The family of the late Sir Isaiah Berlin joined our synagogue after they moved to Hampstead in 1927. He remained a member all his life. A devout atheist, even after he moved to Oxford, he came to Hampstead each year on Yom Kippur for the day to sit and think, if not pray. When he died, his Memorial Service was held at Hampstead and his family agreed that we should hold an annual lecture in his memory. The first, in 2003, was delivered by the late Rabbi Lord Sacks, zt’l, and he has been followed by a very distinguished list of lecturers. The 19th lecture, given this year by Professor Philippe Sands QC on Sunday 6th December 2020, was unusual in that it was given online rather than in our building. It was entitled “East and West, to the Ratline, and Beyond: On Memory and Identity”.
Philippe Sands is a remarkable man, Barrister, academic and author, he regularly appears in International criminal courts and tribunals. His best known book, “East West Street”, is subtitled “On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity” and there is no one like him able to define and explain those laws in ways that mere mortals like the rest of us can understand. Apart from telling the stories of two Nuremberg Prosecutors, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, who both studied law at Lviv University – as did Philippe’s own grandfather, it also tells the story of one of the Nuremberg defendants, Hans Frank, Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Poland, responsible for the murder of Lauterpacht’s and Lemkin’s families in and around Lviv.
In The Ratline, Philippe tells the story of Otto Wachter, the Governor of Galicia, who was indicted by the end of the war as a mass murderer but who went on the run to avoid arrest. Having hid for three years in the Austrian Alps, he made his way to Rome, where, assisted by a Vatican Bishop, he intended to travel to Argentina on the Ratline, the method by which many Nazis escaped from Europe to save their lives. Before he could leave, he died unexpectedly.
In his lecture, Philippe compared the different approaches to their respective fathers by the son of Hans Frank, Niklas Frank, and the youngest son of Otto Wachter, Horst, both in their identities and in their memories. Niklas had faced up to the reality of what his father had done. Horst had convinced himself that his father was really a good man. Both born in 1939, they had had not dissimilar upbringings, their fathers both being very senior Nazi officials. Their memories, however, were quite different, as were their identities in later life. Philippe had spent a great deal of time with them both, but his relationship with Horst was vastly different from that he had with Niklas, mainly because Horst maintained that his father either was not aware of what was done in his name in Galicia and/or that his father disapproved of it.
Because of Covid, the lecture was given online, rather than in person in our building. That, however, did not prevent Philippe from capturing his, exceptionally large, audience, not only in the lecture itself but also in answering the many questions that came in from the viewers.
There is no doubt that Philippe Sands earned a place as one of the best Isaiah Berlin lectures, we have had. Please watch this space to discover who will follow him later this year.