East West Street and Ratline

Sands, Philippe

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: Jun-28-2021
  • Last revised: Jun-28-2021


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.


Sands’ narratives are a testament to persistence in finding the evidence, digging through archives, and following up on every personal lead. That the Nazi crimes are beyond comprehension is an established fact. There are those who assert that any attempt to capture it in words – whether in non-fiction or in works of art – is destined to be woefully inadequate.. But Sands puts a unique human face to the German genocide, and in doing so, he paints a haunting picture of human depravity. He describes how the Franks would bring their children to the Warsaw Ghetto and laughingly use the heads of the Jewish children as they emerged from the sewage system to scrounge for food as target practice. He chronicles the insensitivity that Otto Wachter’s wife displays as her husband’s work enables her to purchase expensive clothes or vacation in mountain resorts is terrifying. And concurrently he powerfully portrays the intellectual conflict between Lauterpacht and Lemkin as they jockey for intellectual recognition for their ideas at Nuremberg.

However, the most interesting part of the two books is the sharp contrast between Niklas Frank and Horst Wachter. The story of sons living in the long and terrible shadows of their fathers, and attempting, each in his own way, to come to terms with those shadows, is sharply portrayed. Niklas rejects his father and recognizes the latter’s crimes while Horst appears purposely oblivious to what his father did—an oblivion which must take some effort to construct and maintain. He fails to acknowledge Otto’s murderous behavior and continues to believe that his father must have been decent and acting in good faith. He is a gracious host when Sands visits him but remains blind to who and what his father really was.

The concept of the hereditability of guilt is a well-established motif in literature and plays out in real life as well. The notion of the guilt of the German people after the Holocaust is a modern expression of this concept and a demonstration that it is an idea that has not faded away completely. The hostility between nations over battles fought centuries ago is another reflection of trans-generational culpability, or at least of trans-generational enmity. But the story of these two German sons and their relationships with the murderous legacies of their fathers makes this question of guilt real on a very personal level, with one son asking for forgiveness and the other in denial. Niklas’ behavior dovetails with the classic rabbinic view—that atonement must be made by the sons of the guilty parties--, while Horst’s is a complete repudiation of it. Sands reports, but offers no explanation for, the disparate behavior of the two sons. Superficially, he is a silent observer, but he sensitively makes it clear where his sympathies lie. He cannot be faulted for not being able to explain how the fathers and sons became who they were. The psychodynamic roots of accepting or denying responsibility, of condemning or defending someone as close as a parent, are difficult ones to elucidate. But the picture Sands draws of this ethical dilemma is unforgettable.


Philippe Sands was awarded the 2016 Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction for East West Street


Alfred Knopf



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