But as difficult as his subject matter is, Sands builds a compelling narrative about the gradual recognition in international law of "genocide" and "crimes against humanity." His narrative's power owes much to the coincidence that the two men who introduced these crimes into international law -- Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, respectively --studied under the same professors, at the same university, in a Central European city called by various names: Lemberg, Lwów, Lvov, or Lviv. Further coincidence, also woven into the narrative, is that the author's own grandfather was born in that same city. And the three men shared, also, the devastating loss of home and family as Jews living during the Third Reich.
The book begins in 2010 -- the author has been invited to give a lecture at Lviv University, and is told by an audience member that he should look to the city for clues to his own family's history. This unveiling of secrets long shrouded by his grandparents parallels his research into the lives of Lemkin and Lauterpacht and their (as much oppositional as complementary) efforts to have "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" recognized in international law. The "case study" that Sands constructs his narrative around is the case against Hans Frank as part of the Nuremberg Trials -- and Frank was the governor of the Third Reich conquered territory of Galicia, home to the families of Lauterpacht, of Lemkin, and of Sands' maternal grandfather.
This is such an important book, especially at this historical moment when we are again viewing dangerous incremental changes with horribly xenophobic notes being sounded. It's not easy to read -- particularly the passages when we hear directly from Frank and his co-defendants and when we read testimony from those who witnessed the evacuation and the murders of the Holocaust.
And yet, to repeat myself, it's compelling. I spread the reading out over two weeks, taking a break in between with some lighter reading, but I never had to force myself back to it; rather, I felt drawn by the story Sands tells, the connections he makes between events and people and places. I think it also helps that Sands has chosen to write in very short chapters, two or three pages generally -- the natural pauses sometimes pushed me forward into the next chapter, searching the solution to a mystery, and sometimes they offered me respite from witnessing horror.
The closest comparison I might make would be to Edward de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes, although de Waal's book focuses on the theft/appropriation of the Ephrussi family's wealth, properties, and -- especially -- its art, rather than wholesale destruction of a city's Jews, of a grandfather's family. . .
As for that lighter reading. . . .
Over the last month, I've spent hours plonked down next to a fan, with a mystery in hand. I've read three of Ruth Ware's mysteries: The Woman in Cabin 10; In a Dark, Dark Wood; and The Lying Game. They're all well-written and tightly plotted enough to keep me sitting and turning pages, only getting up to stretch my legs and pour another glass of mint-lime infused water from the Glug-glug jug in the fridge. The protagonist in all three is a woman -- and I like her women, who are smart and flawed and resourceful. All young (do we need a contemporary Miss Marple on the writing scene? Or is there a Female Detective of a Certain Age mystery series I don't know about? And by "of a certain age," I'm probably hoping for something over 55, as the goalposts have shifted considerably for me -- 40-45 is "young" to me. . . .
I've more mysteries and other reading to tell you about as well, but I'll save that for later and click on "Publish" this Saturday morning. Let me know if you've read any of these books and, as always, we can chat about books you've been reading as well. The mic's all yours now. . .