Raphael Lemkin

The Raphael Lemkin Award of the Institute for the Study of Genocide honors a pioneer in social justice. Raphael Lemkin, an attorney descended from Polish Jews, lived from 1900-1959 through two world wars and the Great Depression. Born in Imperial Russia before the October Revolution, he saw his related ethnic groups suffer atrocities in the early 20th century. This added later to his interest in the larger problem of genocide, a word he created from genos (Greek: race) and –cide (Latin: killing).

During his graduate law education, he focused on the 1915 Armenian Genocide (ch. 1) of WWI and advocated its abolition in the League of Nations. He took on the case of Soghomon Tehlirian, assassin of a former Turkish Minister of the Interior as revenge for his role in the Armenian Genocide. Lemkin moved on to champion victims of the 1933 massacre of Christian Assyrians by Iraqis and then advocated for the minorities targeted by Nazis in Europe (ch. 2), especially Jews and the Poles. Joining the Polish Army, he himself lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust. His studies and his life experiences drove him on.

It was difficult to convince America, other Allies, and the world that a Holocaust was actually occurring (ch. 3), partly due to anti-Semitism in many regions. Additionally, major nations were concentrating to fight back the Nazis and the Japanese in two theaters, with little notice at first of the plight of the Jews and the ghetto Poles. Knowing that this was all fact, Lemkin campaigned to educate the world about mass murder by naming it genocide and giving it the darkest personality.

In 1944, he published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, with his definition of this atrocity and continued to advocate his case against it publically. He spoke and wrote documents calling for the world to outlaw it through the United Nations. Humans’ committing same-species mass murder and psychological abuse against minority and ethnic groups was unnatural, twisted, and immoral. In light of his advocacy, he changed teaching and advising positions under political pressure to stop stirring up dissension, finally moving to USA in 1941. After his 1944 publication, he was able to become advisor to the US Supreme Court in the Nuremburg trials in which genocide was tried for two years.

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American policymakers did not wish to speak out against genocide or have responsibility for leading a movement against it. A large-scale military strike would — and did — cost many lives, dollars, and criticisms. It required a national commitment to Jews long-term and the related criticism. Lemkin continually spoke about genocide, finally bringing about the 1948 U.N.

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948 (ch. 4), in the same year that Israel became a nation. Unfortunately, Lemkin’s last years suffered much opposition from policymakers who did not want to continue efforts against genocide. However, Senator William Proxmire and President Ronald Reagan provided additional impetus some time later for the successful ratification of Lemkin’s Genocide Convention (ch. 5). Lemkin had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded other honors, and accomplished much. Thus, he likely believed that justice would finally win out over genocide in the second half of the 20th century, spurred on by the foundation of his accumulated actions and their results.

References

Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. Chapters 1-5

(17-78).

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