On Philippe Sands’ Quest to Personalise History

Image by Éva Ostrowska

The personal ‘self’ doesn’t have much room in our collective history. The homogeneous story of the past has a responsibility to include a sort of neutral telling of all sides and angles, leaving the individualistic accounts lacking of voice and space.

Some countries and ethnicities prevail over others inside the books of history, and that’s precisely what the movement of decolonizing history is all about. But what I’m referring to here is a much more micro approach to past events; a reconciliation that is told through the acute and subjective view of one person.

Philippe Sands has spent his writing career injecting his own experience of being raised by his grandparents, whose arms were marked with the numbers they were given in place of their identity during the Holocaust. To Sands, an international lawyer-cum-writer and documentary director, history is thirsty for the telling of personal experiences. He explains how reading Primo Levi’s If This is A Man, filled “a gap created by the shadows cast across an otherwise happy childhood home by Auschwitz and Treblinka.”

Raised in 1960s Britain, Sands could read about the unwrapping of events during the war, he knew important dates in the timeline, names of leaders, places, generals and camps, but the void of a humanistic account – of what is redeemed as too detailed or personal, or even subjective for history books was prominently absent.

Years later Sands is one of three men travelling across Europe in his 2015 documentary My Nazi Legacy, alongside him are two sons of high ranking Nazi officers. The three characters of this story, through their memories and lived experiences, narrate a historical time that has been widely described in books. Yet, their narratives allow another type of interpretation of this period, one that include doubts, and reflections. An account that, despite its topic, doesn’t portray a picture that is on the black and white spectrum.

And it’s with this personal approach to an otherwise global history that Sands now writes about today’s practices of profiling by nation, promoting inequality based solely on where a person is born, or as Sands puts it “Targeting people not because of their smiles or other individual propensities but because they happen to be a member of a group”.

I’d like to think that if history included a little more personal capsules of the human emotions of destruction, and war and family and hope, then it might be harder to categorise people by “their smiles” and not by their nations.