Lemberg, Lwów, Lviv. This city has had three names. Depending on which period of history you read, which aspect of the past you dig into, you hear a different story, with different heroes and villains.

Lviv, as it is now known, used to be on the eastern edge of the Habsburg empire, close to the Russian empire. After the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, it became part of Poland, then of Russia, then Germany during World War II, then the Soviet Union. Now, it is a Ukrainian city at last.

Novelist Joseph Roth described it as “a city of blurred borders". Borders were redrawn, the city was named and renamed, but its essential character, as a place where empires collide, remained. It was a multicultural city, urbane and cosmopolitan, with arts, education and civic pride. But wars have a habit of destabilizing and disrupting cohesion.

I was sitting in the hall of the Ivan Franko National University, where British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands was speaking about the city’s past, about which he has written movingly in his book East West Street. Sands’ grandparents lived in this city, and his grandmother was born on a street known as Lemberger Strasse, or Lviv Street, about 25km from Lviv. Roth would later call it East West Street.

The street formed the basis of Sands’ remarkable journey to understanding how the city’s milieu shaped the thinking of two men, both lawyers, who gave the world the intellectual basis to prosecute grave crimes. The two men were Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin.

Lauterpacht left Lviv in 1919 for Vienna, and, later, England, going on to assist the British delegation during the war crimes tribunals set up after World War II. He is credited with providing the legal basis for the indictments under “crimes against humanity", as outlined in the Nuremberg charter, which focused on the rights of the individual. Lemkin also left Lviv, which had become inhospitable for Jews, and moved to the US. His advocacy aided prosecutions for genocide, a term he coined, eventually leading to the signing of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, also known as the Genocide convention, in 1948. Genocide differed from crimes against humanity only in that it recognized crimes targeting specific groups, and not merely individuals. In December that year, the UN also adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which drew on Lauterpacht’s ideas. It is remarkable that two men who did much to give legal basis to fundamental ideas of human rights studied in this city.

Sands said that in 1942, orders to target Jews and transport them to the concentration camps where they would ultimately die, were given in the very room where we were sitting. The man who gave the order liked Beethoven and was a lawyer himself—Hans Frank, known as the butcher of Poland. Noting the absence of Jews in the city—he had confined them to an unmarked ghetto—Frank had said that day to thunderous applause: “I haven’t seen any of that trash hanging around here today. What’s going on? They tell me that there were thousands and thousands of those flat-footed primitives in this city…but there hasn’t been a single one to be seen since I arrived" (before World War II, there were at least 100,000 Jews in Lviv). Behind Sands was the seal of the university. He showed us a photograph of the same room from that period, with a Nazi swastika in the same spot.

When Frank was tried at Nuremberg, Lauterpacht was in the room, watching the trial as part of the British delegation. Lemkin was at the trial as part of the American delegation. The circle was complete.

Chastened and benumbed by this knowledge and the confluence of histories, I decided to explore the city’s grim past, guided by Sands’ book. My friends and I set out, armed with a map and the directions he kindly gave me.

Lviv has few markers of that past. Sands has urged the town to memorialize the birthplaces of the lawyers, and the town has taken his request seriously and begun to address the oversight. Till then, his book is a guidebook to places where once there was a railway station, where a synagogue stood, where there was a café where intellectuals met, and what used to be the Jewish quarter.

Between the Armenian and Jesuit churches is Teatralna Street, where Lauterpacht lived. It is a quiet street, with dour, imposing three-storey houses. On weekends, it is transformed into a colourful market, where people sell blankets, crafts, books, T-shirts and food. Inside the Armenian church, a sudden surprise: a beautiful restaurant, where sunlight rests on the tables and strands of greenery surround diners, the genteel tranquillity in complete contrast to the upheaval the city had undergone seven decades earlier.

Across the park facing Ivan Franko National University is Petra Doroshenko Street. We walked there to see the house where Lauterpacht’s niece Inka lived. She had seen her grandfather taken away, then her mother. She had watched from a window of their home, she was alone. Her father was at work.

When he found that his wife had been taken away, he went looking for her. Inka saw him disappear. Her words recalling seeing her mother taken away are now carved in granite at a city memorial, at the site of what used to be the Golden Rose synagogue. There is a weird restaurant nearby, intended as a tribute to the city’s Jewish past, but its humour is more black than warm (the menu has no prices, you are supposed to haggle).

We go across the railway lines, opposite the Jewish ghetto, to the house where Lemkin lived in 1923. It is in a quiet area, surrounded by greenery. We return to the faculty of law, near the Botanical Gardens, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were students of Julius Makarewicz.

Ukraine is at a crossroads. With part of its territory still under Russian occupation, its hard-won freedom is under siege. Commemorating and understanding its past, and renewed commitment to upholding the ideals two men from this city had fought for, would be a fitting tribute to a place where East and West meet, where the centre can hold.

Salil Tripathi tweets @saliltripathi

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