Quite a lot of the history books I have on my to-be-read pile are about WW2 – in fact, there were so many that I spent a whole month just reading WW2 books and didn’t exhaust the supply. East West Street by Philippe Sands is a memoir and history book all in one concentrating on WW2 and its aftermath. It is a really unusual book and worth a read even if you think that you have recently read too much about that period. It features a lot of information gained from interviews with older people who remember the events of the 1940s and sadly this will not be a resource available to historians for much longer – the author has used the recounting of those experiences to enhance the story that he tells.
This book has a number of strands but they are all connected to the town of Lviv which is presently in the Ukraine but has, in the recent past, been in Poland, German and the Soviet Union and has had a number of names. The author’s grandfather escaped from there during WW2 and made a home in England, he was later joined by his wife and his daughter (the author’s mother). Part of the book is about finding the details of what actually happened and why the family came to England in three instalments. This is a family memoir and a bit of a detective story – the author also details what happened to close family members who did not escape.
A second section of the book revolves around the lives of two international lawyers who were involved in the post-war Nuremburg trials. They each came from Lviv and they became involved in the establishment of the first international law about war crimes and genocide. They each had a different point of view and the author uses this to talk about how the Nuremburg trials were the beginning of international human rights law and the first time that other countries determined that a state has no right to treat its citizens in any way it pleases. I have an interest in the Nuremburg trials and have previously read a very interesting book about it written by John and Ann Tusa but this author sets the trials in a wider context of human rights law and really got me thinking. The background stories of the two lawyers are also looked at and we learn about their lives and those of their family members.
The author also has a fourth strand which is to look at the life of Hans Frank who was the Governor of what had been Poland and who was responsible for the deaths of many people in the area and in Lviv. As part of this exploration the author meets some surviving children of those who carried out Nazi atrocities and looks at their attitude to what happened in the past (if you find that aspect of the story interesting I can recommend My Grandfather Would have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege which looks at a few cases of family survivors of Nazi bigwigs).
To make the book more accessible the author divides it into short sections, each concentrating on one person’s life story, He includes some other people who are peripherally connected to the main story as well.
I found this book absolutely captivating. I loved the mixture of history, personal memoir and ethical thinking. I thought that connecting it all to one city was a device that worked very well. The short sections made it easier to read. In short, I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in human rights, history or memoir.