Unwinding like a real-life thriller or detective novel, Philippe Sands’ book
West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, is a fascinating and sobering exploration of three lawyers and their connection to the origins of international law (through the Nuremberg Trials) and the Ukrainian city of Lviv, which was under Nazi occupation during WWII. Sands juxtaposes heavy themes with a personal touch by way of his grandfather, Leon, who is also connected to Lviv.
While researching the stories of lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht (who crafted the legal concept of crimes against humanity) Rafael Lemkin (who coined the term genocide) and Hans Frank (Nazi lawyer found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity), the human rights lawyer delivered lectures to see what people were interested in. It was through this that he discovered a crucial element that would later separate the book from the performance: music.
“As I was researching the book, I noticed Lauterpacht, Lemkin and Frank all had very tight connections to music,” Sands says. “That became a theme in the book and it’s woven through lightly but it’s there: a concert they go to, a friend they have who’s a composer, or something like that. Someone in the audience — after the second time I’d given the lecture — said, ‘it’s really interesting you mention all this music. Why don’t you do it with a violinist or a pianist?’”
So he did. Sands first invited a friend to accompany him on the viola and later it became more production than lecture thanks to musician Guillaume de Chassy, singer Laurent Naouri and actor Katja Riemann who all perform with Sands under the direction of Nina Brazier. Sands says the impact of music was “unbelievable”.
“It’s the power of music in opening up the imagination,” he says.
Sands and his team usually perform
A Song of Good and Evil in places connected to the book: Nuremberg, The Hague, London and, a few days before this interview, Lviv: the town that ties all four protagonists of the book together.
“We’re a very tight group,” Sands says of his creative team. “We only do three or four performances a year because we want every performance to be something we really enjoy. We don’t want it to become routine and that’s very important to us. Nuremberg was significant because of the place, but Lviv was significant because of the people who were in the audience who have never heard this story and were pretty stunned.”
East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil is performed in the courtroom where the Nuremberg Trials were held
The production is coming to Australia due to his close relationship with our country as many of his “dearest friends” are Australian including Adelaidean James Crawford who Sands calls his “closest professional colleague”.
“He is now the Australian judge at the International Court of Justice and to come to James’s home city means a lot to me,” Sands says. “James and I obviously don’t work together now because he’s on the Court but for 25 years he was my closest professional colleague and my mentor. I know there’ll be lots of members of his family coming to the show and he’s got lots of mates there. We are just very thrilled to have been able to add Adelaide. I have been counsel for Australia in the whaling case against Japan and spent many years going back and forth so we’re amazed and excited to be coming to Australia. It really means a lot to us.”
The book and production are timely. Myanmar is accused of committing genocide against the Rohingya people and when
A Song of Good and Evil was performed in Lviv, 60,000 people attended a right wing nationalist rally in neighbouring Warsaw.
“Part of the reason for the resonance of the book is that it happened to come out at a moment in Europe, and the US in particular, when the issues of nationalism and xenophobia, and borders and identity, have come back to the fore,” Sands says. “With Brexit and with Trump, a very lively debate [emerged] on these issues, on who we are, what do we want to do about migrants and what do we want to do about refugees. That’s a big debate in Australia also and we mustn’t run away from that. I think we just have to confront that.
“For me, the piece is a way for causing people to think about those issues. There is a tremendous debate going on in Australia about refugee policy and who comes in in terms of migration and the same issues are being faced in many parts of the world. The book just causes people to think about that but situates the story and says, ‘Look, these terrible things happened in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Don’t just assume they can’t happen again’.
“When we flew from Lviv to London there were no direct flights. We flew by Warsaw. We were on our iPhones reading the newspapers,
The Guardian and the BBC, reading about 60,000 people out on the streets of Warsaw calling for a white Europe, calling for a white Poland. There is definitely something brewing and we know one thing leads to another, and we know these are very dangerous moments. I don’t want to scaremonger. I don’t want to say we’re heading back to Hitler, I hope that is not what’s happening.”
Can we stop this momentum?
“We’ve got to understand our history in order to be able to stop these things from happening again, so partly it’s just getting these historical realities in front of us. In London, you’ve got a strong move, not quite like the Polish march of 60,000, but you’ve got some pretty nasty stuff going on and it’s possible it can go on because the political leaders have forgotten what happened in the 1930s and ‘40s. For the first time we have political leaders who don’t have personal experience of what human beings are capable of doing to each other when things get out of hand; when positions polarise and when extreme positions, both on left and right, emerge and unleash forces that become uncontrollable. That’s the concern: that one thing leads to another.”
East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil
Elder Hall, North Terrace
Friday, February 23, 8pm
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