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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

"East West Street," Book Review

Somehow East West Street: On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes Against Humanity" by Philippe Sands became the book club selection for our next Book Club meeting. It differs from all the other books we've read, because it's non-fiction, rather than fiction.

I don't know who suggested it or how it was chosen. In all honesty I stay out of those discussions, except for trying to keep page numbers down. Yes, I'm the lazy member of the club and not very knowledgeable about the "better" books. I read lots of police detective mysteries like the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly or the Daniel Silva books. And I'll read corny books, too.

"East West Street" is a different kind of mystery or detective story. Sands researched the real participants in the Nuremberg Trials and the development of the case against the Nazis.
East West Street looks at the personal and intellectual evolution of the two men who simultaneously originated the ideas of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” both of whom, not knowing the other, studied at the same university with the same professors, in a city little known today that was a major cultural center of Europe, “the little Paris of Ukraine,” a city variously called Lemberg, Lwรณw, Lvov, or Lviv. It is also a spellbinding family memoir, as the author traces the mysterious story of his grandfather, as he maneuvered through Europe in the face of Nazi atrocities.
Those of us raised post-World War Two grew up with the concept of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” as major crimes, but apparently the terms are relatively new and were very controversial and questionable in the 1940s.

"East West Street" is a very complex spiderweb of research and narratives. I'm neither a historian, nor  all that knowledgeable about the Holocaust. For me, getting through the book was a challenge. It's not my kind of book. I'm glad that I didn't give up in the middle or even earlier. Believe me; I was tempted. Sands succeeded in building some amazing characters, and it's really exciting to realize that they were people, not fiction. A lawyer friend who read it only paid attention to the legalistic legal-philosophical aspect of the book. We talked about the book, and it was as if we had read two completely different books. He loved the book, while I thought I should get a prize just for finishing it.

It's hard to recommend it, but many people love it. It's just not my cup of tea, as the saying goes. One of the reasons I like being in the Book Club is that it pushes me to get out of my comfort zone.


Natalie Levine said...

I opened East-West Street this Shabbat with all the enthusiasm of a pending root canal. I usually stick with acclaimed new works (esp women writers), well-received historical fiction, literary mysteries, no-risk classics. So, the non-fiction choice was out of my comfort zone as well.
Also, it had gotton a particularly bad rap from friends whose opinion I respect and can usually rely on.
Well! While surprises usually make me nervous these days, this one was terrific! I found Sands' work totally engrossing. My sine qua non for any book is excellent, elegant writing. Sands' creation qualifies and then some. Via his way with words, he manages to weave a search for the elusive gaps in his family history together with - eerily overlapping - intimate, prescient biographies of major players in the trials at Nuremberg: a significant legal & emotional drama on the world stage, dwarfed only by the Holocaust that demanded it. The entire narrative is so skillfully wrought, so engaging in spite of the weighty detail, that I look forward to finishing next Shabbat - if I can wait that long!
It should be a lively meeting, Batya! Yes, I'm a fellow Book Blisser: one of several Anglos in Shiloh, Eli & Ma'ale Levona who love to read. Some of us are the kids of Survivors (our parents experiences also share an unusual commonality!). I'm curious to see whether �� or �� on this choice splits along autobiographical lines.

Natalie Levine said...

* those funny question marks were intended to be emojis indicating 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down'.

Batya Medad said...

Natalie, glad that we have a variety of views. And I must thank you for starting "Book Bliss." You've certainly made life in Gush Shiloh much better!

Natalie Levine said...

Aw, shucks! B"H . . .

In interest of full disclosure, it was significantly self-serving! Friends are a blessing: finding new kindred spirits later in life is not so simple. Add a lack of Hebrew skills, shared history, time away from delicious grandkids . . .
Discussing good books = immediate commonality & raised the bar for new relationships: engaging like-minded women to open up mind and soul.
I am so honored to count you as friends!

Batya Medad said...

Darling your solution was more than brilliant. Instead of complaining you made life better for many of us and made yourself lots of new friends. ๐Ÿ’—