I’ve just finished reading the second of two books by a British lawyer named Phillippe Sands. The books were a gift from a historian friend who knows our tastes well enough to recommend works that will resonate with us. I think I’ve already written about the first, The Ratline, which, among other things, is the story of Sands’ encounter with the sons of two Nazi war criminals, each of whom deals with the awful legacy of their fathers in distinctly different ways, one in denial, the other in repentance. The title refers to the term used by Nazis fleeing from prosecution at the end of the war for a well-worn escape route from Europe to South America.
The second book, East-West Street, interweaves the story of the fate of his own family in Poland and Austria as they fell under Nazi control with the account of the rise and fall of Hans Frank, who oversaw the removal and destruction of almost two and a half million Jews in the area of Poland under his control. Frank made the mistake of preserving more than 30 volumes of the diary in which he celebrated his accomplishments in making his domain Judenrein. These diaries became a primary source of evidence at the Nuremberg Trials which resulted in decrees of hanging for Frank and twelve of the other Nazi criminals who were tried along with him, including the infamous Goering, who managed to escape that judgment by committing suicide before he reached the gallows.
As a lawyer, Sands is interested in the debate that raged about whether the rulings in the trial would be based on the violation of the rights of the individuals who were murdered (crimes against humanity) or on the introduction of a new concept called genocide, defined as a crime aimed at eradicating an entire class or category of people. The word genocide, so common to us now, did not exist before this moment in history when the Nazis were being called to account.
Although these issues are important legally, what drew me to the book was the drama that was being played out at the trial that Sands captures so effectively. Frank himself appeared to accept some responsibility for his actions in his early testimony and even show some remorse, but he later retracted and qualified his original statement. The others persisted in their loyalty to Hitler and his vision of an ascendant Third Reich regardless of the human cost.
I found myself filling with rage as I read the pages of this section of the book. There in front of the reader was the stark reality of the crimes of the Holocaust in black and white, a reality denied by today’s Heil Hitlering neo-Nazis and their allies, totally ignorant of what these monsters had loosed on the world and lusting for the replay of an unspeakable crime.
One of the most powerful moments in the trial was the testimony of a non-Jew who observed the murder of – if I’m remembering correctly – the town baker and his entire family, who were stripped and forced to stand naked, clinging to each other as the parents offered reassurances to their children while the Nazis shot them all to death. For those present at the trial and those who read the transcripts later that family came to represent all the innocent millions who were obliterated, just as my own Aunt Rachel, her husband Aryeh and their children were, by the machine created by Hans Frank.
In this Passover season, we read again these words from the Haggadah:
“In every generation they stand against us to destroy us.”
It was folly to think that the cycle of hate would end with Nuremberg. When I said earlier that I was filled with rage, I realize that there’s also a sense of weariness. Does hatred ever end or is it like those infuriating weeds in our garden. When you think you’ve pulled them, you discover that the root is hiding underground ready to initiate its next assault. The Charlottesville marchers, the Kanye Wests, the editors of Der Sturmer, the people who drag the name of George Soros into every cause are never going away. They are the question mark we have to append to NEVER AGAIN? If the evidence presented at Nuremberg didn’t kill the weeds once and for all, we have to be forever vigilant for the next sprouting. Weary as we may be, we must accept that the struggle is never ending.