Gareth Huw Davies


How two men from a small town in Poland devised cornerstones of international law

Book review.

East West Street, by Philippe Sands

This is the best book I read in 2018.

You might initially mistake it for a wartime thriller, with a Shakespearean twist. A mysterious woman from Norfolk travelled to Vienna in the summer of 1939 to pick up a one year old child and deposit her in Paris.

Two eminent lawyers grew up and studied in an obscure town in Poland, then the Ukraine. The town had something of an identity crisis. It has four different names (the last is Lviv) in the course of half a century.

25 years later the two men came together at the Nuremberg Trials, prosecuting the Nazi commandant who ruled over that piece of Poland where they studied, murdering thousands of their countrymen and women.

In the course of the trial one of the prosecutors unveiled a concept he personally developed, that of crimes against humanity; the other outlined the theory he, quite independently, had been developing, the crime of genocide. So two near neighbours and former students from the same university had come up with two of the foundation stones of international law.

And the little girl from Vienna? She was only the mother of the author, Philippe Sands, who had kept a silence worthy of the Sicilian mafia until he persuaded her to reluctantly give him just enough detail to send him fact-finding around Europe. The result is this wonderfully-researched, gripping and very readable book, the very opposite of the dry, legal treatise the subject matter might suggest.

It’s a book about coincidence, dogged determination and the triumph of human will and decency in the face of inhumanity and evil.

Other  recent book reviews by me –

Free our best friend – time to walk the dog out of pedigree status?

Carpe Diem – how to have a good day, every day

Wild Highlands life in a year of changing weather

Elif Şafak talks about Three Daughters of Eve, set in Oxford and Istanbul

Stopped at signals – the trains in The Girl on the Train