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Philippe Sands is one of Britain’s most prominent human rights lawyers. He has been involved in high-profile cases against several dictators, including Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Liberia’s Charles Taylor. Several years ago, Sands was asked to speak about human rights in Lviv, Ukraine. Sands was excited to go because the city was the birthplace of his Jewish grandfather. Sands had always wanted to know more about him and how he escaped from the Nazis. But when Sands researched his grandfather’s life, he uncovered family secrets and learned how his relatives were killed.
- Philippe Sands International human rights lawyer; professor of law, University College London; author: "Lawless World," and "Torture Team"
"My Nazi Legacy" - An Independent Lens Film That Aired On PBS - Trailer
A film about the relationship between two sons of high-ranking Nazi officials and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, whose relatives were killed by Nazis in the Holocaust.
Read An Excerpt
From the book EAST WEST STREET by Philippe Sands, copyright © 2016 by Philippe Sands. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Several years ago, British human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands was asked to prepare a lecture about genocide and crimes against humanity. In his research, he discovered these legal concepts were created by two Jewish lawyers who studied at the same school in a region of Ukraine where Sands grandfather lived.
MS. DIANE REHMIn a new book, he shows how these legal theories evolved and forever transformed international law. The title of Philippe Sands new book is "East West Street: On The Origins of 'Genocide' and 'Crimes Against Humanity'." Philippe Sands joins me here in the studio. You are welcome, as always, to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. It's good to have you here, sir.
MR. PHILIPPE SANDSIt's terrific to be with you this morning, Diane.
REHMThank you, Philippe. Tell me about the title of this book, "East West Street."
SANDS"East West Street" is a street in a small town called Zhovkva, about 25 kilometers north of Lviv now in the western Ukraine. It's the street on which my great grandmother was born in 1870. I went there for the first time in 2010 when I was invited to deliver the lecture that you introduced the show with and I discovered only very much later, four or five years later that was also the street on which a rather famous international lawyer called Hersch Lauterpacht was born.
SANDSHe is the man who put crimes against humanities into the Nuremberg statute and by amazing coincidence, he's also the father of my first teacher of international law 30 plus years ago. So it's my very fine editor at Alford Knopf, Vicky Wilson, who I salute here rather publically, who came up with that idea. That street is the center of so much in the book.
REHMSo much in the book. However it's memoir, it's biography and the history of these international concepts. I want to mention to our listeners, there's also a video that has been produced by independent lens and shown on PBS. It's titled "My Nazi Legacy." Talk about that title.
SANDSSure. When I was doing the research over now many years alongside my day job as sort of litigator and a university professor, I identified one man who was at the heart of the story. His name is Hans Frank. He was Adolph Hitler's personal lawyer. He, then, became governor general of occupied Poland. And what I discovered was that he had been responsible for the killings of my grandfather's entire family, of Hersch Lauterpacht's entire family and for the entire family of Raphael Lemkin, the man who invented the word genocide.
SANDSSo I started researching Hans Frank and I came across a book written by his son, Niklas, who's now in his mid-70s and who's actually visiting the United States this week. And I reached out to him and he, himself, had written a book, which was a vicious attack on his father, whom he described as a criminal who deserved to be hanged at Nuremberg, which he was, but he said they're not all like me. You must meet my friend Horst. Horst is the son of Hans Frank's deputy, Otto von Wachter, and unlike Niklas, Horst thinks his father is a rather wonderful man.
SANDSAnd so the film tells the story of how child deals with a son who has done wrong. And it's a universal theme. I mean, it's about Nazis and Jews and Pols and Ukrainians, but it could just as easily be about the child of a pedophile or a mass killer in the U.S. or in the UK. It's that universal theme, how would you and I respond if our father had been a mass killer?
REHMAnd one of those two men totally acknowledges, loathes what his father did, and the other rejects the concept totally that his father had anything to do with the mass murder of thousands of Jewish people.
SANDSWell, as I describe in the book, when I first met Niklas Frank in Hamburg, in Germany, we were drinking on the banks of a large river and suddenly, he took out of his jacket pocket a photograph of the hanged body of his father.
REHMI saw that photograph and was just, I mean, astonished.
SANDSYou can imagine, I was pretty astonished when he whipped it out in a café in northern Germany. And he describes it as reminding himself that his father is well and truly dead. It takes filial hatred to another place entirely. By contrast, Der Horst, who you come to see also in the film, accepts that his father was present, accepts that his father signed off on various things, but basically says he was acting under orders.
SANDSHe was a good and decent man and the killings that took place on his territory, in the city of Lviv. in the province of Galicia. in occupied Poland from 1941 to 1944 -- and we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people -- were not his responsibility even though they were on his watch. I mean, the thing about Horst -- I maintain very good relations with both men. The thing about Horst is he I think of as child who is damaged by the experience that he went through and he's struggling to come to terms.
REHMBut he felt he had a wonderful childhood.
SANDSHe did. And in his terms, he did have a wonderful childhood that came to an end when he was six years old. Do you remember that scene when he describes his birth -- his sixth birthday in April, 1945, and on camera, he starts weeping as he remembers the end of his world, the disintegration of the extraordinary life that he had. And what I have in my family, of course, is the other side of the story, silences of a different kind, and I was confronted with dealing with another child.
SANDSAnd I hope I'm a humane person, that I understand where Horst was coming from. It was, at times, deeply frustrating, seeing that reaction.
REHMI could tell. And it made me wonder why it was so important to you that Horst acknowledge what his father had done. He was clearly not only reluctant, but spiritually, he could not accept that his father was, number one, a vicious Nazi who participated in the Holocaust and, number two, that his father had anything to do with it at all.
SANDSYeah. And there are a couple of scenes, which I know you're referring to, which others have referred to. My mother-in-law, my wonderful mother-in-law in New York, describes this as a scene as elder abuse, where I'm really hectoring him and bullying him. On the other hand, others, many thousands, literally, have expressed the view -- hundreds have expressed the view that why was I so gentle with Horst. Why did I want to get him to acknowledge?
SANDSHe has no responsibility for what his father did. I'm very, very clear about that. But the reason I was, I think, so exercised about it, we have multiple identities. I'm both a lawyer and as a litigator, I think I got myself into that mode. The evidence was there. Why can't you accept it? I'm used to that in a courtroom. But I also had my identity as a human being, a son and a grandson and a concern that he who fails to acknowledge what has happened may cross a line into complicity with what has happened.
SANDSAnd once you become complicit in what has happened, you make it more likely that it might happen again. And I think that underpins the concern. The failure to acknowledge, on Horst's part, makes me worry that these things could happen again. And they could happen again. And they do happen in various parts of the world.
REHMTell us about your own grandfather and your mother.
SANDSMy grandfather was born in 1904 in the city of Lviv, which was then called Lemberg. I knew nothing about what happened to him between 1904 and 1945 because he would not talk about it. And so my book, in effect, it two detective stories. The first is finding out what happened to my grandfather, precisely. The second is finding out how these concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide came into being. My grandfather moved to Vienna after the first world war.
SANDSHe lived there until 1939. He got married in '37. My mother was born a year later in 1938 and then, the mystery really begins. What I discovering doing the research was that contrary to what I had imagined, the family had left Vienna together in 1939. They didn't. My grandfather left first, alone, in January '39. My mother followed six months later, but how? She was only six -- she was only a year old. And my grandmother stayed behind. And that is the main detective story on the family side in my book, getting to the truth of what happened and why no one would talk about it.
REHMWhere did your mother go when she was sent?
SANDSSo my mother was saved by a remarkable woman, as I tell in the book, an Evangelical Christian missionary by the name of Elsie Tilney from Norwich, England, who had a particular interpretation of Paul's letter to the Romans, Chapter 10, verse 1, to which I really owe my existence, which said when people are in trouble, particularly if they are Jews, you've got to rescue them. And she set about rescuing children between 1939 and 1941 when she was incarcerated in Stalag 127.
SANDSSo the story that I tell is how Elsie Tilney brought my mother from Vienna to Paris and my mother then spent four years as a hidden child.
REHMPhilippe Sands, the book is titled "East West Street." Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Philippe Sands is an international human rights lawyer and a professor of law at University College, London. His new book, an intriguing picture of not only a family but the development of concepts of law, is titled "East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity," two concepts we hear a great deal about these days as we think about what is happening to people around the world. Philippe, talk about your mother. I am so intrigued by the fact that about one year old, here she is taken in by this nun and kept how?
SANDSWell, she's transported in July 1939 to Paris and then lives with her father, her mother stays behind in Vienna for reasons unknown, although I've now discovered them, and the Germans then arrive in Paris in June 1940 and immediately implement their discriminatory practices against the Jews. So my mother is sent into hiding and...
SANDSShe's a hidden child somewhere outside Paris. She has no memory of where exactly she was hidden. I discovered the town, I found some references and bits and bobs. She's a great lady, she's still, you know, alive and fit and healthy, and she...
REHMHow old is she?
SANDSShe is in her late '70s, very compos mentis. She did not, like many people, want to open the door about what happened.
SANDSShe had my grandfather's papers but didn't feel a burning desire, I should say, to explore. But she gave me the papers. When I was invited to give this lecture in Lviv, I'm going through the papers, and I said to her, would you mind if I investigate? And I investigated, as I do my cases as a litigator, which means I leave no stone unturned.
REHMAnd what did you find?
SANDSWell, what I really wanted to know was why did my grandmother stay behind in Vienna in July 1939.
REHMHow could she possibly send her one-year-old little girl?
SANDSWell, I think that's a question my mother has asked herself a lot. And one of the things I've been very careful to do in this book is not to judge anybody, apart from Hans Frank because we don't know exactly what the circumstances are in which people find themselves in great adversity. So I don't judge my grandfather, my grandmother. I just want to find out what happened.
SANDSI wondered, as I was investigating this, whether my mother's real fear was that her mother had stayed behind (inaudible) because she'd had an affair with a Nazi, senior Nazi or some such thing. I have uncovered the story. It was an amazing paper trail. I had to hire a private detective in Vienna, I did my own research, and I ended up in a place called Massapequa, Long Island, in the home of a rather remarkable lady called Sandra Sila Garfinkle, (PH) and in her attic she had the photo albums from her grandfather, which told the story.
SANDSI mean, you tell me how far you want me to go.
REHMI want you to go further. Our listeners are totally intrigued.
SANDSI think what I found was that my grandmother was having an affair early in her marriage, and she in the end, probably for that reason, of course I can't know precisely because I don't have all of the documents and materials, and I could never ask her about it, chose to stay. She did leave, she left about three years later, and she left on the very last day that the doors closed from going from Vienna to Paris. She was able to leave the day before Adolf Eichmann closed the doors. So I suspect she must have had contacts in the hierarchy where people took these kinds of decisions, and she got out, and she was reunited with my grandfather.
SANDSThey lived together for another 40 years. I knew my grandmother well. I knew my grandfather well. They lived in Paris together. I was very close to them, particularly close to my grandfather. But they would never talk at what had happened.
REHMI mean, you really did probe as a young person your grandmother, grandfather?
SANDSNo, I didn't. I think probably like a lot of your listeners, as a child growing up, you understand that when people have been through some traumatic experience, there are no-go areas, and you want to respect that. If my mother said oh, don't raise that question, or my grandfather would say I'm not going to talk about it, you didn't go into those areas.
SANDSAnd I think for my mother, that would've been a lifelong no-go area. But for the next generation, we're more distant. We're able to identify issues, and of course those issues are problematic. One of the questions that arose in the context of this research is who is my grandfather because having discovered the emergence of another man in that context, in Vienna in 1939 to 1941, the question might arise, who is the child who stands alone, as described in one letter, my mother, but who is the father.
SANDSAnd I think it would've been impossible to go through that experience of carrying out the tests to work out who was actually my grandfather. If it had -- if I'd been my mother, I could do that because I'm at one generation removed. He was my grandfather, irrespective of biological matters, but I think for my mother that would've been a much more, a much more complex issue, a much more difficult door to open.
REHMTell me about your own father.
SANDSMy father, well my father has a very different background. He's a Londoner, grew up in the East End of London, has roots, I suspect, in Russia that go back a century and a half or two centuries. My dad's a dentist. He's a very ordinary, decent bloke, very into horse-racing, has very different interests, a remarkably intelligent man, medically qualified and trained but who decided to take a different path and who, when he was very young, met this remarkable 17-year-old woman, girl, who became my mother.
SANDSI have to say I have three children now, and the idea that their grandmother got married when she was 18 years old is to my children, who are now of that age, remarkable and actually rather horrifying.
REHMExactly, exactly. But do you believe that your children are really interested in their grandparents and great-grandparents? Do they want to know all the details that created their lives?
SANDSWell, I think anyone who has children knows that our children have a very healthy skepticism, and disdain even, for what we do, and they've had six or seven years of me sort of rattling on about these stories, which go on and on and on. But interestingly, when the book came out, I sent it -- I sent it, obviously, to each of my children a copy. My son, who is 21, in his final year studying history at university, actually American history, I spoke to him last week, and he said, well dad, you know, I was ready, I was ready to open it and get out the knives and attack you, and it was boring, and it was rubbish, but he said actually, I couldn't put it down.
SANDSAnd then he said what's interesting is I now have learned about my hinterland. You didn't know when you were my age, dad, when you were 21, what had happened. Knowing that allows me to situate myself, this is him speaking, in a different place. And so I think there is an appreciation. And if I go to my youngest child, my daughter who is 16, coming back to the film, as a 16-year-old, you can imagine she has rather different interests from me. She has her life, she has her world, she has social media, she has Facebook, she has all the -- Instagram and all these things.
SANDSShe came to the movie, and of all the reactions that I had my Nazi legacy, the one that touched me the most was on the opening night at London Film Festival, last October, we went to a restaurant afterwards. I came up the stairs, and my 16-year-old daughter was standing at the top of the stairs, and she just looked at me, and she said, dad, that was amazing. And you know, that touches you as a father.
SANDSIn very much more powerful ways than the best possible reviews.
REHMTell me how you make the connection to your Nazi legacy.
SANDSWell, what I learn from the story that I've uncovered is that my grandfather, born in the city of Lviv, in 1904, by 1945 he was the only person still alive out of a family of more than 80. I knew terrible things had happened, but it's only when you know the names, the ages, how they died, what exactly happened to them, that you -- that it becomes a reality. So my Nazi legacy is what happened, not to me but to my grandfather's family.
SANDSAnd so what I did was I made the connections, but I made them in the context of my other life. I was the first person in my family to -- on that side of the family to go to university. There were no lawyers in the family. I went in -- I went to law school at Cambridge, in England, and I gravitate towards international law, and lo and behold I gravitate towards international criminal law. I do cases, I litigate cases of crimes against humanity and genocide, the Pinochet case, cases in Iraq, cases in Afghanistan, Congo, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, the lot. I've done most of the cases.
SANDSThat must be connected to my family background, and lo and behold I get this invitation to go and give a lecture in Lviv to investigate the origins of crimes against humanity and genocide. And what do I learn but the two men who invented those terms came from the very university that had invited me, my grandfather's city, and the folk in the university were unaware of that fact. You couldn't invent the story.
SANDSAnd the story then goes on. These two men, Lauterpacht invents the concept of crimes against humanity. Lemkin invents he concept of genocide. Then they become prosecutors at Nuremberg, and they prosecute a man called Hans Frank. And only in the last month of the trial do they learn that the man they are prosecuting has killed their entire families, as they killed my grandfather's entire family.
SANDSSo you sort of couldn't invent a story like this.
REHMWe've got a number of callers waiting. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Alicia in Gainesville, Florida, you're on the air.
ALICIAHi, actually it's Alicia. I just wanted to call because I totally identify with -- my father was a hidden child, and so -- and he still to this day will not talk about a lot of parts. He has -- he grew up in -- he was in Brussels, and so he has wonderful memories of growing up and having a dog and eating, you know, bread, and he was with, I think, a neighbor's family, and I don't even know exactly. I don't know names.
ALICIAAnd so it's -- it's just interesting to talk -- to hear someone talk about...
REHMAlicia, I gather you have tried to ask your father about those details, and he's simply unwilling to talk, or how far have you gone with your inquiry?
ALICIAHe's unwilling to talk. I've done a little online work. I have children similar in age to your guest's children, and when they're in high school they do a oral history project. And so he was going -- he had talked to his grandfather, and his grandfather said yes, I will talk to you about these things. And unfortunately when it came time for it to actually happen, my father totally shut down, his grandfather. And the other interesting bit of my family's history is his -- my father's half-sister is a bit older, and she had actually been hidden by one of the -- in one of the -- I guess the nunnery, a cloister with nuns.
ALICIAAnd she actually was in the second boat into Israel. So -- but also, so okay, we went from one parent, one -- you know, so she -- he was going to talk to her about her experiences in Israel, starting, you know, the new country in Palestine, and again total shut down.
SANDSAlicia, I find this very fascinating. Obviously we're in a very similar position. I -- it's very hard for anyone to give advice to any other person because every family situation is completely different. But I think I understand where your father is coming from. I think what I'd say is this. There are -- as you'll see in my book, I put all the sources that I use to find all this information. There's a lot of information that is out there. One thing that can be said is that in that period, the Germans were amazing about keeping records. And so there are probably archives out there.
SANDSIt's a painful thing to do, I have to tell you, and you do it with the help of friends and colleagues, but there's a lot of material out there, and we do what we can to find out.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Philippe, one point you just made and I'm sure will be helpful to Alicia is that the Nazis kept detailed records. I mean, it is mindboggling the detail to which they went in keeping these records and how Horst was finally confronted with the fact that his father had been deputy to Frank and had moved forward with these executions.
SANDSMaybe the thing to talk about is the question of how I discovered what happened to my great-grandmother. Her name was Amalia Buchholz. She moved from Zolkiew to Vienna in 1914. She remained in Vienna until 1942, and then I found the records of what had happened to her. She was transported first to a camp called Theresienstadt, and she then went to -- from Theresienstadt on the 23rd of September, 1942, I've got all the transportation records, to Treblinka. She arrived at Treblinka. She was met on the platform. Fifteen minutes later, all her hair was shaved off, and she was then gassed in Treblinka.
SANDSNow what I discovered also was that on that transport of about 1,000 elderly people were three of Sigmund Freud's sisters. And in this way I make a connection with what happened in the Nuremberg trial. One of the most profound testimonies at the Nuremberg trial, and you can watch it on YouTube, was a man called Samuel Rajzman, (PH) who was one of the very few survivors of Treblinka, who describes how when he was working there, one of Sigmund Freud's sisters (inaudible) off the train, went to the camp commandant, Fritz Stangl, (PH) and said I am one of the sisters of Dr. Sigmund Freud.
SANDSThe camp commandant says of course, I'll look after you, I'll get you a proper job, and whisks her off to her instant death. You can read about this. So the records, the details, the testimonies, the witness statements, forensically you can tie the strings together, and you can cross many of the Ts and dot many of the Is and work out what happened to a lot of people, not everybody but quite a lot.
REHMBut now were those detailed records under the orders of Hitler himself?
SANDSI mean, you know, Hitler sat at the top of a humongous pile.
SANDSHans Frank was Adolf Hitler's personal representative in occupied Poland. So he took decisions personally on behalf of the fuehrer. One of the mysteries of Hans Frank is that he kept an incredibly detailed diary, and he decided not to destroy the diary but to keep 42 volumes of diaries, and those were what did him at the Nuremberg trial.
REHMPhilippe Sands. The book we're talking about is titled "East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. At the beginning of Philippe Sands new book, "East West Street" is a comment. "What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others." And that is a quote from Nicolas Abraham, from "Notes on the Phantom," 1975. Take us to where and why that quote came and why you chose it.
SANDSAs I got into this research project that became a book -- it was intended to be a book. It was sort of a family research project. I wanted to understand why I was so interested in this. Why was I pushing so hard? Why did I push all this -- why did I care about these things? And I've got a number of friends who are psychoanalysts. And they directed me to this remarkable couple, Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham, who specialize in the communication of legacies of trauma, not from parent to child, but from grandparent to grandchild.
SANDSHow they skip a generation. And there is a whole theory about how that happens. In other words, anyone who's been through trauma, the legacy goes on, but it may skip generations. And so that helped me understand why I had picked certain things up from my grandfather.
REHMNow, tell us about the words genocide and crimes against humanity.
SANDSThat's a big question, Diane, and an important one. People think -- and they're amazed when they find out it's not true -- that these concepts have existed since time in memorial. They haven't. They both came into being in 1945, in the context of the Nuremburg trial. That's when they really emerged. What's the difference between crimes against humanity and genocide? Let me give a simple explanation.
SANDSIf I kill a thousand people systematically, that's inevitably going to be a crime against humanity, causing harm to a large number of people.
REHMWhy isn't that genocide?
SANDSIt's not genocide unless a prosecutor can prove that I have killed a thousand people with the intention to destroy the group of which they belong. And proving that intention is a very difficult thing. I've done genocide cases, governments and killers don't tend to leave around bits of paper saying, oh, I'm gonna kill these people in order to destroy the group of which they form a part. So…
REHMGive me an example.
SANDSWell, for example, the cases in the former Yugoslavia. We all know what happened at Srebrenica, where 8,000 Muslims were slain by Serbs. And in that context, the matter went to the Yugoslav International Tribunal in The Hague. And the tribunal ruled that they were killed with the intention to destroy the group of which they formed a part, Bosnian Muslims. And so it was a genocide. But go just across the border to a town called Vukovar in Croatia, where several hundred people were killed in a hospital because they were Croatian -- of Croatian ethnicity or nationality.
SANDSAnd in the same court, it was ruled that was not a genocide. It was only, only a crime against humanity, because it could not be established they'd been killed because of their ethnicity or nationality. And the difficulty that's arisen is there's sort of now a hierarchy between the two. If the president of the United States, President Bush, President Obama says something is a genocide, it goes straight onto page one of The New York Times or the Washington Post or Fox News or CNN.
REHMWhich is why he can be so reluctant to use that word.
SANDSWhy he's so reluctant to use that word because it has consequences in our imagination and it has political consequences. If it's only "a crime against humanity," it'll be buried on page 13. Although, I noticed there's a story in today's New York Times about a crime against humanity in Mexico in relation to the drug war. And that's a new departure. But basically, there's a hierarchy. And victims want their crime to be in division one, not in division two.
REHMAnd for so many years it has been argued that the Turks killed thousands of Armenians. Now, is that a crime against humanity or is it genocide?
SANDSWell, you ask a question, Diane, which whichever way I answer it I'm gonna get myself into trouble with one community or the other. Probably about a million Armenians were killed by the declining Ottoman Empire in 1915. That is certainly a crime against humanity. Although, that term did not exist as a legal term, but was used as a political term in 1915. Is it a genocide?
SANDSLast week, the German parliament adopted a resolution that what happened was a genocide. And there was a storm and the Turkish government withdrew its ambassador in Germany because they say it's not only not a genocide, but it's a crime to call it a genocide. So you upset whoever. Lemkin himself, the man who invented the word genocide, working here in Washington, D.C., was clear that what happened to the Armenians was a genocide.
SANDSBut, as a matter of law, since the term did not exist in 1914, 1915, you can't describe it as a genocide as a matter of law, although what happened meets the characteristics and the criteria for calling it a genocide if it were to happen today. That's the complexity of the issue. People really care about words. People really care where something like that is called a genocide or not. And the reason I think they care about it is that crimes against humanity has a sort of technical legal tone to it. The word genocide triggers our imagination in ways that the term crimes against humanity doesn't. And we associate the word genocide with the crime of crimes, with the greatest of all horrors.
REHMAll right. Let's go back to the phones, 800-433-8850. To Deana, who's here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
DEANAYes. Hello. Thank you, Diane, for taking my call.
DEANAI would like to ask the guest -- this is a more personal question. I'll first just tell very briefly my story. I am a child of Holocaust victims. And as was, you know, my whole family. And I grew up just the opposite of you. I hear so much about people keeping secrets, keeping it quiet. I grew up with all the stories of torture, of capture, of depravity, just horror stories. And it has -- it very much has affected my psyche as I have grown up.
DEANAI do fine. I function well, I was an NPR producer. I do fine. However, I can't -- my relationship with anything having to do with violence is pretty traumatic. And I wanted to ask you personally, how would it have been, you know, do you feel that having these secrets and then being able to be a sleuth and to continue and to discover about your family, do you think it's better that there be the secrets or the person like myself who grows up hearing the traumatic stories?
REHMAnd interesting question.
SANDSDeana, that is a terrific and complex question. I've thought about that a lot. And I mean, I answer this in two different ways. At the one level, I think I can honestly say that my greatest regret in life is that I never spoke to my grandfather about what happened.
SANDSNow that I've learned so much, I wish I had an opportunity, in ways that he was comfortable with, to speak about this. As you're asking your question, I'm thinking of myself as a parent. And my protective instincts. When bad things happen, when people get sick, when people die, when car crashes happen, whatever it is in our world, you have this protective instinct towards your children. You don't want them to be too close to those kinds of things.
SANDSAnd I wonder whether if I, as a parent, had been -- gone through that experience, I would have done what my grandfather did and what my mother did. It's why I'm very careful not to judge, not to an express a view as to what ought to be done because I just don't know what I would have done. I seem to have come out of it fine. And my brother's come out of it fine. And maybe there's something about a sort of middle ground, just enough to let you have a sense of what happened, without going into the kinds of details that you've alerted us to that perhaps may be very difficult for a child to live with at too young an age.
REHMIndeed. Thank you so much for your call, Deana. And let's go now to Detroit, Mich. May, you're on the air.
MAYYes. I'm so happy that you took my call. And I'm so happy to be able to talk to you. I am an African-American. And I have conducted research on my family since the early '80s. And there was a time when African-Americans never used that word holocaust. It was just in the last few years that we began to look at the African-American Trans-Atlantic slave trade and all that as a holocaust.
MAYOne of the struggles that we have -- and because I have done research on my family -- is I found the Jewish connection that's related to the plantation that my mother's people were on in South Carolina. And I actually found this -- 'cause I didn't know. And the way that it even came to me was very interesting. I have a relative that just passed and she dreamt this. Okay? And I found this person in the archives in Cleveland. And this person has a relationship with South Carolina where my mother's people were.
MAYAnd what I would like to see is there be more assistance for African-Americans. And I will say this, this work on the family history has been therapeutic for me. You understand? When I'm going through things where I need to be focused, I need to be clear and I need to not be emotionally -- the research actually helps to straighten out my head.1
SANDSMay I am so pleased to hear you. And I salute you for calling. And you can't see us in the studio here, but we both have big smiles on our faces, Diane and I, because we were talking about the universality of what I have written about. And I cited precisely what had happened to African-Americans very recently, in this country, and to people who had been on the receiving end of British colonialism.
SANDSI've been spending a lot of time in Ghana recently. And so I'm well aware of Britain's role in the kinds of things that you are talking about. I think that we, in a sense, have to connect. And we must not be frightened to ask these questions and to follow where they lead, even if they lead to very painful places. And I think it's our responsibility, the next generation's, to do that respectfully, to do that courteously, to not point fingers.
SANDSI mean, in terms of my relations with the sons of basically the two men who were responsible for causing such misery for my grandfather, I maintain a very good relationship. We get on well. We eat together. We dine together. We travel together. We talk together. We don't agree about everything. And I just want to really encourage you and to say, yes, we ought to be joining up. Feel free to email me. I will tell you some of the things I've been thinking about, where one ought to be researching these things.
SANDSBut this is not about color or ethnicity or religion. Trauma and horror and holocausts and crimes against humanity and genocides have touched all peoples of all backgrounds. And it's very important to recognize the universality of the subjects I've addressed in my book, "East West Street." And thank you so much for calling.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I think, Philippe, what this also encourages us to do as younger people when we can, is to, as you say, courteously and with sensitive, to ask those questions about backgrounds. Somehow I think too often -- and I know this was the case in my own family -- I didn't ask the questions and then they were gone. And there was no one I could turn to to find out how and why and where and when. And it makes me feel bereft not having that history. And you have gone so far into your delving.
SANDSAnd let's come back to maybe where we began, which was with my mother. Going through this kind of research, was delicate. I mean, I was opening doors and, you know, overturning stones that perhaps would be difficult for my mom. And so I did it very, very carefully. And I kept her abreast with what's going on. But one of the things that gives me immense happiness is that now as the story has emerged I see her as not transformed, she's the same person, but she has a certain spring in her step.
SANDSThat people are interested in what happened, that it's been done respectfully, that she now, herself, has learned a lot more. It wasn't quite as bad as she feared. She answers to questions that she wanted. And so this experience, done in this way over several years, has been within our family a very positive experience. It could have gone in a different direction.
SANDSBut happily in my case, and I'm thinking back to May, she may open doors which may take her into a place that is a very difficult place to go.
SANDSI think it's how we do that. And we do it with help of others. I've had enormous amounts of help from friends and family and people that I've gone to for help. And I think they provide a sort of crutch and allow you to bounce your ideas. Am I going off in the wrong direction? Am I being too mean in thinking this? Should I be thinking that? Sort of -- people you can bounce ideas off of is incredibly important.
REHMHow did the questions you were asking perhaps affect the relationship between your mother and your father?
SANDSWell, my relationship between my mother and father is complicated anyway because they got divorced when I was a kid.
SANDSAnd so their marriage ended, but here's the amazing thing about my mom and dad. They're really good friends. In fact, they live on a street in London in houses literally opposite each other. And they're in touch most days and they're better friends than they were a married partner. But for both of them, I think there is a sense of satisfaction in a nice way, you know, of bringing closure to an episode that was very painful for the family, but not spoken about. And which allows the next generations to breathe a little more lightly going forward. That's how I feel about this.
REHMAnd the only way I might bring a question to that is that I don't really believe in the word closure. I think these mysteries go on and on and on and leave us with many more questions perhaps.
SANDSActually, Diane, that's my view exactly. I do cases on a daily basis of mass killing and mass crime. I've learned there's no such thing as closure. It's just about learning better how to deal with things.
REHMPhilippe Sands, his book is titled, "East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity." Fascinating story, Philippe, thank you.
SANDSThank you so much, Diane, for having me.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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