Raphael Lemkin was born into a Jewish family on June 24, 1900 in the village of Bezwodne, near today’s Byelorussian town of Vaulkovisk, just east of the Polish border. His father was a farmer; however, his mother was an intellectual. Home schooled by his mother, Lemkin was a voracious reader, and from a young age deeply impressed and horrified by the atrocities of man on man throughout history.1 Lemkin studied both philology and law at the University of Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine). His love of learning led to additional studies in universities in Heidelberg, Paris, and Rome. He eventually learned a total of 12 languages, but settled on the law, graduating with a doctorate from Lwów.1,2
Shortly after graduating with his doctorate in law, Lemkin was appointed Deputy Prosecutor in Warsaw. In 1933, having been prohibited from leaving Warsaw, Lemkin gave a presentation by proxy at a League of Nations conference in Madrid on international law; it focused on the prevention and punishment of any “destruction of collective cultural heritage” (or “Vandalism”), as well as “destruction of people” (or “Barbarism”).3,4
His theory, although not adopted in Madrid, was further developed into a protection from the destruction of national, religious, or ethnic life. Lemkin’s world view was well established by the time the Nazis came to power. As a result, leaving behind his very large family, Lemkin escaped to Sweden via the Baltics in 1939.
The parting words of Lemkin’s mother were prophetic:
You realize, Raphael, that it is you, not we, who needs protection now … of all of us only you do not live the life of love. You are the lonely and the loveless one. Still, you have been carrying the burden of your idea, which is based on love … We know you will continue your work, for the protection of peoples. Unfortunately, it is needed now more than ever before.2(p58)
In Stockholm, Lemkin taught Law and added further to his language skills. Within a year, he was offered teaching positions at Yale and Duke universities. After a long journey through Asia and Japan, he reached North America in 1941. At the end of World War II, he was employed by the US War Department as an instructor and interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials, assisting the Chief Prosecutor. His US War Department Identity Card reveals Lemkin’s probing eyes and serious look (Figure 1).
Photo of Raphael Lemkin on his War Department Identification Card.
Creation of the Term Genocide
Lemkin noted that starvation was a weapon of subjugation and/or extermination—a renewal of an old atrocity cited by history books, now being replayed in his own time. Such atrocity, as described in 1941 by Winston Churchill, was “a crime without a name.” Lemkin brought together the Greek word, genos
(nation, race, or tribe), and cide
from the Latin word for killing, to create a new term, genocide
, an incredibly appropriate term for the atrocities he had observed.4
The burden of his observations led Lemkin to obsessively push hard for official recognition of and sanctions against genocide. He was considered unpleasant company in the corridors of the United Nations (UN) and was often socially ignored. In 1942, upon learning about the executions in Poland, Lemkin wrote to President Roosevelt and asked him to take action, but received the disappointing reply, “be patient.”2 Lemkin remained an internationalist in his fight against racism and for the codification of genocide, while some 49 of his family members perished, in part from hunger in the forests of Byelorussia, with the rest perishing in Treblinka, their “grave in the clouds above” (to paraphrase Paul Celan5). Lemkin remained an unbiased theoretician and sought to elevate starvation to the status of a crime against humanity.2–4
Developing a Code of Genocide Under Nazi Rule
In 1944 Lemkin published his influential book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe
followed by numerous other books, articles, and conference presentations, all of which pushed for the codification and recognition of genocide. In his 1944 book, Lemkin fleshed out the definition of genocide as “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”3(p79)
Lemkin defined several aspects of genocide, as implemented by the Nazis. Essentially, genocide could be either by overt killing or any other covert means affecting health, nourishment, family life, and care of children.3,4,6–10
These aspects could be summarized as follows:2
Political: The occupation of a country, separating it into easily controlled zones, and establishing puppet states. These areas were to be Germanized.
Social: Intellectuals and clergy were to be removed (erased), to undermine and destroy the social structure, making the population easier to control, as was done in Poland, Slovenia, and to thousands in the Netherlands.
Cultural: Everything relying on a non-German local language (courts, schools, literature, or journalistic publications) was to be Germanized. Furthermore, the German cultural heritage was considered essential for maintaining the life of the group, and any insult to or destruction of Germanic objects was judged as vandalism.
Moral: Corruption of children’s education was effectively performed via pornographic teaching and the promotion of alcoholism.
Religious: The clergy were to be undermined by rearranging church teachings and organization, as enforcing the nomination of Nazi-approved patriarchs.
Biological: There was an active effort to reduce non-Germanic births by promoting abortions and undernourishment, thereby increasing infant and child mortality.
Physical: The extermination of sub-humans (by shooting, carbon dioxide, or cyanide gas), defined as Jews, Sinti, or any other person not considered able to contribute to Germanic society (mentally retarded, mentally ill, homosexuals, etc.)
Economic: Racially based food allocations, expropriation of monies or items of monetary value, and property confiscations. This effectively reduced standards of living; the so-called “sub-humans” had no protection from cold in the winter, and were unable to purchase food or other necessities. The only exceptions were for relatives to German people, who had to undergo full re-education, namely Germanization.
Lemkin’s Triumph: United Nations Recognition of Genocide as a Crime
Although genocide entered the record of indictments at the Nuremberg Trials, it was not part of the final judgement against the Nazi leaders, this despite the passionate pleas of Lemkin. Although Lemkin was not a registered member of the tribunal, his influence on one the chief prosecutors, Justice Jackson, was obvious. Jackson quoted Lemkin’s theory, but did not relate to it as a legal principle. While all four prosecutors agreed with the principles of indictment at the Nuremburg Trials, they placed different emphases on them.11
Both British prosecutor Sir Shawcross and French prosecutor August Champetier de Ribes unequivocally stated that a main tool of the Nazis was starvation.11
Lemkin’s triumph was finally realized when the UN General Assembly affirmed that genocide was a crime under international law, whether the crime was committed on religious, racial, political, or any other grounds. Adopted in December 1948 under the title of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, this definition would gradually be ratified by member states. Genocide crimes were defined as:
any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
Killing members of the group;
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.12
Lemkin would be the recipient of numerous awards and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize ten times, including one nomination by Winston Churchill. Despite his fame and accomplishments, Lemkin died at the age of 59, a penniless member of the New York Community, and was buried in the Mount Hebron Cemetery, Flushing, Queens County, NY (Figure 2
). Only seven people attended his funeral, three people short of the ten necessary to conduct the burial prayers in accordance with his Jewish ancestry.