Raphael Lemkin Was a Remarkable Man

When he died, roughly 50 years ago at the age of 59, Raphael Lemkin was impoverished and embittered, an unnoticed man. Only 7 people attended his funeral. Yet he was one of the most influential international human rights lawyers of the twentieth century. Lemkin, whom Jay Winter describes in a recent piece as a “one-man NGO,” coined the word “genocide” for the destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, and was the driving force behind adoption of the UN Genocide Convention of 1948.

He came up with the term “genocide” in reflecting on the massacres of Armenian Christians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I–events we now know as the Armenian Genocide–but he had an example closer to home as well. A Polish Jew, he lost about 50 relatives in the Holocaust, and himself escaped the Nazis only after taking a bullet in the hip. He made his way to America, where he joined the law faculty at Duke, wrote his most important book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, and worked, successfully, for adoption of the UN Convention.

What explains his bitterness and isolation at the end? Lemkin was a loner and a difficult man; that was part of it, no doubt. And he could surely see, as Winter writes, that naming a crime, even legislating against a crime, does not necessarily reduce its frequency. It’s hard to argue that the Genocide Convention has been a great success. Still, Lemkin’s career had a public impact which most of us, especially in the legal academy, would be proud to claim.

I reflect on all this because, this month, Yale University Press releases Lemkin’s unfinished autobiography, Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin, edited by historian Donna-Lee Frieze. It looks very interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Among the greatest intellectual heroes of modern times, Raphael Lemkin lived an extraordinary life of struggle and hardship, yet altered international law and redefined the world’s understanding of group rights. He invented the concept and word “genocide” and propelled the idea into international legal status. An uncommonly creative pioneer in ethical thought, he twice was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Although Lemkin died alone and in poverty, he left behind a model for a life of activism, a legacy of major contributions to international law, and—not least—an unpublished autobiography. Presented here for the first time is his own account of his life, from his boyhood on a small farm in Poland with his Jewish parents, to his perilous escape from Nazi Europe, through his arrival in the United States and rise to influence as an academic, thinker, and revered lawyer of international criminal law.