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1900 - 1959

Raphael Lemkin and the Quest to End Genocide

Center for Jewish History

Murder had a name. 

Why was it a named crime for one person to kill another, but not for a government to kill millions of people? Shouldn't states be held accountable for trying to destroy entire peoples — their lives, cultures and histories?

Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) campaigned for international laws against this crime.

He coined the term “genocide.”

UN General Assembly Pass, 1948. AJHS.

When Raphael Lemkin died in 1959, he left a trove of correspondence, papers documenting his work, and writings on the meaning and impact of genocide. 

The papers in this exhibit are held by the American Jewish Historical Society, one of the five partners of the Center for Jewish History. Through these papers, we can learn about the development of Lemkin's work and legacy.

Lemkin's most intense efforts focused on the drafting, adoption and ratification of the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention.

Though he survived the Holocaust, 49 of Lemkin's own family members were killed, including his parents. He worked to ensure that genocide had a name, and that international laws were in place to prevent and punish it.

Raphael Lemkin, date unknown. AJHS.

The headstone on Lemkin's grave in Mt. Hebron Cemetery, Queens reads: 

“The Father of the Genocide Convention.”

This is the story of his life and work.

Raphael Lemkin is sixteen in this photograph. AJHS.

Raphael Lemkin was born on June 24, 1900 in Bezwodene (near present-day Volkovysk, Belarus). By the time Lemkin attained adulthood, his birthplace had become part of the Republic of Poland. 

By the age of 14, Lemkin was fluent in nine languages, including English, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. 

He went on to study linguistics at the University of John Casimir in Lwow, Poland (present-day L'viv,  Ukraine). He also studied in Germany and completed his law degree in Poland.

Photo of the 2009 exhibition on Lemkin and his work

When Lemkin was still a young student in Poland, he became intrigued — and deeply troubled — by a murder case he learned about.

An Armenian youth was accused of murdering a Turkish official. The official was responsible for  the 1915 genocide of the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire.

One of Lemkin's research index cards on the genocide of the Armenian community. AJHS.

Why was it a named crime for one person to kill another, but not for a government to kill millions of people?

Raphael Lemkin first encountered the concept of intentionally destroying a group of people when he learned of the Turkish slaughter of Armenians. 

He was also affected by Quo Vadis, Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel about the persecution of Christians in Rome by Nero (37-68 CE).

In his autobiography, Lemkin cited the novel as a source of inspiration to protect minorities from persecution.

Letter from E. Nowinski with eyewitness testimony about the genocide of the Armenian community in 1915. AJHS.

Lemkin wrote of Quo Vadis: “Here was a group of people collectively sentenced to death for the only reason that they believed in Christ. And nobody could help them. I became so fascinated with the story that I looked up all the similar instances in history…”

Later in life, he used these — along with the cases of the 1933 slaughter of Christian Assyrians in Iraq and the centuries-long oppression of Christians in Japan — as case studies for his work on the legal concept of mass murder.

Another index card with research for Lemkin's unfinished manuscript, A History of Genocide. AJHS.

After earning his law degree, Lemkin served as a public prosecutor for the district court of Warsaw from 1929 to 1934. He played an important role in codifying Poland's penal codes.

In 1933, Lemkin wrote a paper for the Madrid meeting of the League of Nations, urging the delegation to condemn acts of vandalism and barbarity as crimes against humanity.

Lemkin proposed that the “destruction of national, religious and racial groups” should be declared “an international crime alongside piracy, slavery, and drug smuggling.”

He called for a ban on intentional group destruction but could not persuade the League of Nations to vote on it. It was 1933.

Lemkin's report for the Madrid meeting of the League of Nations, 1933. AJHS.

Raphael Lemkin's career suffered because of his pro-minority stance. Anti-Semitism was worsening in Poland. Shortly after the Madrid meeting, Lemkin was fired from his position as a public prosecutor.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin escaped to Sweden. He became a lecturer at the University of Stockholm.

Malcolm McDermott, a law professor, invited Lemkin to Duke University in North Carolina. In 1941, Lemkin arrived as a refugee on the east coast of the United States —after making an arduous journey through Russia, Siberia and Japan.

Soon after the United States entered World War II, the U.S. Army engaged Lemkin to teach classes in military government. He also became a consultant to the Board of Economic Warfare.

Letter from Joseph Lemkin in Wolkowysk to his son Raphael, May 25, 1941. AJHS.
Letter from Bella Lemkin in Wolkowysk to her son Raphael, May 25, 1941. AJHS.

These letters from May 25, 1941 may have been the last that Raphael Lemkin ever received from his parents. Lemkin, his brother, sister-in-law and two nephews survived the Holocaust (as it would come to be called). But he lost 49 family members, including his parents.

The Nazi state mobilized every branch of government to participate in intentional group annihilation. Genocide was carried out on an industrial scale. Death camps were established for the mass murder of human beings. In these killing centers, millions of men, women and children were murdered upon arrival or soon died from starvation, torture or disease.

From "The Protection of Basic Human Rights of Minorities in the Forthcoming Peace" by Raphael Lemkin. AJHS.

In 1944, Lemkin published his most important work, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, a legal analysis of Nazi-occupied Europe. In it he coined the term “genocide,” derived from the Greek “genos,” meaning tribe, and the Latin “cide,” meaning to kill.

Protection of Basic Human Rights. AJHS.

When the war was over, Lemkin served as an advisor to Robert Jackson, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Nuremberg Trial Judge. He fought to have the word genocide introduced into the trial record. His efforts were unsuccessful.

Protection of Basic Human Rights. AJHS.
Admission card to UN General Assembly, 1946. AJHS.

In 1946, Lemkin turned to the United Nations General Assembly in an effort to have the newly formed body condemn the act of genocide. 

He presented a draft resolution  to Cuba, India and Panama, persuading them to sponsor it. He also formed a committee to lobby 23 organizations around the world. A joint petition supporting the adoption of a Genocide Convention was presented to the delegates of the General Assembly.

Letter from Pearl S. Buck to Lemkin, introducing her "Draft of a Manifesto." AJHS.
Swedish Red Cross letter to Pearl S. Buck regarding the UN Genocide Convention, 1948. AJHS.

Lemkin's papers reflect that he had the support of notable people including Pearl S. Buck (left), Nobel-prize-winning American author. 

The cablegram on the right is from Buck and French writer Francois Mauriac to Ingeborg Refling Hagen, Norwegian author and anti-Nazi resistance fighter, urging her to join with them in calling upon the UN to pass a convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide.

Cablegram to Ingeborg Refling Hagen, September 3, 1947. AJHS.

The final draft of the resolution was approved by the General Assembly on December 11, 1946. It affirmed that genocide was a crime under international law and directed the Member States and the Social and Economic Council to draft a treaty to present to Member States for ratification.

From 1947-1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was hashed out with Lemkin's consultation. The draft was presented to the General Assembly from September to December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. It was unanimously adopted on December 9, 1948.

Telegram: "Convention Today Adopted Resolution on Genocide," July 9, 1948. AJHS.
Draft of a telegram from Raphael Lemkin in Paris to Mrs. William Dick Sporberg, a member of the United States Committee for a United Nations Genocide Convention, in New York, asking her to organize a cable campaign to influence the American delegation to the UN to support a genocide convention, ca. September to December 1948. AJHS.
Telegram from Guillermo Belt in Cuba to Raphael Lemkin in New York informing him that he has been awarded the Grand Cross of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Cuba's highest honor, April 8, 1949. AJHS.
Nation's Leaders Ask Ratification of Genocide Pact. AJHS.
UN Broadcast on Genocide, December 23, 1947. AJHS.

The fight wasn't over. Though the Convention was officially adopted by the United Nations in 1948, it was still necessary for 20 nation-states to ratify it. Just as he had lobbied tirelessly for the Convention’s adoption, Lemkin devoted himself to securing its ratification.

UN Broadcast on Genocide, December 23, 1947. AJHS.

By 1951, 25 nation-states had ratified the treaty, and the Convention was officially introduced into international law.  Since then, the Convention has been ratified by a total of 140 countries. 

Lemkin was disappointed that his adopted country, the United States, was not among the first to ratify the Convention. In the intensifying atmosphere of the Cold War, anti-UN sentiment and concerns about loss of sovereignty played a strong role in the opposition. Some worried that the law would permit the extradition of U.S. citizens to foreign countries, or that discrimination and violence against African-Americans could be considered genocide under its provisions.

(The U.S. finally ratified the Convention in 1988 — largely through the efforts of Democratic Senator William Proxmire. Over a 20-year period, the Senator gave over 3,000 speeches in the Senate, lobbying for the passage of the Convention.)

War Department ID: Raphael Lemkin, Adviser on Foreign Affairs. AJHS.

Many newspaper articles were written about Lemkin, and he was even nominated twice for a Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, his celebrity was short-lived. By the time he died of a heart attack on August 28, 1959, he was poverty-stricken. His funeral was attended by only a few people.

Lemkin's legacy, however, lives on. Through his insistence on the power of language, and his tireless efforts to protect minority groups, Lemkin played a key role in the creation of international laws that continue to make an impact today.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide has been a basis for prosecution and judgment in former Yugoslavia; the case of those responsible for genocidal acts against Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina; and in Rwanda, where genocide was perpetrated against the Tutsi minority by members of the Hutu Interhamwe militia and collaborators.

Representation of the detailed research Lemkin collected, from the 2009 exhibition on his work 

This exhibit features material from the American Jewish Historical Society, one of the five partners of the Center for Jewish History.

The History of Genocide Initiative is made possible through the generous support of The David Berg Foundation, The Einhorn Family Charitable Trust and The Pershing Square Foundation.

Credits: Exhibit

Content Curation, Exhibit Adaptation — Miriam R. Haier
Exhibit Curation, Scholar — Dr. Donna-Lee Frieze 
Digital Content Management — Laura E. Leone
Digitization — Staff of the Gruss Lipper Digital Laboratory, Center for Jewish History

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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