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Philippe Sands: From London to Lviv

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Podgers: And what about your grandfather? What was his life like after the war?

Sands: My grandfather had a difficult life. He was very poor, very impecunious. He worked very hard. He lived in a tiny apartment with his wife and his two children. I came to know him in 1960. They really had very little. But they were alive, and I think they welcomed being alive, and they welcomed having children and grandchildren. And they drew real sustenance from that.

He died in 1997. He was 94 years old. By then he had three grandchildren, which was a really big thing for him. Of course, I did not know that he had lost all 80 members of his family from Lemberg. He never talked about that. He never talked about his mother, his father, his brother, his sisters, his uncles, his aunts, his cousins. And I now look back on the photographs that I have and the things we talked about and see them in a different light.

He came to my wedding in New York in the summer of 1993. And I was his first grandchild to get married. And I think it must have been a huge thing for him. But I could not fully have appreciated that. The point is, given what he went through, he derived pleasure from the simplest things in life: a good meal, time with his family, a little holiday somewhere in the countryside. And given what he’d been through, I can understand his appreciation of those things.

Podgers: Why do you suppose he did not talk about what happened before and during the war?

Sands: Pain and shame. Pain because it would have required him to touch on the lives of people who were lost, and that must have been a very painful thing. He did not discover what happened to his mother until the early 1990s. A book was published which described all … basically listed the names of people who had been at Theresienstadt and were deported to Treblinka, and in that book was his mother’s name. And I describe in the book how my mother showed him the book and he would not talk about it, but that evening he retired to his room in her house—he was staying with her in London—and she just heard him weeping. I think it was just too painful.

Very often I see this in the cases that I do. You know, I’ve done cases in the Congo—3 million murdered between 1998 and 2003—Rwanda, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, the list goes on, Iraq—hundreds of thousands. And it’s the shame of survival, that somehow you ask yourself the question: “As someone who survived, why did I make it through?” And there is a shame associated with that.

And maybe there’s a third thing, a protective element, which is extremely important. Just after the dedication, there’s a quotation by a psychoanalyst called Nicolas Abraham, “Notes on the Phantom,” 1975: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” Abraham had a theory that a grandparent communicates information to a grandchild by means unknown, that a grandparent goes through a traumatic experience, buries that experience in some mental crypt, and then communicates it by ways that we really don’t understand to future generations, including grandchildren.


Podgers: How were you affected while doing the research and then the writing later on? To know what role Hans Frank played in the lives of the families of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, and perhaps most important, your own family?

Sands: I have done some pretty appalling cases. I have visited many mass graves. I’ve talked with a lot of people who have been subject to terrible abuse.

But the point is that you don’t ever become completely hardened to the horror of what you deal with, but you learn how to deal with it. And I think that prepared me for adopting a voice which is slightly distant, slightly reserved, restrained, understated. I feel internally very emotional about it, but I don’t wear my emotion on my sleeve, so to speak. And I think again my training, my background as a litigator, has made it much easier to confront these materials.

But even I found myself at points dealing with things that made me cry. So every time when I do a public reading, every time I get to the point, if I select a particular piece, when I describe my two great-grandmothers in a railway station in Vienna with their two little suitcases going off to Theresienstadt and their certain death, I find that almost overwhelming to talk about. I find it very, very painful to talk about.

And I can imagine that Lauterpacht and Lemkin must have found it overwhelming. You know, there’s one anecdote that I tell. Lauterpacht never talked to his son about what happened, about his family, about the case, the trial, going through it. He simply never talked about it. But Lauterpacht’s wife, Rachel, who was Eli’s mother, did describe to her son how her husband would wake up in the night screaming about his memories of the Nuremberg trial. So I think deep down, deep inside, I think these things really, really do play. But, you know, I’ve grown good at protecting myself from these things.

Podgers: Is that good or bad, or a little of both?

Sands: Necessary, I would say. It’s necessary. It’s just the way you get through the day. I think you need to take protective steps. I mean, I was fine dealing with this. The concern that I had, as you’ll have seen from the book, was my mother’s still very much around, and I felt very protective towards my mother. And so I wanted to make sure that the material that I uncovered about her childhood—about the affair that her mother had, about the reasons why her father left Vienna alone—I needed to deal with all of that with the protection of a son who loves his mother.

And so, in a sense—and it comes, in a way, to the film—I wear two hats. In the making of that film, you know, the My Nazi Legacy film, meeting Nik Frank and Horst von Wächter, I wear a double identity. I’m a lawyer, but I’m also a human being. I’m a son and a grandson. And you feel that in the film: That I’m oscillating between the two, trying to remain detached, trying to not let my emotions get the better of me, but ultimately, in a couple of moments in the film, losing my cool. That never happens in the book, but it does happen on screen.

There’s a scene in the film where I’m in Lviv with Niklas and Horst in the main lecture room of the university, and I confront [Horst]. He has said to me, “Where’s the evidence?” And I spent ages trying to find the indictment of his father, and eventually I find it. And I, as a lawyer, have a number of golden rules, and one of them is you never reveal your emotions, you never get irritated. You maintain a complete cool throughout. And that’s how I went into the whole relationship with Niklas and Horst. But I lost my cool with Horst.

And I didn’t like that at the time, and I didn’t like it subsequently, and I don’t like it when I watch the film. But the director, David Evans, who’s a famous film director—he’s my friend from university and he happens to be the director of Downton Abbey—and the man who commissioned us at the BBC, a very famous documentary filmmaker called Nick Fraser, they both said that was the moment when the film came alive, you have to keep it in.

We had an understanding—it’s David Evans’ film, it’s not my film, it’s his choice what he puts in. He consulted me; I gave him my views. I didn’t like that scene. Every day I get one or two emails complaining about that scene. My mother-in-law doesn’t like that scene. She calls it the elder abuse scene. But it makes for a better film because I reveal myself to be not just a lawyer, but a human being.

Podgers: But what struck me was not so much your letting your veneer down but rather to see almost physically the ethical struggle that Horst was going through. You couldn’t help but look at him and think that somehow he sees a need to come to terms with this, but he can’t bring himself all the way.

Sands: Yeah, he can’t. He got very, very close. He got very, very close. But he could not.


Podgers: Tell me about the genesis of the film. Was it your idea?

Sands: It began with an article. Once or twice a year I write articles for the Financial Times magazine. I explained to you how Hans Frank became a part of my story. And so, like a good lawyer, I read myself in. I do a lot of research. I read everything I can.

And I came across a book by his son, Niklas Frank. He had written a book about his father, which is called In the Shadow of the Reich. And I found that book, read the book, and tracked him down. Went to meet him in Hamburg. We got on really well. And on our second meeting he said, “You know, they’re not all like me. I think you might want to meet my friend Horst.” We went off to meet Horst a few months later.

And the next thing that happened was that I started writing an article for the Financial Times, which was published in May 2013. Six months later, my friend David Evans came for dinner and he said he’d read my article and he thought that story would make a fantastic documentary film. Three weeks later, we were in Germany filming Niklas Frank. And that was how it began.

The film has two different titles. In Britain it’s called My Nazi Legacy, and in America it’s called What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy. But it’s the same film. So it hasn’t changed.

Podgers: How important do you think it is that the next generation—the children, the grandchildren of people like Hans Frank—confront the issues raised by the acts of their fathers, grandfathers? Some would argue, “That wasn’t me. That was one or two generations ago. Why are you putting that in front of me now? I was never involved in that.”

Sands: I suppose, to cut to the chase, my sense is if we don’t talk about it and if we don’t confront what happened, we lessen the possibility that we will learn from the horrors that came before, and it is more likely that they will be replicated. It’s basically as simple as that.


Podgers: How would you characterize the legacies of the key figures in your book?

Sands: Huge. If we did not have Lemkin and Lauterpacht, we would have had a different Nuremberg trial; we would have had a different follow-up; we would have had a different system of international justice. No doubt there would have been a system of international justice, but it would have been a very different system. And the legacy is enormous. Of course, it has not brought to an end mass atrocity, but it has created a framework against which we can measure and judge actions that are justifiable and those that are not.

Podgers: And what about your own grandfather?

Sands: Well, my own grandfather, you know, his legacy was a personal legacy. He lived a decent life. He had good values. He brought two children into the world, and I suppose I’m part of his legacy. And it will be for others to judge what my contribution is. I have a decent life. I write books, I teach, and I do great cases.

Podgers: What would you say is the legacy today of the Nuremberg trials themselves?

Sands: If we are talking about international justice, all roads lead to Nuremberg. It’s as simple as that. Without Nuremberg, we would have nothing or much less. Every single case that I have and that I have had that deals with issues of justice in the international domain mentions some aspect of the Nuremberg trial. It is the hub that is at the center of the entire system.

Podgers: How has the whole process of researching and writing and putting out this book and then participating in the documentary changed you?

Sands: I think it’s made me a gentler person. It’s made me understand even better the complexities of life. It’s made me understand that things in life are not always what they seem. It’s underscored for me the importance of history. It’s reminded me that we are constantly on the cusp of those horrors. We have forgotten history. And I think one of the reasons the book is selling so well is that it reminds us of where we came from and what we have been and what we might yet be.
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