Raphael Lemkin

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Raphael Lemkin
Rafał Lemkin
Raphael Lemkin, Photograph 6 (cropped).jpg
Born(1900-06-24)24 June 1900
Died28 August 1959(1959-08-28) (aged 59)
Known for

Raphael Lemkin (Polish: Rafał Lemkin; 24 June 1900 – 28 August 1959) was a Polish lawyer who is best known for coining the term "genocide" and initiating the Genocide Convention, an interest spurred on after learning about the Armenian genocide and finding out that no international laws existed to prosecute the Ottoman leaders who had perpetrated these crimes.[1]

Lemkin coined genocide in 1943 or 1944 from genos (Greek: γένος génos, "family, clan, tribe, race, stock, kin")[2] and -cide (Latin: -cīdium, "killing").[3][4][5][6] He became interested in war crimes after reading about the 1921 trial of Soghomon Tehlirian for the assassination of Talaat Pasha.[7] He recognized the fate of Armenians as one of the most significant genocides of the 20th century.[8]


Early life[edit]

Lemkin was born Rafał Lemkin on 24 June 1900 in Bezwodne, a village in the Volkovyssky Uyezd of the Grodno Governorate of the Russian Empire (present-day Belarus).[9][10][Note 1] He grew up in a Polish Jewish family on a large farm near Wolkowysk and was one of three children born to Józef Lemkin and Bella née Pomeranz.[9][11] His father was a farmer and his mother an intellectual, a painter, linguist, and philosophy student with a large collection of books on literature and history.[12] Lemkin and his two brothers (Eliasz and Samuel) were homeschooled by their mother.[9]

As a youth, Lemkin was fascinated by the subject of atrocities and would often question his mother about such events as the Sack of Carthage, Mongol invasions and conquests and the persecution of Huguenots.[11][13] Lemkin apparently came across the concept of mass atrocities while, at the age of 12, reading Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, in particular the passage where Nero threw Christians to the lions.[13] About these stories, Lemkin wrote, "a line of blood led from the Roman arena through the gallows of France to the Białystok pogrom." Through his writings, Lemkin demonstrates a belief central to his thinking through his life: the suffering of Jews in eastern Poland was part of a larger pattern of injustice and violence that stretched back through history and around the world.[14]

The Lemkin family farm was located in an area in which fighting between Russian and German troops occurred during World War I.[15] The family buried their books and valuables before taking shelter in a nearby forest.[15] During the fighting, artillery fire destroyed their home and German troops seized their crops, horses and livestock.[15] Lemkin's brother Samuel eventually died of pneumonia and malnutrition while the family remained in the forest.[15]

After graduating from a local trade school in Białystok he began the study of linguistics at the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine). He was a polyglot, fluent in nine languages and reading fourteen.[16] His first published book was a 1926 translation of the Hayim Nahman Bialik novella Noah and Marinka[17] from Hebrew[clarification needed] into Polish.[18] It was in Białystok that Lemkin became interested in laws against mass atrocities after learning about the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire,[19][20][21][22][23][failed verification] then later the experience of Assyrians[24] massacred in Iraq during the 1933 Simele massacre.[25]

After reading about the 1921 assassination of Talat Pasha, the main perpetrator of the Armenian genocide, in Berlin by Soghomon Tehlirian, Lemkin asked Professor Juliusz Makarewicz why Talat Pasha could not have been tried for his crimes in a German court. Makarewicz, a national-conservative who believed that Jews and Ukrainians should be expelled from Poland if they refused to assimilate, answered that the doctrine of state sovereignty gave governments the right to conduct internal affairs as they saw fit: "Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens. He kills them, and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing." Lemkin replied, "But the Armenians are not chickens". His eventual conclusion was that "Sovereignty, I argued, cannot be conceived as the right to kill millions of innocent people".[26][27]

Lemkin then moved on to Heidelberg University in Germany to study philosophy, returned to Lwów to study law in 1926.[citation needed]

Career in interwar Poland[edit]

2008 plaque commemorating Lemkin's prewar residence, 6 Kredytowa Street, Warsaw, Poland

Lemkin worked as an Assistant Prosecutor in the District Court of Brzeżany (since 1945 Berezhany, Ukraine) and Warsaw, followed by a private legal practice in Warsaw.[28] 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 Polish Penal Code of 1932 from Polish to English.[citation needed]

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. 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.[citation needed]

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).[citation needed]

During World War II[edit]

He left Warsaw on 6 September 1939 and made his way north-east towards Wolkowysk. He was caught between the invaders, the Germans in the west, and the Soviets who then approached from the east. Poland's independence was extinguished by terms of the pact between Stalin and Hitler.[29] He barely evaded German capture, and traveled through Lithuania to reach Sweden by early spring of 1940.[30] There he lectured at the University of Stockholm. Curious about the manner of imposition of Nazi rule he started to gather Nazi decrees and ordinances, believing official documents often reflected underlying objectives without stating them explicitly. He spent much time in the central library of Stockholm, gathering, translating and analysing the documents he collected, looking for patterns of German behaviour. Lemkin's work led him to see the wholesale destruction of the nations over which Germans took control as an overall aim. Some documents Lemkin analysed had been signed by Hitler, implementing ideas of Mein Kampf on Lebensraum, new living space to be inhabited by Germans.[31] With the help of his pre-war associate McDermott, Lemkin received permission to enter[32] the United States, arriving in 1941.[30]

Although he managed to save his life, he lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust;[30] The only members of Lemkin's family in Europe who survived the Holocaust were his brother, Elias, and his[whose?] wife and two sons, who had been sent to a Soviet forced labor camp. Lemkin did however successfully help his brother and family to emigrate to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1948.[citation needed]

Dedication by Lemkin in "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe" to Max Huber, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross

After arriving in the United States, at the invitation of McDermott, Lemkin joined the law faculty at Duke University in North Carolina in 1941.[33] 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, a preliminary version of what would become, in two years, his magnum opus, entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In 1943 Lemkin was appointed consultant to the US 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.[citation needed]

In November 1944, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. 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.[34] Lemkin's idea of genocide as an offence 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 book became one of the foundational texts in Holocaust studies, and the study of totalitarianism, mass violence, and genocide studies.[35]


"The origin of the word genocide" (CBS News)

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.[36] 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.[37]

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 9 December 1948.[38] 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.[39]

Lemkin's broader concerns over genocide, as set out in his Axis Rule,[40] also embraced what may be considered as non-physical, namely, psychological acts of genocide. The book also detailed the various techniques which had been employed to achieve genocide.[41]

Between 1953 and 1957, Lemkin worked directly with representatives of several governments, such as Egypt, to outlaw genocide under the domestic penal codes of these countries. Lemkin also worked with a team of lawyers from Arab delegations at the United Nations to build a case to prosecute French officials for genocide in Algeria.[42] He also recognized the Ukrainian Holodomor and applied the term 'genocide' in his 1953 article "Soviet Genocide in Ukraine", which he presented as a speech in New York City.[43] Lemkin stated that the Holodomor was the third prong of Soviet Russification of Ukraine.[44][45]

Death and legacy[edit]

In the last years of his life, Lemkin was living in poverty in a New York apartment.[46] In 1959, at the age of 59, he died of a heart attack in New York City.[47] After a well-attended funeral at Riverside Church,[48] he was buried in Flushing, Queens at Mount Hebron Cemetery.[49] At the time of his death, Lemkin left several unfinished works, including an Introduction to the Study of Genocide and an ambitious three-volume History of Genocide that contained seventy proposed chapters and a book-length analysis of Nazi war crimes at Nuremberg.[50]

The United States, Lemkin's adopted country, did not ratify the Genocide Convention during his lifetime. He believed that his efforts to prevent genocide had failed. "The fact is that the rain of my work fell on a fallow plain," he wrote, "only this rain was a mixture of the blood and tears of eight million innocent people throughout the world. Included also were the tears of my parents and my friends."[51] Lemkin was not widely known until the 1990s, when international prosecutions of genocide began in response to atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and "genocide" began to be understood as the crime of crimes.[52]


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, 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.[53]

In 1989 he was awarded, posthumously, the Four Freedoms Award for the Freedom of Worship.[54]

Lemkin is the subject of the plays Lemkin's House by Catherine Filloux (2005),[55] and If The Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty Against Genocide by Robert Skloot (2006).[56] He was also profiled in the 2014 American documentary film, Watchers of the Sky.

Every year, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (T’ruah) gives the Raphael Lemkin Human Rights Award to a layperson who draws on his or her Jewish values to be a human rights leader.[57]

On 20 November 2015, Lemkin's article Soviet genocide in Ukraine was added to the Russian index of "extremist publications," whose distribution in Russia is forbidden.[58][59]

On 15 September 2018 the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation (www.ucclf.ca) and its supporters in the US unveiled the world's first Ukrainian/English/Hebrew/Yiddish plaque honouring Lemkin for his recognition of the genocidal Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Soviet Ukraine, the Holodomor, at the Ukrainian Institute of America, in New York City, marking the 75th anniversary of Lemkin's address, "Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine".


  • The Polish Penal Code of 1932 and The Law of Minor Offenses. Translated by McDermott, Malcolm; Lemkin, Raphael. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 1939.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (1933). Acts Constituting a General (Transnational) Danger Considered as Offences Against the Law of Nations (5th Conference for the Unification of Penal Law). Madrid.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (1939). La réglementation des paiements internationaux; traité de droit comparé sur les devises, le clearing et les accords de paiements, les conflits des lois. Paris: A. Pedone.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (1942). Key laws, decrees and regulations issued by the Axis in occupied Europe. Washington: Board of Economic Warfare, Blockade and Supply Branch, Reoccupation Division.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (1943). Axis rule in occupied Europe : laws of occupation, analysis of government, proposals for redress. Clark, N.J: Lawbook Exchange. ISBN 978-1-58477-901-8.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (April 1945). "Genocide - A Modern Crime". Free World. New York. 9 (4): 39–43.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (April 1946). "The Crime of Genocide". American Scholar. 15 (2): 227–30.
  • "Genocide: A Commentary on the Convention". Yale Law Journal. 58 (7): 1142–56. June 1949. doi:10.2307/792930. JSTOR 792930.
  • Stone, Dan (2013). The Holocaust, Fascism, and memory : essays in the history of ideas (Chapt 2). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-137-02952-2.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (2014). Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine. Kingston: Kashtan Press.


  1. ^ When Lemkin was born, the town was part of the Russian Empire. During the Interwar period it was located in Poland. In 1939, it was transferred to Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and has been part of independent Belarus since 1991.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Raphael Lemkin and the Genocide Convention".
  2. ^ γένος, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  3. ^ Ishay 2008.
  4. ^ Jenkins 2008, p. 140.
  5. ^ Hyde, Jennifer (2 December 2008), Polish Jew gave his life defining, fighting genocide, CNN, retrieved 2 December 2008
  6. ^ "What is Genocide?". Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 7 February 2017. In 1944, Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term "genocide" in a book documenting Nazi policies of systematically destroying national and ethnic groups, including the mass murder of European Jews
  7. ^ "Operation Nemesis". NPR. 6 May 2021. Retrieved 23 September 2021.
  8. ^ "Coining a Word and Championing a Cause: The Story of Raphael Lemkin". Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 23 September 2021.
  9. ^ a b c Kornat 2010, p. 55.
  10. ^ Dan, Stone (2008). The Historiography of Genocide. Palgrave MacMillan. p. 10.
  11. ^ a b Power 2002, p. 20.
  12. ^ Szawłowski 2005, p. 102.
  13. ^ a b Schaller & Zimmerer 2009, p. 29.
  14. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.24
  15. ^ a b c d Power 2002, p. 21.
  16. ^ "NAPF Programs: Youth Outreach: Peace Heroes: Raphael Lemkin, by Holly A. Lukasiewicz". 10 February 2005. Archived from the original on 10 February 2005. Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  17. ^ Fogel, Joshua."Khayim-Nakhmen Byalik (Chaim Nachman, Hayim Nahman Bialik)". Yiddish Leksikon. Quote: "Noyekh un marinke (Noah and Marinka) (Warsaw, 1921)". Posted 7 January 2015, accessed 10 July 2022.
  18. ^ Sands, Phillipe (2016). East West Street. Penguin Randomhouse.
  19. ^ 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"

  20. ^ 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

  21. ^ 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."
  22. ^ "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.
  23. ^ "Genocide Background". Jewish World Watch. Archived from the original on 11 April 2015. Retrieved 11 April 2015. 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.
  24. ^ Raphael Lemkin – EuropaWorld, 22 June 2001
  25. ^ Korey, William (June–July 1989). "Raphael Lemkin: 'The Unofficial Man'". Midstream. pp. 45–48.
  26. ^ Irvin-Erickson, Douglas (2016). Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 36–37. ISBN 978-0-8122-9341-8.
  27. ^ Ihrig, Stefan (2016). Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler. Harvard University Press. p. 371. ISBN 978-0-674-50479-0.
  28. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.69
  29. ^ Philippe Sands, East West Street, p. 159
  30. ^ a b c Paul R. Bartrop. Modern Genocide: The Definitive Resource and Document Collection. Vol. I. ABC-CLIO. 2014. pp. 1301–1302.
  31. ^ Sands, p.165
  32. ^ Sands, Philippe (27 May 2016). "69". East West Street: On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes Against Humanity". New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-385-35071-6.
  33. ^ For more information on this period, see Bliwise, Robert. "The Man Who Criminalized Genocide". Duke Magazine. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
  34. ^ Lemkin, Raphael (1944). "IX: Genocide—A New Term and New Conception for Destruction of Nations". Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress. 700 Jackson Place, N. W. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Division of International Law. pp. 79–95. ISBN 9781584779018. Archived from the original on 29 August 2019.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  35. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.112
  36. ^ Irvin-Erickson, Douglas (October 2014). THE LIFE AND WORKS OF RAPHAEL LEMKIN: A POLITICAL HISTORY OF GENOCIDE IN THEORY AND LAW (Dissertation). Rutgers University. p. 363. Retrieved 28 October 2021.
  37. ^ Eshet (2007).
  38. ^ Winter, Jay (2017). "Citation The Genesis Of Genocide". MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. Vienna, Virginia: History.Net. 29 (3): 19.
  39. ^ The Genocide Convention
  40. ^ Fussell, Jim. "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Chapter IX: Genocide, by Raphael Lemkin, 1944 – – Prevent Genocide International". Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  41. ^ Fussell, Jim. "Sec. II of Chap. IX from "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe," by Raphael Lemkin, 1944 – – Prevent Genocide International". Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  42. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.217
  43. ^ Moses, A. Dirk (18 September 2012). Bloxham, Donald; Moses, A. Dirk (eds.). "Raphael Lemkin, Culture, and the Concept of Genocide". Oxford Handbooks Online. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232116.013.0002.
  44. ^ Antonovych, Myroslava (3 November 2015). "Legal Accountability for the Holodomor-Genocide of 1932–1933 (Great Famine) in Ukraine". Kyiv-Mohyla Law and Politics Journal (1): 159–176. doi:10.18523/kmlpj52663.2015-1.159-176. ISSN 2414-9942.
  45. ^ Cooper, John (2008), "The United Nations Resolution on Genocide", Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 76–87, doi:10.1057/9780230582736_6, ISBN 978-1-349-35468-9, retrieved 22 October 2021
  46. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.1
  47. ^ "Raphael Lemkin Collection". Center for Jewish History.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  48. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.229
  49. ^ Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide
  50. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.216
  51. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.1, 229
  52. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.1, 2
  53. ^ "Nomination Database – Raphael Lemkin". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  54. ^ "Four Freedoms Awards | Roosevelt Institute". Archived from the original on 25 March 2015. Retrieved 25 March 2015.
  55. ^ "Catherine Filloux – Playwright". Archived from the original on 25 October 2016. Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  56. ^ "If The Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty Against Genocide by Robert Skloot". Archived from the original on 13 April 2015. Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  57. ^ The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
  58. ^ "Федеральный список экстремистских материалов дорос до п. 3152". SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. Retrieved 28 November 2015.
  59. ^ "ФЕДЕРАЛЬНЫЙ СПИСОК ЭКСТРЕМИСТСКИХ МАТЕРИАЛОВ". The Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation. Retrieved 18 April 2017.


Further reading[edit]


  • Lemkin, Raphael, author; Frieze, Donna-Lee, editor (2013). Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin. Yale University Press, ISBN 0300186967.


External links[edit]