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My Encounters With Rafael Lemkin, the Penniless, Persistent Hero Who Coined the Term 'Genocide'

Rafael Lemkin was often considered a shabby, dogged nuisance when I met him at the UN in the 1950s. He'd lost 49 family members in the Holocaust; only seven mourners attended his own funeral. But his moral and legal clarity gave the world a new way of defining - if not deterring - mass murder

Lili Eylon
Lili Eylon
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A young man looks at the numbers tattooed on the arms of Jewish survivors of the Auschwitz death camp who'd been transferred to the Dachau concentration camp, on the day of Dachau's liberation by the US army, April 29 1945
A young man looks at the numbers tattooed on the arms of Jewish survivors of Auschwitz, transferred to the Dachau concentration camp, on the day of Dachau's liberation by the US army, April 29, 1945Credit: AFP
Lili Eylon
Lili Eylon

When I first encountered Rafael Lemkin in the halls of the United Nations in the mid 1950’s, there was no trace of the high-living Warsaw lawyer. The man I saw - literally collaring delegates as they passed by him between formal sessions - wore a haggard look on his still intense face, with its burning blue eyes. He wore a shabby brown suit that had long ago seen better days.

Hijacking the Holocaust for Putin, politics and powerCredit: Haaretz Weekly Ep. 57

And yet this seemingly unremarkable figure was the leader of a one-man crusade who would make an immense contribution to humanity, for which we are still deeply indebted. And there is no better moment to recall his unstinting campaign to protect human life than in the lead up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Rafael Lemkin (1900-1959) Jewish, Polish linguist, international lawyer, lonely crusader, had been a ladies’ man in the Warsaw of the early 1930s. Lemkin has been called a hero of humankind, but in his lifetime, he was often regarded as a pest, and a nuisance. He ended his life in New York - ill, penniless, unheralded, a worn-out warrior who championed a new legal mechanism to deter mass murder. He was moved to action by the massacres of Armenians in the First World War; and in the Second, the wholesale murder of the Jewish people – among them members of his own family.

His conscience pushed him to ask this critical question: "Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?"

During World War II, Winston Churchill, in one of his famous speeches, called the mass killings of innocents "a crime without a name." Rafael Lemkin had the answer: He coined the word "genocide"; he gave the world a new way of defining mass murder.

International lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who helped draft the Genocide Convention, which maps out prevention and punishment for the crime of genocideCredit: Bettmann Archive

But his ambitions were not just legalistic: he hoped that the establishment of legal tools for responsibility toward all sections of their citizenry on the part of national and international entities - and punishment for their transgressions - would actually help eradicate genocide in the future. That was Lemkin’s idée fixe and it dominated all his writings, speeches and feverish personal attempts at persuasion.

Growing up on a small isolated farm in his native Bezvodene - in what was then Poland and is today Belarus – Lemkin was precocious in his studies, already fluent in nine languages by the age of 14. Already at a tender age, he was horrified by the evil of mass killing. As a 12-year-old, he read Quo Vadis by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, and was shocked. The book’s descriptions of crowds of Romans cheering as Christians in ancient Rome were being fed to lions, terrified him.

He ran to his mother: "They applauded. Why didn’t they call the police?" His mother, a wise woman, told him to study more and think more and he would find the answer himself.

After graduating in law from Lemberg University, Lemkin emerged with his one missionizing goal: to create an international legal tool for safeguarding the rights of all ethnic, religious, cultural and social groups.

In Madrid, in 1933, he launched his campaign. Some 800 Assyrian Christians had just been massacred in Iraq, and Hitler had just risen to power in Germany. But Lemkin spoke about an earlier event - the 1915-16 indiscriminate killings by Ottoman troops of Armenians.

The deportation by the Ottoman Turks of Armenians from Erzurum, a city in eastern Anatolia. 40,000 Armenians were deported from Erzurum and surrounding villages, starting in July 1915Credit: Wikipedia

He spoke out forcefully against what he then called a "crime of barbarity" - the destruction of national, religious and racial minorities. He stressed that such premeditated murder must be declared an international crime, prosecuted and punished, alongside slavery, piracy and drug smuggling, no matter where it was committed, no matter what nationality the perpetrator.

He did not succeed. Madrid was Lemkin’s first failure. This prompted him to leave Polish government service and devote all of his time to his cause. He traveled to every international legal conference - Budapest, Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam, Cairo. He gave interviews and wrote for the media, lecturing untiringly at public gatherings.

When Hitler invaded Poland, Lemkin fled to Sweden. In Stockholm, he began, carefully and assiduously, to collect as evidence for war crimes the texts of new Nazi edicts proclaimed in German-occupied countries.

That material - mostly Nazi prohibitions against Jews - served him as a point of departure for his seminal work, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944 by the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.

It is in this book that Lemkin’s neologism "genocide" first made its appearance - a combination of the Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing).

Raphael Lemkin discusses how he coined the word "genocide." CBS, 1949

His book made waves immediately, prominently featured as a cover story in the New York Times Review, and was called "an indispensable hand book for scholars and historians and for those authorities at the UN charged with undoing, as far as possible, the effects of Axis domination."

An old practice in a modern guise, Lemkin's definition of genocide ("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") included five major provisions:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Axis Rule in Occupied Europe would become one of the foundational texts in Holocaust studies and the study of totalitarianism, mass violence, and genocide. More immediately, Lemkin’s chief purpose was to present his accumulated texts, the evidence of the Nazis’ crimes, as ammunition at the projected trial of war criminals in Nuremberg .

But first, he had to get to America, where he had been invited to teach at Duke University Law School. From about-to-be-invaded Russia, where he then was, via Siberia and Japan, he arrived in Seattle and went on to Durham, North Carolina. As soon as he got to the U.S., he sent copies of the incriminating Nazi-signed documents to both the State and the War Departments.

In November 1945, Lemkin went to the Nuremberg Military Tribunal with his accumulated evidence. Some bore the signatures of high Nazi officials, like Himmler and Goering, who were among the war criminals on trial. Robert H. Jackson, U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Nuremberg Trial Chief Counsel chose Lemkin as one of his advisors. Lemkin argued his case to include the charge of genocide, so that it would enter the international judicial canon.

Erzsebet Brodt, 89, holds a picture of her family, killed in the concentration camp of Auschwitz during WW11. Erzsebet was sent there with them as a 17 year-old and survived. Budapest January 12, 2015Credit: \ REUTERS

But while genocide was entered in the record of indictment, it did not, despite Lemkin's passionate pleas, become part of the judgment. This was a bitter disappointment, compounded by the terrible news Lemkin was given then and there by his only surviving nephew: that 49 members of his family, including his parents, had been killed by the Nazis, in concentration camps and forced marches.

He left Nuremberg disappointed - but not discouraged. For a brief time, he taught at Yale University Law School but decided not to renew the contract and, instead, to devote all his time to establishing international legal recognition of the crime of genocide. He would continue his fight within the halls of the newly-born United Nations.

He left Yale knowing full well that he was cutting off his only regular source of income and would henceforth have to depend on the goodwill and help of friends. His autobiography unsparingly describes his hand-to-mouth existence, always in debt, thrown out of his lodgings for non-payment, even his clothes confiscated in lieu of rent: "My friends at the U.N. "plot" to see that I eat at least one meal a day. I am ashamed and try to limit myself to a bowl of soup when I am their guest."

And there, at the UN, is where I saw him, among the crowds of representatives: a slightly stooped figure with a serious mien, but with unbowed determination, literally badgering each and every delegate of every country as they passed by him during pauses between the formal sessions.

Seeing him prowling in the hall, this man who belonged to no official organization, delegates tried to avoid him. His doggedness had earned him the epithet "nuisance," though some recognized him as a "very special man." The diplomats always heard the same one-note tune from the scruffy-looking man with the blazing blue eyes, always clothed in the same brown suit. "This is important. This will save lives. Please sign the Genocide Convention."

Stacks of unidentified corpses - victims found in mass graves and in wooded areas after the 1995 Srebrenica massacre - line the walls of an underground shelter at a Bosnian morgue in Tuzla, BosniaCredit: REUTERS

Despite many ups and downs, with much opposition particularly from the British, Rafael Lemkin finally succeeded. On December 9, 1948, the United Nations Genocide Convention was signed by 39 nations.

I was standing with Professor Lemkin when a young man approached him, exclaiming, "And you did all this single-handed!" The soft-spoken crusader paused for a moment, pointed to his hands and said, "No, with two hands." Two hands, and his body and soul.

But Lemkin knew that signing a treaty alone was not enough; only ratification makes it binding. So he proceeded to give teeth to his treaty, once again pounding the UN halls, resuming his contacts with world leaders and high officials.

This time the greatest obstacle came from the United States, where a mood of isolationism - McCarthyism and the Cold War - was beginning to settle in. Only in 1988, at President Reagan’s behest, did the U.S. finally ratify the UN Genocide Convention. By 2019, the number of signatories had risen to 151 ratifications.

By then, the solitary apostle who wanted to change the world was no longer alive. At the age of 59, heartbroken, ill, friendless, he died alone in his one room New York apartment, a tragic figure. Only seven mourners attended his funeral.

Raphael Lemkin's grave in Mount Hebron Cemetery, Queens, New YorkCredit: Wikipedia

Lemkin was proposed ten times for the Nobel Peace Prize. In January 1958, Congressman Emanuel Celler (D.NY) brought Lemkin’s name as candidate for the Nobel for that year. His proposal included an important principle introduced by the Genocide Convention, namely, that the very survival of nations, races, religious and ethnic groups cannot be left to the whims of national governments.

"I know of no man who has so dedicated himself to a worthy cause," wrote Celler. "No sacrifice was too much for him. No obstacle too great for him to overcome. He actually coined a new word in English – genocide – gave it impetus and inscribed it upon the hearts and minds of good people everywhere as a warning against dictators and sadists."

Lemkin never got the Nobel.

Not a single UN representative or government dignitary accompanied him on his last journey. No living memorial, except for a simple gravestone in Mount Hebron Cemetery, Queens, and rare but outstanding explorations of his achievement, like Philippe Sands' East West Street, exists to perpetuate his name and deeds.

And genocide continues to plague the world. So what has Lemkin’s work achieved? What did the Genocide Convention accomplish? It defined evil and brought the concept and facts to the consciousness of governments regarding national and international responsibility for their citizens. It served as the foundation for the International Criminal Court, a supranational institution which has already indicted 44 dictators and their abettors and accessories for their crimes against humanity.

Rafael Lemkin would have been encouraged to see his struggle continuing, but he would also note, perhaps more bitterly, and with deep personal pain, that the fear of justice has not acted as more of a deterrent to those intent on the "planned butchery" of those declared "racially inferior" groups," as he wrote in his 1949 Commentary on the Genocide Convention, "while an apathetic world looked on."

Lili Eylon was the United Nations correspondent for the National Jewish Post and after moving to Israel in 1959, a freelancer for Die Welt and the International Herald Tribune. She was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia

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