Philippe Sands

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East West Street and Ratline

Sands, Philippe

Last Updated: Jun-28-2021
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History


The literature on the Holocaust is vast and has been examined from every angle. One might think that nothing more could be written on the topic or that there could be no new perspectives on this horrific event that occurred less than 100 years ago. But Philippe Sands would prove you wrong. In these two linked books, he tells an extraordinary real life story that combines personal experience and world history into a narrative that is as powerful as any novel.

East West Street is the first in this unplanned sequence of books. It recounts how Sands received an invitation to an academic conference and traveled to Lemberg, Poland (modern-day Lviv, Ukraine), where his family came from. His seemingly clear-cut goal was to understand what happened to his relatives and why his grandfather Leo Buchholz was the only survivor. As he digs deeper into his family’s tragic story, he learns that two men, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, attended the same university in Lemberg as his grandfather and at about the same time after World War I.  The three men did not know each other and Lauterpacht and Lemkin are not household names. However, Sands underscores their importance in coming to grips with the Holocaust and skillfully weaves the two men’s stories together.

As his grandfather struggled to escape the ravages of the German occupation of Europe, Lauterpacht and Lemkin were already thinking about how to punish the Nazis for their wartime crimes. According to international law before these two men arrived on the legal scene, state sovereignty was uncontested and leaders could do whatever they wanted to their citizens without fear of external intervention. Lauterpacht coined the term “crimes against humanity” to provide an international framework to prosecute the Nazi leaders, and Lemkin devised the term “genocide” to create a new crime that transcended national boundaries. Sands describes how these two vastly different men struggled to get their terms incorporated into the formal charges against the Nazis by the team of lawyers that represented the victorious nations at the Nuremberg tribunal. In the course of his investigation, Sands meets Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, who supervised the extermination of the Jewish population in Lemberg and the surrounding area and who was one of the 23 defendants in the Nuremberg trial. Niklas is contrite and rejects his father because of his monstrous crimes. However, he introduces Sands to Horst Wachter, the son of Otto Wachter, Hans Frank’s chief deputy, who was primarily responsible for implementing the Final Solution on the ground.

This is where Ratline picks up the tale. In this sequel, Sands describes in more detail what happened to his own family, while Otto Wachter climbed higher in the Nazi hierarchy. Sands describes Wachter’s growing family and his infidelities. He documents how his wife ignored Otto’s behavior and military activity while benefiting from all the perks that came her way because of her husband’s efficiently murderous success. Wachter was forced to run for his life when the war ended and spent almost a year hiding out in the mountains of central Europe to escape capture. When it appeared safe, he traveled to Rome to take advantage of the “ratline” of the title to escape and find refuge in South America. Through the conniving of Vatican officials, American counterintelligence officers, and others he almost succeeded. But he died in mysterious circumstances before he could leave Rome. There is an extraordinary and logic-defying linkage between the families that comes to light because of Sands’ meticulous detective work, and it rivals anything a screenwriter could dream up.

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