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Genocide is an internationally recognized crime where acts are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. These acts fall into five categories:

  1. Killing members of the group
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

There are a number of other serious, violent crimes that do not fall under the specific definition of genocide. They include crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and mass killing.

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Origin of the Term Genocide

The word “genocide” did not exist prior to 1944. It is a very specific term coined by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959) who sought to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder during the Holocaust, including the destruction of European Jews. He formed the word genocide by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, from the Latin word for killing. 

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Genocide as an International Crime

On December 9, 1948, the United Nations approved a written international agreement known as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention established genocide as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.” Preventing genocide, the other major obligation of the convention, remains a challenge that nations, institutions, and individuals continue to face.

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