Raphael Lemkin, 1900-1959

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Raphael Lemkin was born in Bezwodene, Poland (located in imperial Russia at the time of Lemkin's birth and now near Volkovysk, Belarus), on June 24, in 1900, though some sources claim 1901 as his birth year. 1 Little is known of Lemkin's early life in Poland, a point mentioned in the only full-length biography written to date about Lemkin by Dr. James Martin, a Holocaust revisionist. 2 What is known is that Lemkin was one of three children born to Joseph and Bella (Pomerantz) Lemkin, all boys, including brothers Elias and Samuel. According to various sources, his father was a farmer and his mother a highly intellectual woman who was a painter, linguist, and philosophy student with a large collection of books in literature and history. With his mother as an influence, Lemkin mastered nine languages by the age of 14, including English, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. At the age of 15, Lemkin first encountered the idea of intentional mass murder of a population when news of the Turkish slaughter of Armenians reached Poland in 1915. 3 In addition, the novel Quo Vadis, by the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, describing the barbarity of the Roman Empire under Nero, is cited as an additional influence on the young, sensitive, and impressionable Lemkin. Later in life, the 1933 slaughter of Christian Assyrians in Iraq propelled his work on the legal concepts of mass murder.

In 1919, he began the study of linguistics at the University of John Casimir in Lwow (Lviv, Poland), moved on to the University of Heidelberg in Germany to study philosophy, and returned to Lwow to study law at John Casimir in 1926, becoming a prosecutor in Warsaw at graduation. From 1929-1934, Lemkin was the Public Prosecutor for the district court of Warsaw. While Public Prosecutor, he wrote books on the law and worked on the team that codified the penal codes of Poland, which had gained independence from Russia in 1917. An important contact in the United States was forged during this time, when Lemkin worked with visiting Duke University law professor, Malcolm McDermott, in translating the The Polish Penal Code of 1932 . McDermott would later provide Lemkin with help in leaving Europe.

In 1933, as public prosecutor, Lemkin presented a paper at the Madrid meeting of the League of Nations, urging the delegation to condemn acts of vandalism and barbarity as crimes against humanity. He proposed, prior to creating an actual word for it, that the "destruction of national, religious, and racial groups" should be declared "an international crime alongside piracy, slavery, and drug smuggling." 4 He proposed a ban on mass slaughter, but could not persuade the League to vote on it, with the Nazi delegation laughing at the idea of such a proposal. The presentation of his ideas at the League of Nations proved to be detrimental to his career as lead prosecutor, though being Jewish in Poland added to his career decline. Shortly after the Madrid meeting, he was admonished by the Polish Foreign Minister and under pressure, resigned his position in 1934, going into private practice until 1939.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin joined the underground guerilla movement in the forests of Poland. After spending six months avoiding the Germans and making his way to Lithuania, he escaped to Sweden. In Sweden from 1940-1941, he was a lecturer at the University of Stockholm, presenting a series of lectures on international finance, 5 published under the title Valutareglering och Clearing ( Exchange Control and Clearing ), while persuading Swedish officials to provide him with copies of Nazi directives issued to occupied countries. Professor McDermott invited Lemkin to join him at Duke in North Carolina, and with the Nazi directives in hand, he made an arduous eastern journey through Russia and Japan, arriving on the East coast of the U.S. in 1941. In the U.S., Lemkin presented the confiscated Nazi directives to the State and War Departments, and began lecturing at Duke.

At the outbreak of American participation in the war, the U.S. Army recruited Lemkin to teach classes in military government while the Board of Economic Warfare gave him a position as a consultant due to his work on international finance law. From 1941-1943, he worked on his most well known publication, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in which he continued his work on the 1933 Madrid proposal, published the translated Nazi directives obtained in Sweden, analyzed Axis authority and policies in occupied Europe, and introduced the term and concept of genocide. Chapter 9 of Axis Rule developed Lemkin's theories on genocide, the word being a combination of the Greek "genos" or "race" and the Latin "cide" or "killing," thus forming a new concept of killing based on the deliberate destruction of a national, racial, ethnic, religious, or political minority by the majority or dominating society. 6

At the end of the war, the great majority of Lemkin's European family had died. His brother Elias survived with his wife and two sons. Raphael and Elias had a brief reunion in Europe, and Elias wrote letters from a U.S.-controlled Munich repatriation camp to Lemkin asking for help in immigrating to Canada, where additional Lemkin family were located in Montreal and Ottawa. From correspondence in the collection, Elias and his family successfully left Europe for Montreal in 1948.

In 1945-1946, Lemkin left his paid position with the Army, moving on to become an advisor to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Nuremberg Trial Judge, Robert Jackson. During the trials, he fought to have the word genocide introduced into the trial record, but his efforts were unsuccessful. British prosecutors objected on the grounds that the word was not found in the Oxford English Dictionary . 7

After Nuremberg, Lemkin turned to the United Nations General Assembly convened at Lake Success, NY in an effort to have the newly formed body condemn the act of genocide as an international standard. Lemkin presented a draft resolution for a Genocide Convention treaty to the countries of Cuba, India, and Panama, persuading them to sponsor the resolution. With the support of the United States, the resolution was placed before the General Assembly for consideration, with the various arguments and legalities over the document debated in the Legal Committee and the Social and Economic Council. The final draft of Resolution 96 (I) was presented to and approved by the General Assembly on December 11, 1946. The resolution affirmed that genocide was a crime under international law and directed the Member States and the Social and Economic Council to draft a treaty to present to Member States for ratification.

From 1947-1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment on the Crime of Genocide treaty was hashed out with Lemkin regularly consulting on the articles of the treaty. The draft was presented to the General Assembly from September to December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. Lemkin, with little money and suffering from recurring ill health, managed to make the Paris Conference and was present when the treaty was adopted on December 9, 1948. On December 11, the United States was the first of a required twenty Member State signatures needed for UN treaty adoption, though it was also necessary for each individual signatory government to ratify and adopt the treaty as well. In this respect, one hurdle remained for United States ratification: approval by the U.S. Senate. On June 16, 1949, the treaty, supported by President Truman and the State Department, arrived in Congress where it immediately ran into roadblocks, including the Korean War, McCarthyism, rising xenophobia in the U.S., the disapproval of the American Bar Association, and a movement to stop ratification led by Senator John Bricker. Ultimately, the hurdles in the United States proved too high, and in April 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles withdrew any human rights treaties from consideration. Lemkin was devastated by the actions of his adopted country. 8

After the UN adoption of the treaty in 1948, Lemkin became a minor celebrity, with newspaper articles written, magazine interviews given, and radio plays performed about his life. He enjoyed his brief time in the spotlight but continued to push for the ratification of the treaty in the United States. He believed that with the U.S. in the moral lead, other countries would follow suit and provide positive action in stopping mass race killings. He worked tirelessly during this period, becoming the first lecturer on international law at Yale University, consulting with the United Nations, working with the U.S. Committee for a U.N. Genocide Convention, writing his autobiography and drafting the unfinished manuscript, History of Genocide . In addition to teaching at Yale, Lemkin taught at Rutgers and Princeton Universities. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the early 1950s and received the Grand Cross of Cespedes from Cuba in 1950 and the Stephen Wise Award of the American Jewish Congress in 1951. Ill health continuously plagued him, in particular high blood pressure, which may have contributed to his death from a heart attack on August 28, 1959. He died in poverty, without marrying, and is buried in Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Queens, New York with a headstone that reads "The Father of the Genocide Convention."

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide treaty went into effect by the United Nations on January 21, 1951. The United States ratified the treaty on October 14, 1988 and President Ronald Reagan signed the bill on November 4, 1988.

Footnotes 1. The collection contains two documents that point to 1900 as being Mr. Lemkin's correct date of birth, his War Department identification, and a Who's Who entry sent to Lemkin for his approval. Library of Congress Authority files also state 1900. The Prevent Genocide website also has scans of two documents signed by Lemkin with 1900 as his year of birth. http://www.preventgenocide.org/lemkin/birthdate/http://www.preventgenocide.org/lemkin/birthdate 2. Dr. James Joseph Martin, The Man Who Invented Genocide: The Public Career and Consequence of Raphael Lemkin. Inst for Historical Review, April 1984. AJHS holds a copy of this publication. The New York Public Library holds an unfinished autobiographical manuscript of Lemkin, which includes material on his early life. Samantha Power's book on genocide and American intervention entitled, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, contains biographical information on Lemkin. Several biographies are currently in the works, including one by Jim Fussell of www.preventgenocide.orgwww.preventgenocide.org. 3.William Korey, "Raphael Lemkin: 'The Unofficial Man'," Midstream, June-July 1989, pgs. 45-48. Box 1, Folder 2. 4.Ibid., p. 46. The publication, "Les actes constituant un danger general (intertatique) consideres comme delites des droit des gens" ("Acts Constituting a General (Transnational) Danger considered as Crimes under International Law"), Expilications additionelles au Rapport spcial prsent la V-me Confrence pour l'Unification du Droit Penal Madrid (14-2O.X.1933), in French, of the text presented at the Conference may be found in Box 1, Folder 11, General Writings on the Law, undated, 1933, 1941, 1944. 5. Lemkin had already written extensively on the legal issues concerning European financial transactions during the 1930s that hindered international exchanges of currency. The book, published in French in 1939, was entitled La Regulation des Paiements Internationaux: Traite de droit compare sure les devises, Les clearing et les accords de payments, Les conflicts de lois (The Regulation of International Payments), Paris: A. Pedone, 1939. 6. Though many attribute the coining of genocide to 1944, the publication date of Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, the preface to the book, dated Nov. 15, 1943, contains the word. A German-language typescript of Chapter 9 may be found in Box 5, Folder 8. Lemkin wanted to include political groups in the U.N. Genocide Convention, but failed to convince the Member States. The May 1947 and April 1948 drafts of the Convention includes political and linguistic groups, while the final text of the actual Genocide Convention, Article II, does not include either group. Excerpts of the out-of-print Axis Rule in Occupied Europe including Chapter 9 on genocide may be found on the website http://www.preventgenocide.org/lemkin/AxisRule1944-1.htmhttp://www.preventgenocide.org/lemkin/AxisRule1944-1.htm. 7. Korey, p. 47. 8. Korey, p. 48.

From the guide to the Raphael Lemkin Collection, undated, [1763]-2002 (bulk 1941-1951), (American Jewish Historical Society)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Raphael Lemkin Collection, undated, [1763]-2002 (bulk 1941-1951) American Jewish Historical Society
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Bricker, John W. (John William), 1893-1986 person
associatedWith Buck, Pearl S. (Pearl Sydenstricker), 1892-1973 person
associatedWith Celler, Emanuel, 1888-1981 person
associatedWith Charlemagne, Emperor, 742-814 person
associatedWith Khan, Muhammad Zafrulla, Sir, 1893- person
associatedWith Khmelnytskyi, Bohdan, circa 1594-1657 person
associatedWith Lemkin, Raphael, 1900-1959 person
associatedWith Lie, Trygve, 1896-1968 person
associatedWith McDermott, Malcolm, b. 1885 person
associatedWith McMahon, Brien, 1903-1952 person
associatedWith Mistral, Gabriela, 1889-1957 person
associatedWith Rosenthal, A. M. (Abraham Michael), 1922- person
associatedWith Samuels, Gertrude person
associatedWith Tamerlane, 1336-1405 person
associatedWith United Nations corporateBody
associatedWith U.S. Committee for a U.N. Genocide Committee corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Palais de Chaillot (Paris, France)
Jammu and Kashmir (India)
Armenia History


Birth 1900

Death 1959

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