A Crossover

I was reading a new book published in 2016, a fascinating and intimately researched look at how international law, and crimes that are recognised internationally, were agreed upon and found that there was a distinct and noted crossover with another book, which I had also read, published in 2008.

I am going to deal with them in the order of publication, because it makes sense both of the books and of the crossover.

clara Clara’s War, jointly written by Clara Kramer nee Schwarz and nobly assisted by Stephen Glantz, is the astonishing and heart-warming story of a Jewish girl, one of only 50 Jewish people who survived out of 5000 Jews who lived in Poland, in a town called Zolkiev (now called Zolkova), before 1942.

In 1942, Clara and her parents, sister Mania and several other people had to hide, and they were taken in by Mr and Mrs Beck. Valentin Beck, his wife Julia and his daughter Ala took an extraordinary and unselfish position, they allowed 18 Jewish people to hide in a hand-dug bunker under their house, the house that had previously been owned by the Melmans (and then confiscated because they were Jewish) for over 18 months; during that time several Nazi personnel actually stayed in the house, two trainmen (drivers of the trains carrying Jews to their death); four ordinary soldiers and finally the Becks had to house some SS men whose car had broken down.

These men, whose aim for the Jews was annihilation, lived not feet away from a small group of terrified, near starving families – the Shwarzes – mother, father and two daughters, later joined by two other members of the family, the children of Clara’s aunt Uchka: Zygush and Zosia; the Melmans and one son, the Patronasches and one daughter, and the Steckels; other fleeing and frightened Jews joined them – Gedalo Lauterpacht, Artek, Lola and Klara who was also related to the Patronasch family.

All but one of these, Mania, survived.

The book, like Anne Frank’s Diary though with a different ending, is based on the notebooks that Clara aged 14 rising to 15, wrote in blue pencil in exercise books supplied by Valentin Beck while hiding beneath the floorboards. These also survived and are now held in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. They too had a part to play in the story, because in the seesaw between death by starvation and the arrival of the Russians, the Russians arrived first, and all Volkdeutsche were taken into custody, including the Becks. Clara took the diaries to the [Russian] Party Secretary and asked him to read them, the diaries were returned wrapped in brown paper with no note; the Schwarzes were in despair, their saviours were about to be deported to Siberia, but imagine the extreme joy when a few days later the Becks turned up on their doorstep.

This is a story of extremes. Fear, despair, hope, untold grief, horror, deprivation and joy and these different phases can happen even in one day, as more and more news trickles through of deaths, of survival, of cruelty and of generosity. It is both terribly difficult to read and wonderfully uplifting.

Clara Kramer survived and made it her mission to tell the world, especially the young, what happened, who did it and why it must not happen again. This book is just one way, of many, that she has accomplished her mission.

The other book is Philippe Sands‘ history of international law, though not only that.east-west-street

The writer of East West Street is a professor of Law at University College, London and a practising barrister, especially in the international courts.

It is in this role that the genesis of this book lies.

International law is a tricky business, for obvious reasons many different countries have good and very bad reasons for agreement or disagreement on matters of law that cross boundaries; Mr Sands began to think about how these laws came into being and when.

The first internationally recognised trial, where the nation’s top legal minds addressed the questions of international crime, was that of the Nazi murderers at Nuremberg in 1946.

This famous trial of the infamous was the start of a movement that has continued to this day, taking down criminals of all sorts from all over the world who are deemed to have committed crimes against humanity and genocide. But when did these crimes first become formulated as part of international criminal justice? At Nuremberg.

Sands forensically follows the minds that created the rules that govern these two very similar, but intricately different, crimes. “Crimes against humanity”, a phrase or description that was first implemented at Nuremberg is a crime committed by a person for the State against an individual; “genocide” (a word that did not exist until Nuremberg) is a crime by an individual for the State against a group.

Who then, invented these terms?

To his astonishment, Philippe Sands discovered that the two lawyers had both trained at Lviv ( at various times also called Lemberg, Lvov, Lwów) Law School, at different times but under the same professor. Furthermore, he also discovered that they both came from a city, Lviv, where his own family had once lived. His unravelling of this legal history is both personal and international.

The work that the two lawyers put into these two concepts is extraordinary.  Hersh Lauterpacht (recognise that surname) was anxious that the rights of the individual victim should be recognised by an international court; Rafael Lemkin, however, felt that it was also necessary to recognise the effects of group-victimhood, where a State had targeted a group, because of ethnicity, religion, or practice. His target was, at the time, concentrated on the mass extermination of the Jews, the treatment of others – Communists, homosexuals and other groups was less pronounced, but nevertheless implicit.

As more and more detail came out from the defeated German lands, Lauterpacht began to focus on one man in particular, his draft for the closing speech of the prosecuting British judge named Hans Frank who was Governor-General in Nazi-occupied Poland, as an exemplifier par excellence of a perpetrator of crimes against humanity.

It was however, Philippe Sands 70 years later, who discovered that these two men had been themselves victims through the many deaths of their own families left behind in Poland, in both Lviv and Zolkiev (now called Zolkova) of that very man. Hans Frank had more or less personally, destroyed nearly everyone in Hersh’s family and nearly everyone in Rafael’s also.

In their different ways, these two men also had a mission – that nation states could never again get away with crimes against the individual or against an identifiable group; Nuremberg was the start, and the work they started there has never ceased.

The crossover then? Gedalo Lauterpacht and the Melmans were both distantly related to Hersh Lauterpacht; all of them, Hersh and Rafael as well, had at one time lived either in Lviv or in Zolkova, as had Philippe Sands’ maternal grandparents and forebears, and all on one street, or near each other.

The search and the answers reveal an extraordinary synchronicity, of the survivors that Philippe Sands tracked down and interviewed one thing seemed universal – a complete silence on the past.

Philippe Sands, with the son of Hans Frank and another son of a Nazi father went on to make a film which was shown in last year’s London Film Festival (and has recently been shown on television) called My Nazi Legacy – What our fathers did.





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Filed under Books, Modern History, Politics, Select Cinema, Uncategorized

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