Raphael Lemkin spent his life trying to get the world to pay attention to genocide. He died with hardly anyone knowing how much we owed him.
When Samantha Power worked at the White House during the first term of the Obama Administration, she had on her office wall a framed portrait of a little-known Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin. It was Power, perhaps more than anyone else, who had introduced Lemkin to a new generation with the publication of her 2002 book, A Problem from Hell, which includes several chapters on the inspirational story of the Holocaust escapee who coined the word “genocide” and successfully lobbied the new United Nations to approve the Genocide Convention in 1948.
Not only a sign of Power’s personal passion, Lemkin’s “presence” in the Obama White House also signaled a revival of interest in an important figure who died penniless, obscure, and mostly friendless more than 50 years ago. The first full-scale biography of Lemkin came out in 2008, followed in 2009 by a major scholarly conference about his thought at the Center for Jewish History in New York and an exhibition on his life at Yeshiva University Museum. At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where I work, Lemkin is featured in our installation on post-Holocaust genocide entitled “From Memory to Action,” an apt summary of the way he tried to turn his unique understanding of the past into political and legal change. No doubt the fascination with him has also been stoked by failures in recent decades to prevent mass killing in places like Rwanda or Darfur—and Syria today. The resurrection of Lemkin, the earliest proponent of genocide prevention, shows the enduring power of his single-minded mission to give meaning to the often-empty vow, “Never again.”
Now, after years in the archives, comes the publication of Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin. This work was near completion when he died unexpectedly in 1959. Drafts of the unfinished book have been available in the New York Public Library since 1982. An enterprising scholar, Donna-Lee Frieze, was inspired to review the material, and she pieced together a version that has now been published by Yale University Press, finally giving a broader audience access to Lemkin’s life in his own words. “To do something about the thing that is close to your heart became natural to me from early childhood,” Lemkin wrote. “I always wanted to shorten the distance between the heart and the deed.”
Such passion would inspire generations of human rights advocates and lead to the creation of one of the most significant international conventions of the postwar period. It would also set a threshold for action that has so far proved impossible for the world to meet.
Two narratives form the heart of his autobiography. The first, covered in the first half of the book, is the story of Lemkin’s remarkable escape from Poland, just ahead of the German occupation in 1939. The once-prosperous legal scholar and public prosecutor in Warsaw managed to slip the Nazi noose, fleeing first to neighboring Lithuania, then to Stockholm, and finally—after a train trip across the Soviet Union and passage across the Pacific—to the United States in 1941.
At times, his account reads like a movie script. Lemkin boarded one of the last trains out of Warsaw in September 1939 and survived the bombing of the rail cars. He jumped off the train and, after weeks of trekking through forest on foot and avoiding German killing squads, reached his parents’ home in the eastern part of Poland. Abandoning his city clothes and donning peasant garb in order to blend in with the fleeing masses, Lemkin convinced a skeptical Soviet soldier ready to arrest him to allow him to continue his escape. During his flight, Lemkin tried unsuccessfully to persuade complacent friends and family to come with him, arguing that the consequences of remaining would be horrific. One Jewish baker who sheltered Lemkin told him he had not heard of Mein Kampf and, even if he had chanced to read it, would not have believed Hitler intended to annihilate the Jews. “I grant you some Jews will suffer under Hitler,” his friend allowed, “but this is the lot of the Jews, to suffer and to wait.”
The autobiography and independent accounts of Lemkin’s life underscore his foresight about the Nazi threat, something worth considering today given the tremendous difficulty both policy-makers and the public have in recognizing even the most obvious risks of mass atrocities. One of the more interesting vignettes of Lemkin’s autobiography recounts his little-remembered efforts in 1933, just as the Nazis were taking power, to bring an early version of language outlawing genocide before a League of Nations conference in Madrid. Clearly concerned about the Nazi takeover, Lemkin prepared a paper outlawing acts of barbarism (“destroying a national or religious collectivity”) and vandalism (“destroying works of culture”). Anxious to maintain decent relations with the Nazis, Polish authorities prevented Lemkin from presenting his document in person, and Lemkin’s proposal was dropped. But as he put it, “I had at least started a movement of ideas in the right direction.”
Lemkin’s fears regarding the Nazis increased after his flight from Poland to Stockholm, where he collected and read legal gazettes from territories occupied by the German Reich. “I knew I could read the intentions of the Nazi government only from legal enactments such as decrees and ordinances,” he wrote. “A decree is objective and irrefutable evidence.” He was also shaped by his reading of Mein Kampf, in which Hitler, comparing Jews to vermin, announced his intent to remove them from Germany. “Hitler was one of the few statesmen in history who proclaimed his intention many years before he took power,” Lemkin stated. “Yet the statesmen of the democracies either did not read him or did not believe him. They were like my baker friend … who refused to believe Hitler’s intentions because they were opposed to his old-fashioned thinking.”
Lemkin arrived in Seattle on April 18, 1941, and took a train to Durham, North Carolina, where he assumed a position at Duke University. By getting to the United States, Lemkin hoped to alert the authorities to the real aims of Nazi war policy. This was not merely a war to redraw frontiers, Lemkin believed, but one aimed at the “alteration of the human element within these frontiers”—a war, in essence, of annihilation. But as he sadly recognized, “The Nazi plan was so outrageous that nobody would believe it in time to try to forestall it.” The resourceful Lemkin spoke to many groups about his forebodings and secured audiences with very senior U.S. officials, including Vice President Henry Wallace. He was even asked to prepare a one-page document for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which Lemkin chose to devote to a plea for a treaty outlawing genocide, thinking that it might send a warning to Hitler. But such a suggestion was unlikely to appeal to the practical-minded President, then waging a war against two formidable adversaries. In response to Lemkin, Roosevelt said that it was not the time for such a treaty. He counseled patience and said a warning would be issued later. “‘Patience’ is a good word for when one expects an appointment, a budgetary allocation, or the building of a road,” Lemkin observed. “But when the rope is already around the neck of the victim and strangulation is imminent, isn’t the word ‘patience’ an insult to reason and nature?”
By the end of 1942, Roosevelt and the Allies had received incontrovertible evidence of the Nazi death camps and Hitler’s policy of annihilating the Jews. Lemkin had been warning of such a possibility for nearly a decade. Few contemporaries saw so clearly the danger Hitler posed in 1933, not just for the peace of Europe but also for the future of the Jewish people. Lemkin’s prescience derived from his deep, lifelong interest in and study of genocide, mass killing, and genocidal regimes, and, perhaps too, from the experience of growing up as a Jew in the shadow of mass murder in Eastern Europe. In the autobiography, Lemkin tells of a brutal pogrom in Białystok, just a few miles from the small farm where he grew up. “The mobs had opened the stomachs of their victims and stuffed them with the feathers from the pillows,” he wrote. Such experiences formed Lemkin’s deep pessimism about the nature of regimes in his part of the world.
The second half of Totally Unofficial focuses on Lemkin’s efforts, after the end of World War II, to persuade the new United Nations to approve a convention defining and outlawing the crime of genocide, a project that he had in mind well before the war began. As Lemkin tells it, his interest in the subject started as a young child in Poland, when he read of Nero’s persecution of the Christians for “no reason except that they believed in Christ.” Lemkin was also obsessed by the story of the Armenian genocide, which received widespread attention when he was growing up. In particular, he was struck by the discrepancy in how the authorities treated the Turkish leaders responsible for the mass murder and the young man who assassinated one of the ringleaders of the genocide, Talaat Pasha, in Berlin after the war. The assassin would be freed on grounds of insanity after a trial, but Lemkin was astonished that the organizers of the Armenian genocide were released without even being tried by the victors of World War I. “Why is a man punished when he kills another man, yet the killing of a million is a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?” he asked.
Lemkin’s careful study of the rich trove of documents concerning the German occupation of Europe inspired his landmark work, 1944’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It was in this volume that Lemkin first introduced the word “genocide,” which he derived from the Greek word for race or tribe (genos) and the Latin for killing (cide). It was his effort to respond to Churchill’s famous remark in a wartime radio broadcast that the Nazi crimes had “no name.” By assigning a name to the crime, Lemkin hoped to galvanize political leaders into addressing a problem that, he argued, long preceded the Holocaust, and which, he emphasized, applied in many other historical situations—namely the intentional destruction of national, religious, ethnic, and racial groups.
In his autobiography, Lemkin devotes a great deal of attention to the United Nations proceedings in Geneva and Paris in 1948, where he was a constant presence on the sidelines at the meetings of delegates considering the adoption of a new convention to prevent and punish this newly named crime. Lemkin drafted language, plotted strategy, and sought to shape public opinion through careful cultivation of the press. Although regarded by many delegates as an “unmitigated nuisance,” in the words of a contemporary New York Times correspondent, Lemkin was also politically agile. He knew when compromise was required, such as when he went along with excluding “political groups” from protection under the new convention, in order to secure the support of the Soviet Union and its satellites. He cultivated unlikely allies among Muslim and Latin American countries. He also maintained enough self-awareness to restrain his impulse to hector delegates at all times of the day. “I did not want to lose the intimacy of some of the delegates, whom I had learned to love dearly,” Lemkin wrote. “So I went to receptions, drank cocktails and danced, joked and refused to speak about genocide. When somebody would start a conversation about the convention, I would simply ask, ‘Genocide, what’s that?’ They laughed, and I laughed too.”
Lemkin’s machinations paid off. The Genocide Convention was approved by members of the United Nations in Paris on December 9, 1948. Lemkin himself was so overwhelmed by exhaustion from working on the convention—“genociditis,” he called it—that he checked himself into a hospital for three weeks. Even after he was released, he found it difficult to make more than small talk with friends and colleagues. “Instinctively, I was defending myself against something which, I thought, almost destroyed me in Paris,” he wrote.
The story, of course, did not end there. It was another 40 years before the U.S. Senate would ratify the convention, a saga that does not figure in his autobiography but clearly vexed him. Lemkin himself would largely disappear from the public eye. According to Frieze, he was in poor health for much of his life, suffering from high blood pressure. He lived alone, having lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust and never having married. His full-time lobbying on the convention required him to give up his paid teaching positions at universities. By his own account, he had to borrow money to buy food and went hungry when he could not.
In 1959, Lemkin collapsed at a bus stop on 42nd Street in New York City and died of heart failure. Only a handful of mourners attended the funeral, including just two diplomats who had worked with him, according to the Lemkin biography by John Cooper. He was buried in a Queens cemetery under a simple epitaph: “Dr. Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) the Father of the Genocide Convention.”
Sixty-five years after the adoption of his Genocide Convention, it is fair to ask whether Lemkin succeeded in his ultimate mission. Despite approval of the convention, genocide and other forms of mass murder have continued to occur with a frequency and scale that shock the conscience. It took years to set up the tribunals necessary to try most genocide cases, and there have only been a handful of successful prosecutions, most notably those involving the Rwandan genocide and the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
Moreover, Lemkin’s obsession with group-targeted violence helped lead to inadequate recognition of other atrocities, like crimes against humanity, which include a variety of inhumane acts—such as murder, torture, or enslavement—that are part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations. Meanwhile, his strong faith in legal remedies to the problem of genocide can seem at times naïve. Preventing genocide requires much stronger attention to other tools, such as early warning, economic sanctions, “naming and shaming,” diplomacy, and, as a last resort, military intervention. None of this is discussed in any detail in his autobiography.
Lemkin, however, was not unmindful of the need for other tactics to make real the promise of the Genocide Convention, which obligates signatories not only to punish but also to prevent genocide. “It will take a long time before results are noticeable,” he recalled telling Yale students. “The Genocide Convention is only a framework for this task, a rallying point for thinking and acting.”
That long-term perspective is a useful antidote to despair. If genocide was perpetrated long before the Holocaust, as Lemkin argued in his autobiography, it is not reasonable to think that either a legal treaty or an international criminal jurisdiction will put perpetrators out of business in a generation, or even two or three. But what does matter is whether steady progress is being made toward the ultimate goal. And in this respect, his legacy seems secure: Lemkin as much as anyone helped establish the new legal and political norms by which nation-states must now live. No longer do nations routinely avert their gaze from persecuted or threatened minorities in other states, as they did in the 1930s toward the Jews in Germany. No longer do we routinely accept, as we did before World War II, that egregious human-rights violations in other countries are not our business (even if our responses are too often unsatisfactory). Perpetrators have some reasonable expectation that they may end up in the dock of a criminal tribunal or live out their lives on the run; even heads of state are no longer immune, as the experiences of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, and Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir show us. Very significant too has been the rise of a robust and effective human-rights advocacy movement, refining the tactics that Lemkin helped pioneer in 1947 and ’48 to put much greater pressure on world governments to live up to the commitments of the Genocide Convention and the other human-rights agreements that emerged in the post-World War II era.
The events of the past several years have posed a deep challenge to those who want to give real meaning to the Genocide Convention. We have collectively failed on a massive scale in Syria, where as of this writing more than 100,000 have died, millions more have been displaced, and, according the United Nations, numerous atrocities have taken place. Bashar al-Assad, like Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s, gassed his own people and has so far paid no penalty. It is hard to watch these events transpire and feel confident that real progress has been made since 1945.
Still, on the whole, if Lemkin were to return today, I do think he might be cautiously pleased with the results of his handiwork. But he would not be complacent. He would be impatient with the continued evasions of our leaders. He would see much unfinished business, not least the continual need for engaging a public whose support for humanitarian action remains uneven, even weak, as it was in Lemkin’s time. The reasons for this caution are understandable, but the reality remains that persuading the American public that preventing genocide is in our national security interest, as President Obama argued in a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum last year, will be a hard sell for the foreseeable future.
One of the most revealing portions of Lemkin’s autobiography involves his frustration over his inability to persuade Roosevelt and other U.S. leaders to take more aggressive action against Nazi atrocities. “I realized I was following the wrong path,” he wrote. “In a matter of such magnitude, where the lives of entire nations are involved, I should not rely on statesmen alone. Statesmen were messing up the world, and when it seemed to them that they were drowning in the mud of their own making they rushed to extricate themselves. They lived in perpetual sin with history.”
“But the people are different,” he added. “In a democracy they are supposed to make the final decisions.” He never quite figured out how to convince “the people” that preventing genocide was not only the moral thing to do, but that it was also in their best interest. Sixty-five years after Lemkin facilitated the birth of the Genocide Convention, that remains perhaps his—and our—biggest piece of unfinished business.
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