Review: Mark Harrison

Click here to download a copy of this book review.

About the Book

A 400 page tome examining the origins of the legal concepts of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ doesn’t at first hearing sound like the most arresting or enjoyable of reads. However, this summary description of East West Street can’t do justice to the gripping, profound and deeply personal book that international lawyer Philippe Sands has produced after a six year labour of love. Whilst the origins of the legal concepts of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ are the spine running through the book, they are vividly illustrated by the stories of two men – Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht – who conceived and popularised the two concepts. The stories of Lemkin and Lauterpacht interweave with the story of Sands’ own family, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the first international court case at Nuremberg, where the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity were tried for the first time.

There are few books which are more relevant to Holocaust Memorial Day – combining the history of the Holocaust, the origins of the concept of genocide, and the beginnings of international criminal law. Sands is a Professor of Law at UCL and a respected barrister who frequently appears before international courts, and who has argued cases relating to the war in the former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda.

The stories of Sands’ family, Lemkin and Lauterpacht intersect to a remarkable degree in the city of Lviv. Now located in Ukraine, Lviv has seen many changes in rulers and names. In its interwar Polish incarnation it was home to a significant Jewish population. Both Sands’ grandfather Leon, and Hersch Lauterpacht, grew up on ‘East West Street’ in the town of Żółkiew, close to Lviv. Lemkin and Lauterpacht both studied in Lviv within a few years of each other, though their paths didn’t cross. After devoting chapters to Leon, Lemkin and Lauterpacht, Sands focuses on another individual – Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor General of Poland – who ruled Lviv during the war and oversaw the execution of the Holocaust in the territory. Whilst Leon, Lemkin and Lauterpacht had escaped Poland before 1939 the majority of their families left behind were not so fortunate, and were murdered.

East West Street is especially interesting and readable as much of it is a detective story of Sands’ investigation into his family history. Over several years he researches the story of his grandparents and their families, uncovering the stories behind several mysterious characters in photographs, and some uncomfortable truths about his grandparents’ relationship. Like so many Holocaust survivors, Sands’ grandparents said little about their experience whilst they were alive: secrets and unspoken facts obscuring the understanding of the second and third generations. The unravelling of these secrets, and the remarkable way that Sands’ family history interweaves with those of Lemkin and Lauterpacht, make for gripping reading.

Sands’ book climaxes with the Nuremberg trial – in which Hans Frank was one of the key defendants. Both Lemkin and Lauterpacht were involved: Lauterpacht as part of the British delegation, developing the idea that individuals like Frank were personally criminally responsible for Nazi crimes; Lemkin from the sidelines, attempting to get his new concept of ‘genocide’ included in the charges against the Nazi defendants. The trial must have been intensely personal for both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, as both faced Frank, the man responsible for allowing the murder of millions of Jews in the territory he controlled, including the majority of the Lemkin and Lauterpacht families.

Sands illustrates the origins of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ by telling the stories of the men who did most to establish them. Lemkin and Lauterpacht were very different characters, which clearly influenced their differing approaches to law. East West Street is an excellent introduction to the two concepts – their strengths and weaknesses. Lemkin believed the crime of genocide was required because time and time again perpetrators had murdered people because of the group that they belonged to. Lauterpacht believed that ‘genocide’ wasn’t a helpful concept, that the individual should be treated as an individual, not a member of a group, and that ‘crimes against humanity’ were the best approach for international criminal law. Though Lemkin struggled to establish the crime of ‘genocide’ at Nuremberg, his concept has developed since then, now often described as the ‘crime of crimes’. Sands has an ambivalent attitude to the concept, seeing how it can be useful, but identifying problems with it (how it creates a ‘hierarchy of crimes, how it can reinforce negative group identities, and how it can distort the prosecution of crimes against humanity).  Sands will be taking part in a seminar we are organising next month, which will examine some of the problems and issues with the concept of genocide – which is key to what we commemorate on Holocaust Memorial Day.
Key Themes
  • The concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity
  • Justice
  • The exploration of personal/ family history


Suggested further reading 

Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention, John Cooper

Raphael Lemkin was the first person to coin the word genocide. This is a complete biography of Lemkin, including his struggle to campaign for the official recognition of genocide.

Click here for Raphael Lemkin's life story on our website. 

My Nazi Legacy (DVD), Philippe Sands

In Philippe Sands' documentary, he meets the sons of two high-ranking Nazi officials. Sands explores the differences between the ways in which the two men have dealt with their father's actions. 

HMDT Blog: 70th anniversary of the Nuremburg Trials, Philippe Sands

In November 2015, Philippe Sands wrote a blog for HMDT, reflecting on the importance of the trials and their lasting legacy. 

Click here to read the blog. 


You can use HMDT resources to find out more about the definition of genocide here.