Who is Raphael Lemkin?

If “Raphael Lemkin” was a Jeopardy answer, the question might be, “who coined the word “genocide”? I’ve been reading Samantha Powers’ A Problem From Hell and the first part of the book is a fascinating account of the life and struggle of this Jewish lawyer from Poland to awaken the world’s conscience to systematic efforts to exterminate groups of human beings and to prevent further occurrences of such events.

His earliest exposure to this issue came with his study of Turkish efforts to eliminate the Armenian population in Turkey. In 1933, as an international lawyer, he made a presentation on The Crime of Barbarity at a League of Nations conference in Madrid. Nothing was done, and little did he, or the other delegates realize that they would soon witness one of the greatest examples of “barbarity” in human history–one Lemkin barely escaped and which took the lives of his parents and several other family members when the Nazis invaded eastern Poland.  All told, he lost 49 relatives to the Holocaust.


In the US, he became a tireless crusader to raise awareness of the Holocaust and create international structures to prevent similar occurrences in the future. Along the way, he recognized that there was no single word that adequately captured the particular phenomenon of seeking to extermination of a particular people that was universally adequate. Lemkin, who knew fourteen languages, and was something of a philologist recognized the power of words and arrived at the term “genocide” combining the Greek genos (family, tribe, race) with the Latin -cide (killing).

He succeeded in enshrining this word in the UN Genocide Convention of 1948 and saw it ratified by over 20 countries (but not the US) before his death in 1959.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day and so it seems fitting on this day to remember Raphael Lemkin, who did so much to fight genocide, and who lost so much to the Holocaust.

[This post was written in 2014. In 2015 Holocaust Remembrance Day was April 16. A calendar of Holocaust Remembrance Days for subsequent years may be found here.]


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