Raphael Lemkin

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Raphael Lemkin
Raphael Lemkin among the representatives of four states who ratified the Genocide Convention (standing row, first from the right)
Native name Rafał Lemkin
Born (1900-06-24)June 24, 1900
Bezwodneuk, Volkovysk, Grodno Governorate, Imperial Russia (now Belarus)
Died August 28, 1959(1959-08-28) (aged 59)
New York City, United States
Nationality Polish
Occupation Lawyer
Known for coining the term genocide and drafting the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

Raphael Lemkin (June 24, 1900 – August 28, 1959) was a Polish Jewish lawyer who emigrated to the United States in 1941. He is best known for his work against genocide, a word he coined in 1943[1] or 1944[2] from the rooted words genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and -cide (Latin for killing).[2][3] He first used the word in print in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (1944), and defined it as "the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group."

Lemkin was the initiator of the Genocide Convention adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 as a direct result of his work.

Early life and education[edit]

Lemkin was born Rafał Lemkin in the village of Bezwodneuk during a period when it was part of the Vilna Governorate of the Russian Empire (since 1945 in Belarus). Not much is known of Lemkin's early life. He grew up in a Polish Jewish family and was one of three children born to Joseph Lemkin and Bella née Pomerantz. His father was a farmer and his mother a highly intellectual woman who was a painter, linguist, and philosophy student with a large collection of books on literature and history.

After graduating from a local trade school in Białystok he began the study of linguistics at the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów (since 1945 Lviv, Ukraine). He was a polyglot, fluent in nine languages and reading fourteen.[4] It was there that Lemkin became interested in the concept of crime, later developing the concept of genocide based on the Armenian experience at the hands of the Ottoman Turks,[5][6][7][8][9] then later the experience of Assyrians[10] massacred in Iraq during the 1933 Simele massacre. Lemkin then moved on to Heidelberg University in Germany to study philosophy, returned to Lviv to study law in 1926, becoming a prosecutor in Warsaw at graduation. His subsequent career as assistant prosecutor in the District Court of Brzeżany (since 1945 Berezhany, Ukraine) and Warsaw, followed by a private legal practice in Warsaw, did not divert Lemkin from elaborating rudiments of international law dealing with group exterminations.

Working life[edit]

The plaque (Polish/English), 6 Kredytowa Street, Warsaw, Poland

From 1929 to 1934, Lemkin was the Public Prosecutor for the district court of Warsaw. In 1930 he was promoted to Deputy Prosecutor in a local court in Brzeżany. While Public Prosecutor, Lemkin was also secretary of the Committee on Codification of the Laws of the Republic of Poland, which codified the penal codes of Poland, and taught law at Tachkemoni College in Warsaw. Lemkin, working with Duke University law professor Malcolm McDermott, translated the The Polish Penal Code of 1932 from Polish to English.

In 1933 Lemkin made a presentation to the Legal Council of the League of Nations conference on international criminal law in Madrid, for which he prepared an essay on the Crime of Barbarity as a crime against international law. The concept of the crime, which later evolved into the idea of genocide, was based on the Armenian Genocide[5][6][7][8][9] and prompted by the experience of Assyrians[10] massacred in Iraq during the 1933 Simele massacre.[11] In 1934 Lemkin, under pressure from the Polish Foreign Minister for comments made at the Madrid conference, resigned his position and became a private solicitor in Warsaw. While in Warsaw, Lemkin attended numerous lectures organized by the Free Polish University, including the classes of Emil Stanisław Rappaport and Wacław Makowski.

In 1937, Lemkin was appointed a member of the Polish mission to the 4th Congress on Criminal Law in Paris, where he also introduced the possibility of defending peace through criminal law. Among the most important of his works of that period are a compendium of Polish criminal fiscal law, Prawo karne skarbowe (1938) and a French language work, La réglementation des paiements internationaux, regarding international trade law (1939).

World War II[edit]

During the Polish Defensive War of 1939 Lemkin joined the Polish Army and defended Warsaw during the siege of that city, where he was injured by a bullet to the hip. He barely evaded capture by the Germans and traveled through Lithuania to reach Sweden,[12] where he first lectured at the University of Stockholm. With the help of his pre-war associate McDermott, Lemkin received permission to enter[citation needed] the United States, arriving in 1941.[12]

Although he managed to save his life, he lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust;[12] they were among over 3 million Polish Jews and Lithuanian Jews who were murdered during the German occupation. Some members of his family died in areas annexed by the Soviet Union. The only European members of Lemkin's family who survived the Holocaust were his brother, Elias, and his wife and two sons, who had been sent to a Soviet forced labor camp. Lemkin did however successfully aid his brother and family in emigrating to Montreal, Canada in 1948.

After arriving in the United States, at the invitation of McDermott, Lemkin joined the law faculty at Duke University in North Carolina in 1941.[13] During the Summer of 1942 Lemkin lectured at the School of Military Government at the University of Virginia. He also wrote Military Government in Europe, which was a preliminary version of his more fully developed publication Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In 1943 Lemkin was appointed consultant to the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration and later became a special adviser on foreign affairs to the War Department, largely due to his expertise in international law.

In 1944, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published Lemkin's most important work, entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in the United States. This book included an extensive legal analysis of German rule in countries occupied by Nazi Germany during the course of World War II, along with the definition of the term genocide.[14] Lemkin's idea of genocide as an offense against international law was widely accepted by the international community and was one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials. In 1945 to 1946, Lemkin became an advisor to Supreme Court of the United States Justice and Nuremberg Trial chief counsel Robert H. Jackson.


The origin of the word genocide.

After the war, Lemkin chose to remain in the United States. Starting in 1948, he gave lectures on criminal law at Yale University. In 1955, he became a Professor of Law at Rutgers School of Law in Newark. Lemkin also continued his campaign for international laws defining and forbidding genocide, which he had championed ever since the Madrid conference of 1933. He proposed a similar ban on crimes against humanity during the Paris Peace Conference of 1945, but his proposal was turned down.

Lemkin presented a draft resolution for a Genocide Convention treaty to a number of countries in an effort to persuade them to sponsor the resolution. With the support of the United States, the resolution was placed before the General Assembly for consideration. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was formally presented and adopted on December 9, 1948. In 1951, Lemkin only partially achieved his goal when the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide came into force, after the 20th nation had ratified the treaty. This treaty had confined its consideration solely to physical aspects of genocide which The Convention defines as:

…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as:
  • (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.

Lemkin's broader concerns over genocide, as set out in his "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe",[15] also embraced what may be considered as non-physical, namely, psychological acts of genocide which he personally defined as:

  • "Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify 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. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group."
  • "Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor's own nationals."

He also outlined his various observed "techniques" [16] on achieving genocide which ranged from:

  • Political
  • Social
  • Cultural [17][18]
  • Economic
  • Biological
  • Physical:
  • Endangering Health
  • Mass Killing
  • Religious
  • Moral

Views on Ukranian Genocide (Holodomor)[edit]

Less well known was Lemkin's view on crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Soviet Union. In 1953, in a speech given in New York City, he described the "destruction of the Ukrainian nation" as the "classic example of Soviet genocide," going on to point out that "the Ukrainian is not and never has been a Russian. His culture, his temperament, his language, his religion, are all different... to eliminate (Ukrainian) nationalism... the Ukrainian peasantry was sacrificed...a famine was necessary for the Soviet and so they got one to order... if the Soviet program succeeds completely, if the intelligentsia, the priest, and the peasant can be eliminated [then] Ukraine will be as dead as if every Ukrainian were killed, for it will have lost that part of it which has kept and developed its culture, its beliefs, its common ideas, which have guided it and given it a soul, which, in short, made it a nation... This is not simply a case of mass murder. It is a case of genocide, of the destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation."[19]

On Sunday, 20 September 1953, “10,000 Americans of Ukrainian descent. . .gathered at Washington Square, as many of their compatriots had done on Nov. 18, 1933, in a protest parade that moved up Fifth Avenue to Thirty-fourth Street and hence to the meeting place on Eight Avenue,” reported The New York Times. [11] Among the marchers were members of clergy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of America and people in Ukrainian folk costumes. Later, an audience 3,000 strong filled the Manhattan Center, while “hundreds more stood on the sidewalks at Thirty-fourth Street.” Ukrainians had gathered to remember “that dark hour in the history of the Ukraine when 5,000,000 inhabitants of the Russian ‘granary’ were starved to quell the resistance of an independent people to the Soviet regime.” Congressman Arthur G. Klein, noted the Times, “urged that the fight for Ukrainian liberation be continued,” while Raphael Lemkin “said that high crime had been employed 100 years ago against the Irish.” The Ukrainian Weekly was more explicit on Lemkin’s speech:

Lemkin’s views on the Ukrainian genocide remained obscured for 55 years. His perceptive analysis of the Ukrainian tragedy remained virtually unknown and hardly ever figured in publications on the famine of 1932–1933 or studies of genocide. The text was brought to public attention only in 2008. Lemkin’s holistic approach to the Soviet regime’s systematic destruction of the Ukrainian nation was highly innovative in its time and has not lost its significance today.

See also: Holodomor


For his work on international law and the prevention of war crimes, Lemkin received a number of awards, including the Cuban Grand Cross of the Order of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes in 1950, the Stephen Wise Award of the American Jewish Congress in 1951, and the Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1955. On the 50th anniversary of the Convention entering into force, Dr. Lemkin was also honored by the UN Secretary-General as "an inspiring example of moral engagement." He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize ten times.[20]

In 1989 he received the Four Freedom Award for the Freedom of Worship[21]

Lemkin is the subject of the plays Lemkin's House by Catherine Filloux (2005),[22] and If The Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty Against Genocide by Robert Skloot (2006).[23] He was also profiled in the 2014 American documentary film, Watchers of the Sky.

Every year, T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights gives the Raphael Lemkin Human Rights Award to a layperson who draws on his or her Jewish values to be a human rights leader.

On 20 November 2015 Lemkin's article Soviet genocide in Ukraine was added to Russian index of "extremist publications", whose distribution in Russia is forbidden.[24]


Lemkin died of a heart attack at the public relations office of Milton H. Blow in New York City in 1959, at the age of 59. Only seven people attended his funeral.[25] He was buried in Mount Hebron Cemetery, Flushing, Queens, New York.[26]


^ During a video interview with Raphael Lemkin for the CBS, news commentator Quincy Howe asked him about how he came to be interested in the crime of genocide. He replied:

I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.[27][28]

In this statement Lemkin refers to the Obersalzberg Speech of August 22, 1939 in which Hitler is alleged to have said, in translation, "Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?"


  1. ^ Jenkins, Bruce. (2008). The Lost History of Christianity:The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. (First edition). New York: HarperOne, p.140. ISBN 978-0-06-147280-0.
  2. ^ a b Hyde, Jennifer (2008-12-02), Polish Jew gave his life defining, fighting genocide, CNN, retrieved 2008-12-02 
  3. ^ Ishay, Micheline R. (2008), The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era, Berkeley (CA): University of California Press 
  4. ^ Raphael Lemkin: biography by Holly A. Lukasiewicz
  5. ^ a b Yair Auron. The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide. — Transaction Publishers, 2004. — p. 9:"...when Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide in 1944 he cited the 1915 annihilation of Armenians as a seminal example of genocide"
  6. ^ a b William Schabas. Genocide in international law: the crimes of crimes. — Cambridge University Press, 2000. — p. 25:"Lemkin’s interest in the subject dates to his days as a student at Lvov University, when he intently followed attempts to prosecute the perpetration of the massacres of the Armenians
  7. ^ a b A. Dirk Moses. Genocide and settler society: frontier violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian history. — Berghahn Books, 2004. — p. 21:"Indignant that the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide had largely escaped prosecution, Lemkin, who was a young state prosecutor in Poland, began lobbying in the early 1930s for international law to criminalize the destruction of such groups."
  8. ^ a b "Coining a Word and Championing a Cause: The Story of Raphael Lemkin". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), Holocaust Encyclopedia. Lemkin's memoirs detail early exposure to the history of Ottoman attacks against Armenians (which most scholars believe constitute genocide), antisemitic pogroms, and other histories of group-targeted violence as key to forming his beliefs about the need for legal protection of groups. 
  9. ^ a b "Genocide Background". Jewish World Watch. The Armenian genocide (1915–1923) was the first of the 20th century to capture world-wide attention; in fact, Raphael Lemkin coined his term “genocide” in reference to the mass murder of ethnic Armenians by the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire. 
  10. ^ a b Raphael Lemkin – EuropaWorld, 22/6/2001
  11. ^ William Korey, "Raphael Lemkin: 'The Unofficial Man'," Midstream, June–July 1989, p. 45–48
  12. ^ a b c Paul R. Bartrop. Modern Genocide: The Definitive Resource and Document Collection. Vol. I. ABC-CLIO. 2014. pp. 1301-1302.
  13. ^ For more information on this period, see Bliwise, Robert. "The Man Who Criminalized Genocide". Duke Magazine. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  14. ^ Raphael Lemkin Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress Chapter IX: Genocide a new term and new conception for destruction of nations, (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), pages 79 – 95
  15. ^ Lemkin's own definition
  16. ^ Lemkin's Observed Techniques of Genocide
  17. ^ Cultural Genocide
  18. ^ Cultural Genocide under International Law
  19. ^ Raphael Lemkin Papers, The New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation, Raphael Lemkin ZL-273. Reel 3. Published in L.Y. Luciuk (ed), Holodomor: Reflections on the Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Soviet Ukraine (Kingston: The Kashtan Press, 2008). Available online
  20. ^ "Nomination Database – Raphael Lemkin". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Retrieved 13 April 2015. 
  21. ^ http://www.rooseveltinstitute.org/four-freedoms-awards
  22. ^ Lemkin's House by Catherine Filloux
  23. ^ If The Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty Against Genocide by Robert Skloot.
  24. ^ "Федеральный список экстремистских материалов дорос до п. 3152". SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. Retrieved 2015-11-28. 
  25. ^ A. M. Rosenthal, "A Man Called Lemkin," New York Times, October 18, 1988, p.A31
  26. ^ Dr. Raphael Lemkin at Find A Grave accessed Dec. 12, 2013
  27. ^ Video interview with Raphael Lemkin – CBS News on YouTube.
  28. ^ Stanley, Alessandra (Apr 17, 2006). "A PBS Documentary Makes Its Case for the Armenian Genocide, With or Without a Debate". New York Times. Retrieved Aug 7, 2012. 


  • Lemkin, Raphael and Samantha Power. Axis Rule In Occupied Europe: Laws Of Occupation, Analysis Of Government, Proposals For Redress. Lawbook Exchange, 2005. ISBN 1-58477-576-9. (Originally published as Lemkin, Raphael. Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law, 1944.)
  • "Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine," by Raphael Lemkin, 1953, reprinted in Holodomor: Reflections on the Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Soviet Ukraine, Appendix A, pp. 235–242 (Kashtan Press, Kingston, 2009).

Further reading[edit]


  • Cooper, John. Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention. Palgrave/Macmallin, 2008. ISBN 0-230-51691-2.
  • Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Basic Books, 2002 (original hardcover). ISBN 0-465-06150-8. (Chapters 2–5)
  • Shaw, Martin, 'What is Genocide?'. Polity Press, 2007. ISBN 0-7456-3183-5. (Chapter 2)
  • Olivier Beauvallet, Lemkin: face au génocide, (with a French translation of "The legal case against Hitler" released in 1945), Michalon, 2011– ISBN 9782841865604.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (author); Frieze, Donna-Lee (editor). Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin (Jun 24, 2013)


External links[edit]