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Thoughts on “East West Street”

06/28/2022 02:02:19 PM


David Feingold

David Feingold is a lifelong member of Temple Beth El. After graduation from UW–Madison and University of Chicago Law School, he returned to practice law in Janesville. David marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and trained as a community organizer with Saul Alinsky.

Based on lifelong friend Jon Lampman’s recommendation of the moving book “East West Street” by Philippe Sands, we find new ways to understand the concept of human rights.
Whatever the terminology—war crimes or crimes against humanity or genocide—history is rife with instances of mass human destruction.

War crimes have been recognized as far back as the 15th century (no doubt much further), when a tribunal of the Holy Roman Empire convicted and beheaded a Western European knight for ordering barbaric acts of rape and murder during a military occupation.

Opposition to slavery at home stimulated 19th-century language that affirmed human rights. The Republican Party platform of 1856 called slavery a “high crime against the Constitution, the Union, and humanity.”

The slaughter of a million or more Armenians by the Turks occurred in the early 20th century. This truth, slowly acknowledged, was shocking. Even though such barbarity has occurred throughout history, our language lacked a word to describe it.

Ultimately the Holocaust revealed that an advanced Western society would choose to annihilate entire peoples. This reality is undeniable, but it is still denied by those who thirst for the blood of others.
When it happened, millions remained in communities scattered throughout Eastern Europe, where Jews had been forced to live for generations. Millions of others, including all four of my grandparents, had escaped to safety and freedom around the turn to the 20th century, decades before their old world and own people were decimated.

“East West Street” follows two Jewish men, both scholars of international law, who were born near but did not know each other. Their communities lived under constant abuse and rising hatred. Researching this book, the author discovered that his own family also derived from the same city—today known to the world as Lviv, Ukraine.

Separately the two observed society and studied law, then managed to leave before annihilation was unleashed. Both of them searched for words to describe the violent denial of human rights. Finding the correct words would enable people to grasp and react to such horror.

What is the name for it? Hersch Lauterpacht chose “crimes against humanity”; Rafael Lemkin coined a new word: genocide. The former focused on individual victims, the latter on tormented groups of people. Both concepts were employed in the postwar Nuremberg conviction of Nazi leadership. Legal scholars currently debate the relative usefulness of their alternative words for future prosecutions.

Do the words matter? Certainly, but not so much as our commitment to root out all that is inhumane.
Now, every day the news is horrible. Maybe it has always been that way. Old friends fondly remember our youthful years struggling to extend civil rights along with Martin Luther King Jr. and to end the war in Vietnam.

In anguish we observe Ukraine, Buffalo, Uvalde, and more. It’s hard to realize such human destruction is occurring in this month of May, all happening in this 21st century.

While most people of European ancestry have found a path forward, an escape to safety and justice is still obstructed for those viewed as people of color and an array of others treated as outsiders in lands beloved for democracy.

The seed of humanity is within all of us. Taking action to nurture it is natural. But the potential for growth is often ignored, and sometimes twisted.

We can do little, but always something. It’s great that we, and so many others, have never given up.

August 18, 2022 21 Av 5782