Raphael Lemkin believed in the rule of law. The absence of law, he argued, provided a shelter that allowed people to commit the most horrific of crimes — mass atrocities. Lemkin spent his life trying to convince the international community that law, and only law, could stop unspeakable cycles of violence. His dedication came from the recognition that — “It happened so many times” — the mass extermination of groups of people. Lemkin recognized a pattern from a very early age.
As a young Jewish lawyer in Poland, Lemkin watched Hitler’s rise to power with grave concern. In 1933, believing “a law” could stop Hitler, Lemkin submitted a proposal to the 5th International Conference for the Unification of Criminal Law (Lemkin’s “Madrid Report”). The proposal sought to outlaw the “premeditated destruction of racial, religious or social collectives.” Lemkin’s attempt to warn the international community was dismissed – his rationale virtually ignored.
Unable to convince his parents of the severity of the situation, Lemkin fled Poland alone in 1941 and made his way to America. He lost 49 members of his family to Nazi concentration camps.
Winston Churchill spoke with uneasiness and distress in 1941 when he said, “we are in the presence of a crime without a name.”
Winston’s Churchill’s suggestion that “we are in the presence of a crime without a name” in 1941, was a call to action for Lemkin. He immediately set out to find a word to appropriately describe the horrific nature of mass atrocities. Working furiously, Lemkin believed if he could create a word – if he could give “the crime” a name – the international community would be able to stop “the crime”. Lemkin settled on “genocide” by combining the Greek word “geno”, meaning group or families, with the Latin word “cide”, meaning killing.
With renewed energy, Lemkin quickly promoted the word “genocide” at the newly formed United Nations. He was a constant presence, chasing down delegates to talk about the “new word.” Raphael Lemkin finally realized success in 1948 after decades of working tirelessly. The UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide — which he helped draft and lobbied delegates to accept. However, Lemkin’s success was short-lived – the United States refused to ratify the convention.
Despite his commitment to humanity, Raphael Lemkin died alone and penniless, in 1959, in New York. Only a handful of people attended his funeral. He died almost as anonymously in New York as his family did in Nazi concentration camps.
The Beginning of Lemkin’s Pursuit
As a young teenage boy, Raphael Lemkin was deeply disturbed by the massacre of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. It was inconceivable to Lemkin that nearly 2 million innocent people could be exterminated simply because they were Christian. His obsession with understanding the Armenian genocide intensified when he realized that the perpetrators of the atrocities were not held accountable for their crimes.
Lemkin’s disbelief escalated when Soghomon Tehlirian, a young Armenian man, who witnessed the execution of his entire family, shot and killed Talaat Pasha, one of the chief architects of the Armenian genocide. Tehlirian was immediately arrested and prosecuted. Lemkin asked his mother a simple question:
“Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?”
This question haunted him. Lemkin believed that if a single individual could order the deaths of millions of people, then one person also had the power to prevent such violence. It is because of this that Lemkin made it his life’s work to end genocide.
A Snapshot of Lemkin’s Work