While visiting Sachsenhausen recently I was reading Philippe Sands’ brilliant book East West street. In my post on Sands’ splendid Private Passions I mentioned his film What our fathers did: a Nazi legacy, based on his extraordinary journey with the sons of two Nazi criminals who took utterly different stances on their fathers—essential viewing:
East West street is a kind of detective story, as Sands breaks through the silence to unearth gripping personal accounts developing from the remarkable Lviv (Lemberg) connection of two architects of mass murder (Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter—both, ironically, lawyers); of two legal scholars who developed a means of prosecuting it (Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin); and of the author’s own decimated family. Sands’ grandfather Leon Buchholz was almost the sole survivor from his entire extended family, making his home in Paris—and since he never talked about it, Sands had to do a vast amount of research.
This also makes a good way of describing the debate (formulated at the Nuremberg trials) over how to define genocide and crimes against humanity, group and individual responsibility, which Sands is exceptionally well qualified to explain.
“Social inequalities coursed through Lemberg’s streets, built on foundations of xenophobia, racism, group identity and conflict”. In Ukraine he also visits the brave display at a museum in Zólkiew, where over three thousand Jewish inhabitants were murdered; here, by contrast to the memorial sites in Germany, the complexities of history are still highly sensitive. The film broaches the 2014 Ukraine unrest, and its complex links to the Nazi background.
Sands notes Britain’s objection to US President Wilson’s 1919 proposal to protect minorities, “fearful that similar rights would then be granted to other groups, including American negroes, Southern Irish, Flemings and Catalans”.(72)
After Lauterpacht sought refuge in England, arriving in Grimsby in 1923 with his musician wife Rachel, Sands notes his conservative views on gender: “individual rights for some, but not for the mother or the wife”. (83)
The stories of other characters are moving too, like that of Elsie Tilney, who brought Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris in summer 1939 (117–36). He visits Lauterpacht’s niece Inka Katz, who in 1942, aged 12, witnessed the arrival of Hans Frank in Lemberg, saw her parents snatched away, and survived only by going into hiding and entering a convent:
Seventy years on, she retained a sense of discomfort. One woman, coming to terms with a feeling that somehow she had abandoned her group to save herself.” (102–4)
The Matthew Passion, which Sands chose in his Private passions, was a touchstone shared, with bitter irony, by both Lauterpacht and Frank (106, 302). The words of Frank’s devoted wife are chilling:
“He is an artist, a great artist, with a pure and delicate soul. Only such an artist as he can rule over Poland.” (223)
Sands even finds lyrics to a song by Richard Strauss in honour of Frank—the score “disappeared”, no doubt for good reasons of reputation. (253)
Otto von Wächter’s son Horst takes a similarly disturbing tack:
“My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best. Others would have been worse.” (242–6)
Conversely, Niklas Frank is justly proud of his utter repudiation of his own father (“what a beautiful castle—full of criminals”). It’s this impasse that forms the core of Sands’ film.
As Sands pores over family photo albums with Horst,
I was transported back seventy years to the heart of an appalling regime. But Horst was looking at these images with a different eye from mine. I see a man who’s probably been responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles. Horst looks at the same photographs and he sees a beloved father playing with the children, and he’s thinking that was family life.
As Sands and Niklas confront Horst—“friendly, warm, talkative”—with more and more documents proving the involvement of his father in mass extermination, their conversation deepens. In one of the most excruciating scenes in the film—in the very room where Hans Frank proudly announced the Grosse Aktion to enthusiastic applause from Horst’s father—Horst keeps wriggling out of all the evidence with which Sands confronts him. He always manages to find a way to sanitize the material, only able to describe it as “unpleasant” or “tragic”. (248–51)
While they all get on remarkably well, Sands can’t help revealing his exasperation:
Horst fills me with despair. I cannot accept that approach. It’s not just the lawyer in me, concerned with how one treats evidence, it’s much more personal than that: when I hear him speak of his father’s good character and actions, I hear him to be justifying the killing of my grandfather’s entire family.
Further to tourism,
In the midst of the killing, and still worrying about his marriage, Frank managed to find the time to implement another bright idea: he invited the famous Baedeker publishing company to produce a travel guide for the General Government to encourage visitors. Baedeker hoped the book might “convey” an impression of the tremendous work of organization and construction accomplished by Frank. […] The visitor would benefit from great improvements the province and cities having “acquired a different appearance”, German culture and architecture once more accessible. Maps and city plans were modernized, names Germanized, all in accordance with Frank’s decrees. […] A million or more Jews had been erased. (246–7)
Sands moves onto the capture of Frank and the Nuremberg trials, with the harrowing testimony of witnesses like Samuel Rajman (303–5). Frank appears to show more regret than most of the defendants, declaring “A thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased” (308–11); but, as with Fritz Stangl, his position remained elusive to the end (357–8).
The final section of the book discusses the judgement—indeed judgement itself. A vignette from Rebecca West, who took time off from attending the trials to visit a nearby village, meeting a German woman who
launched into a litany of complaints about the Nazis. They had posted foreign workers near the village, “two thousand wretched cannibals, scum of the earth, Russians, Balks, Balts, Slavs”. This women was interested in the trial, didn’t object to it, but she did so wish they hadn’t appointed a Jew as chief prosecutor. Pressed to explain, the woman identified David Maxwell Fyfe as the offending individual. When Rebecca West protested the error, the woman responded curtly, “Who would call his son David, but a Jew?” (367)
Niklas Frank, then 7, remembers the day his father was taken to the gallows. He finds his repentant display at the trial insincere, noting that he later recanted his “confession”.
“I am opposed to the death penalty,” he said without emotion, “except for my father.” […] “He was a criminal.”
He takes out a faded photo of his father taken a few minutes after the hanging. “Every day I look at this. To remind me, to make sure that he is dead.”
As Sands notes, denial remains common today. In a telling scene near the end of the film, the three visit a neo-Nazi commemorative rally in Ukraine (accompanied by a folkloristic ensemble, I note), where Horst and Niklas—sons of mass murderers—are warmly welcomed. Worldwide, the need for truth remains constant, urgent.
* * *
Sands is no less compelling on radio. In his major recent ten-part series Intrigue: the ratline on BBC Radio 4, by contrast with Frank’s well-documented fate, he gives a disturbing update on the murky post-war story of Otto von Wächter. He provides ample recaps (as in the chilling title of episode 3, “A lot going on in Lemberg”), with the aid of the “parallel universe” of the memoirs of Wächter’s beloved wife Charlotte. With much further forensic sleuthing he goes on to investigate Wächter’s mysterious fate in Italy, as the role of the Catholic church in helping Nazi fugitives evade justice leads to a extraordinary story of espionage. And still Horst seeks to defend his father’s reputation. For the book, see here.