Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish jurist, was born in 1900 on a small farm near the Polish town of Wolkowysk. Lemkin’s memoirs detail early exposure to the history of Ottoman attacks against Armenians, antisemitic pogroms, and other histories of group-targeted violence as key to forming his beliefs about the need for legal protection of vulnerable groups.
As early as 1933, he worked to introduce legal safeguards for ethnic, religious, and social groups at international forums, but without success. When the German army invaded Poland, he escaped from Europe, eventually reaching safety in the United States, where he took up a teaching position at Duke University. In the wake of the first verified reports in November 1942 of the existence of the killing centers in Poland and the Nazi intent to murder the Jews of Europe, Lemkin made a personal plea to President Roosevelt for immediate action by his administration.
He later served on the American team preparing the case for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials, where he was able to get the word “genocide” included in the indictment against Nazi leadership. However, as “genocide” had not yet been defined in law as a crime, the indictment and verdict did not cover peacetime attacks against targeted groups, only crimes committed in conjunction with an aggressive war.
While in Nuremberg, Lemkin also learned of the death of 49 members of his family, including his parents, in concentration camps, the Warsaw ghetto, and death marches. He returned from Europe determined to see “genocide” added to international law and began lobbying for this at early sessions of the United Nations.
Lemkin’s tireless efforts to enlist the support of national delegations and influential leaders eventually paid off. On December 9, 1948, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.
Lemkin did not rest with the UN document, but committed the rest of his life to urging nations to pass legislation supporting the Convention. He died in 1959, impoverished and exhausted by his efforts.
Taking a Stand
Raphael Lemkin is an example of taking a stand because he worked tirelessly to see the word “genocide” and the crime it defined recognized by the international community. Even when he faced opposition and lacked support, he continued to talk to leaders and representatives of nations from around the world until the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations. He spent his last days working to ensure that member countries ratified the Convention. Since its ratification in 1948, the Convention has been fundamental to the successful prosecution of perpetrators of genocidal violence in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In addition, Lemkin’s work has helped create and shape the academic study of genocide.
To Learn More
- Coining a Word and Championing a Cause: The Story of Raphael Lemkin Online Encyclopedia Article
- The Legacy of Raphael Lemkin
- Lemkin’s War: Origins of the Term “Genocide”
- Photograph of Raphael Lemkin
- Photograph of Raphael Lemkin with students and faculty at the Duke University School of Law
Where to Find More Information
- Raphael Lemkin Papers: The New York Public Library
- Bloxham, Donald, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, "Raphael Lemkin, Culture, and the Concept of Genocide," by Dirk A. Moses. (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2010).
- Lemkin, Raphael, ed. Donna-Lee Frieze. Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin. (Yale University Press, 2013).
- Film: "Watchers of the Sky"