This Day in Jewish History / Polish Lawyer Who Coined the Word 'Genocide’ Is Born

Raphael Lemkin almost single-handedly persuaded the newly created United Nations to approve the Genocide Convention.

David Green
David B. Green
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Raphael Lemkin (back row, far right) among the representatives of four states that ratified the Genocide Convention.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

June 24, 1900, is the birthdate of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-born Jewish lawyer who coined the word “genocide” and who, in 1951, almost single-handedly persuaded the newly created United Nations to approve the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Raphael Lemkin was born in Bezwodne, Volkovysk, in the Russian Empire (today in Poland), to Joseph Lemkin and the former Bella Pomerantz. Joseph was a farmer and Bella a painter, philosopher and linguist. As a young child, Raphael was home-schooled by his mother, and although he also received a Jewish education, Lemkin was steeped in Polish and Russian culture as well.

Lemkin, a polyglot, studied linguistics, philosophy and law at John Casimir, Heidelberg and Lwow (now Lviv) universities, and received his law degree from the latter at the end of the 1920s. From an early age, he had been fascinated by tales of human cruelty throughout history, and it was the Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1915 that provided much of the impetus for him to enter law school.

From 1929 to 1934, Lemkin served as a public prosecutor, first in Berezhany (in Galicia) and then in Warsaw, and also had his own private legal practice. He also helped to codify the Polish penal codes, as all the while he studied the ability of international law to act against crimes against ethnic and cultural collectives. In this regard, Lemkin came up with two new concepts: “barbarity,” which is the term he used for the destruction of groups, and “vandalism,” which is the word he proposed to refer to the destruction of cultural heritage.

Lemkin participated, and was wounded, in the Polish army’s defense of Warsaw against the German invasion in 1939. Then, having an ominous sense of the Nazis’ murderous intentions, he fled the country, first to Sweden and eventually to the United States, following a lengthy journey via Vladivostok and Japan. Lemkin’s parents, however, together with 47 other relations, perished in the Holocaust.

With the help of Malcolm McDermott, a law professor at Duke University in North Carolina, Lemkin took up a position there in 1941, while traveling around the United States lecturing about the crimes being committed by Germany. He had acquired copies of the laws introduced in the lands occupied by the Germans, material that served as the basis for his groundbreaking 1944 book, “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.” It was there that Lemkin first used the term “genocide,” a neologism based on the Greek for “race” or “tribe,” and the Latin suffix for “killing.” He defined it as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.”

For the rest of his life, Lemkin was obsessed with introducing into international law the prohibition of genocide, which Winston Churchill referred to in 1941 as “the crime without a name.” He assisted the American prosecution in the 1946 Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg, succeeding in having the crime of genocide entered into the indictments, and devoted his final years to the goal of having the UN draft an anti-genocide convention.

Lemkin, who never married, basically had no life outside his lobbying work at the United Nations, where he effectively took up residence. The convention that was adopted in 1948, and ratified three years later, did address the problem of genocide, but only in its physical sense, whereas Lemkin also pointed to the psychological and cultural aspects of the crime. Lemkin spoke out, for example, about what he saw as the Soviet pursuit of genocide against Ukrainians in the 1930s, as manifested in the destruction of what he described as that nation’s culture, beliefs and “common ideas.”

Raphael Lemkin suffered a fatal heart attack on August 28, 1959. At his death, he left behind fragments of an autobiography, which were located, edited and published as a book last year by scholar Donna-Lee Frieze.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen