- Book: East West Street
- Location: Lviv, Vienna
- Author: Philippe Sands
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, we pondered how we could come alongside the beleaguered country and somehow show our support and solidarity. We felt that by reading a book that focusses on place, history and people, we could at least connect and demonstrate that our thoughts were with the people fighting off the aggressors. We ran it across our Social Media platforms and invited people to buy the book and share their thoughts over the period of about a month.
I think what I have taken away from our #Eastweststreetreadalong is that my knowledge of the history in central Europe is pretty negligible. When I was taught history at school, the 20th history teaching focussed very much on Britain and Germany and the central conflicts that brought other nations into both wars, mainly WW2. That was followed by awareness of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War. As an adult, emphasis on Russia and that country’s influence became a priority, followed by jubilation when the walls came down in November 1989. But I have a gap in what was really unfolding in Eastern Europe in the second half of the 20th Century (I knew a lot about what was happening in East Germany because that is part of my heritage, but countries further East remained a bit of a blank).
Whilst reading this book, I learned that Lviv (so often in the news at the moment, only 20km or so from the Polish border), was also formerly Lemberg and Lvov and Lwów – where the book opens – and that the city changed hands no fewer than 8 times between the years 1914 and 1945 … what tumult.
The author chooses 4 principle characters, whom he researches with great precision as they make their mark on the world. The book opens in 1946 at the Nuremberg Trials where we learn of the origins of the terms “Genocide” and “Crimes against Humanity” and that, the people who created these terms to describe ugly brutality and murder, both had connections to Lviv.
Poland’s borders – not to mention Ukraine’s borders – seemed to expand and contract over the years, as different regimes were in charge… part of the Austro-Hungarian empire through to Russian directives and the influence that country exerted. What effect does that have on a people, when a country decides to conquer and subjugate another country? Now, of course, Ukrainians are having to leave their country in hoards and in great fear, and it sadly seems history repeats.
Overall, perhaps the book had a broader remit than I had anticipated, I learned a lot whilst reading it but I sometimes got caught up in the sometimes microscopic detail. It is however an illuminating read and the reader can really appreciate the echoes of footsteps past for understanding a little more about what is happening now.