Raphael Lemkin

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Raphael Lemkin
Rafał Lemkin
Raphael Lemkin, Photograph 6.jpg
Born(1900-06-24)24 June 1900
Died28 August 1959(1959-08-28) (aged 59)
Known for

Raphael Lemkin (Polish: Rafał Lemkin; 24 June 1900 – 28 August 1959) was a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent who is best known for coining the word genocide and initiating the Genocide Convention. Lemkin coined the word genocide in 1943 or 1944 from genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and -cide (Latin for killing).[1][2][3][4]


Early years

Lemkin was born Rafał Lemkin on 24 June 1900 in Bezwodne, a village in the Volkovyssky Uyezd of the Grodno Governorate of the Russian Empire (present-day Belarus).[5][6][Note 1] He grew up in a Polish Jewish family on a large farm near Wolkowysk and was one of three children born to Joseph Lemkin and Bella née Pomeranz.[5][7] His father was a farmer and his mother an intellectual, a painter, linguist, and philosophy student with a large collection of books on literature and history.[8] Lemkin and his two brothers (Elias and Samuel) were homeschooled by their mother.[5] As a youth, Lemkin was fascinated by the subject of atrocities and would often question his mother about such events as the Sack of Carthage, Mongol invasions and conquests and the persecution of Huguenots.[7][9] Lemkin apparently came across the concept of mass atrocities while, at the age of 12, reading Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, in particular the passage where Nero threw Christians to the lions.[9] During World War I, the Lemkin family farm was located in an area of fighting between Russian and German troops.[10] The family buried their books and valuables before taking shelter in a nearby forest.[10] During the fighting, artillery fire destroyed their home and German troops seized their crops, horses and livestock.[10] Lemkin's brother Samuel eventually died of pneumonia and malnutrition while the family remained in the forest.[10]

After graduating from a local trade school in Białystok he began the study of linguistics at the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine). He was a polyglot, fluent in nine languages and reading fourteen.[11] His first published book was a 1926 translation of the Hayim Nahman Bialik novella Noach i Marynka from Hebrew into Polish.[12] It was in Bialystok that Lemkin became interested in the concept of crime, later developing the concept of genocide, based on the Armenian experience at the hands of the Ottoman Turks,[13][14][15][16][17][failed verification] then later the experience of Assyrians[18] massacred in Iraq during the 1933 Simele massacre. Lemkin then moved on to Heidelberg University in Germany to study philosophy, returned to Lwów to study law in 1926, becoming a prosecutor in Warsaw at graduation.

His subsequent career as assistant prosecutor in the District Court of Brzeżany (since 1945 Berezhany, Ukraine) and Warsaw, followed by a private legal practice in Warsaw, did not divert Lemkin from elaborating rudiments of international law dealing with group exterminations.[19]

Career in interwar Poland

2008 plaque commemorating Lemkin's prewar residence, 6 Kredytowa Street, Warsaw, Poland

From 1929 to 1934, Lemkin was the Public Prosecutor for the district court of Warsaw. In 1930 he was promoted to Deputy Prosecutor in a local court in Brzeżany. While Public Prosecutor, Lemkin was also secretary of the Committee on Codification of the Laws of the Republic of Poland, which codified the penal codes of Poland, and taught law at Tachkemoni College in Warsaw. Lemkin, working with Duke University law professor Malcolm McDermott, translated The Polish Penal Code of 1932 from Polish to English.

In 1933 Lemkin made a presentation to the Legal Council of the League of Nations conference on international criminal law in Madrid, for which he prepared an essay on the Crime of Barbarity as a crime against international law. The concept of the crime, which later evolved into the idea of genocide, was based on the Armenian Genocide[13][14][15][16][17] and prompted by the experience of Assyrians[18] massacred in Iraq during the 1933 Simele massacre.[20] In 1934 Lemkin, under pressure from the Polish Foreign Minister for comments made at the Madrid conference, resigned his position and became a private solicitor in Warsaw. While in Warsaw, Lemkin attended numerous lectures organized by the Free Polish University, including the classes of Emil Stanisław Rappaport and Wacław Makowski.

In 1937, Lemkin was appointed a member of the Polish mission to the 4th Congress on Criminal Law in Paris, where he also introduced the possibility of defending peace through criminal law. Among the most important of his works of that period are a compendium of Polish criminal fiscal law, Prawo karne skarbowe (1938) and a French-language work, La réglementation des paiements internationaux, regarding international trade law (1939).

During WWII

He left Warsaw on 6 September 1939 and made his way towards Wolkowysk, north east of Lwow, caught between the Germans in the west, and the Soviets, who now approached from the east, Poland's independence extinguished by the pact between Stalin and Hitler.[21] He barely evaded capture by the Germans and traveled through Lithuania to reach Sweden[22] by the early spring of 1940 where he lectured at the University of Stockholm. Curious about the manner of imposition of Nazi rule he started to gather Nazi decrees and ordinances, believing official documents often reflected underlying objectives without stating them explicitly. He spent much time in the central library of Stockholm, gathering, translating and analysing the documents he collected, looking for patterns of German behaviour. Lemkin's work led him to see the wholesale destruction of the nations over which Germans took control as an overall aim. Some documents Lemkin analysed had been signed by Hitler, implementing ideas of Mein Kampf on Lebensraum, new living space to be inhabited by Germans.[23] With the help of his pre-war associate McDermott, Lemkin received permission to enter[24] the United States, arriving in 1941.[22]

Although he managed to save his life, he lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust;[22] The only European members of Lemkin's family who survived the Holocaust were his brother, Elias, and his wife and two sons, who had been sent to a Soviet forced labor camp. Lemkin did however successfully help his brother and family to emigrate to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1948.

After arriving in the United States, at the invitation of McDermott, Lemkin joined the law faculty at Duke University in North Carolina in 1941.[25] During the Summer of 1942 Lemkin lectured at the School of Military Government at the University of Virginia. He also wrote Military Government in Europe, which was a preliminary version of his more fully developed publication Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In 1943 Lemkin was appointed consultant to the US Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration and later became a special adviser on foreign affairs to the War Department, largely due to his expertise in international law.

In November 1944, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published Lemkin's most important work, entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in the United States. This book included an extensive legal analysis of German rule in countries occupied by Nazi Germany during the course of World War II, along with the definition of the term genocide.[26] Lemkin's idea of genocide as an offence against international law was widely accepted by the international community and was one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials. In 1945 to 1946, Lemkin became an advisor to Supreme Court of the United States Justice and Nuremberg Trial chief counsel Robert H. Jackson. The book became one of the foundational texts in Holocaust studies, and the study of totalitarianism, mass violence, and genocide studies.[27]


"The origin of the word genocide" (CBS News)

After the war, Lemkin chose to remain in the United States. Starting in 1948, he gave lectures on criminal law at Yale University. In 1955, he became a Professor of Law at Rutgers School of Law in Newark. Lemkin also continued his campaign for international laws defining and forbidding genocide, which he had championed ever since the Madrid conference of 1933. He proposed a similar ban on crimes against humanity during the Paris Peace Conference of 1945, but his proposal was turned down.

Lemkin presented a draft resolution for a Genocide Convention treaty to a number of countries, in an effort to persuade them to sponsor the resolution. With the support of the United States, the resolution was placed before the General Assembly for consideration. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was formally presented and adopted on 9 December 1948.[28] In 1951, Lemkin only partially achieved his goal when the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide came into force, after the 20th nation had ratified the treaty.

Lemkin's broader concerns over genocide, as set out in his Axis Rule,[29] also embraced what may be considered as non-physical, namely, psychological acts of genocide. The book also detailed the various techniques which had been employed to achieve genocide.[30]

Between 1953 and 1957, Lemkin worked directly with representatives of several governments, such as Egypt, to outlaw genocide under the domestic penal codes of these countries. Lemkin also worked with a team of lawyers from Arab delegations at the United Nations to build a case to prosecute French officials for genocide in Algeria.[31]


Lemkin died of a heart attack at the public relations office of Milton H. Blow in New York City in 1959, at the age of 59. Lemkin's funeral was well attended at Riverside Church in NYC.[32] He was buried in Mount Hebron Cemetery, Flushing, Queens, New York.[33]


Influence of the Armenian Genocide

Over one million Armenians died in the Armenian Genocide, which took place between the years of 1915 and 1917. Lemkin's interest in prosecuting the perpetrators was sparked when he first learned about the genocide during his studies at University of Lwów (from which he graduated in 1926). In his autobiography, Lemkin wrote that he had been influenced by the 15 March 1921 assassination of Talaat Pasha:

Then one day I read in the newspapers that all Turkish war criminals were to be released... The Turkish criminals released from Malta dispersed all over the world. The most frightful among them was Talaat Pasha, the minister of the interior of Turkey, who was identified with the destruction of the Armenian people... One day he was stopped in the street by a young Armenian with the name Tehlirian. After identifying Talaat Pasha, Tehlirian shot him saying, 'This is for my mother.'[34]

This event became a topic of discussion for Lemkin during his studies on the topic of sovereignty at Lwów: "Sovereignty… 'cannot be conceived as the right to kill millions of people." [34] The murder of Talaat Pasha and trial of Tehlirian prompted Lemkin's future path. Lemkin wrote: "At that moment, my worries about the murder of the innocent became more meaningful to me. I didn't know all the answers but I felt that a law against this type of racial or religious murder must be adopted by the world." [34]

Views on the Ukrainian Great Famine (Holodomor)

Commemorative (propagation) poster issued by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, 2015

In 1953, in a speech given in New York City, Lemkin described the Holodomor as one part of "perhaps the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification—the destruction of the Ukrainian nation", going on to point out that "the Ukrainian is not and never has been a Russian. His culture, his temperament, his language, his religion, are all different... to eliminate (Ukrainian) nationalism... the Ukrainian peasantry was sacrificed...a famine was necessary for the Soviet and so they got one to order... if the Soviet program succeeds completely, if the intelligentsia, the priest, and the peasant can be eliminated [then] Ukraine will be as dead as if every Ukrainian were killed, for it will have lost that part of it which has kept and developed its culture, its beliefs, its common ideas, which have guided it and given it a soul, which, in short, made it a nation... This is not simply a case of mass murder. It is a case of genocide, of the destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation."[35]

On 20 September 1953, as part of a protest in New York, The Ukrainian Weekly reported a speech by Lemkin:

An inspiring address was delivered at the rally by Prof. Raphael Lemkin, author of the United Nations Convention against Genocide, that is, deliberate mass murder of peoples by their oppressors. Prof. Lemkin reviewed in a moving fashion the fate of the millions of Ukrainians before and after 1932–33, who died victims to the Soviet Russian plan to exterminate as many of them as possible in order to break the heroic Ukrainian national resistance to Soviet Russian rule and occupation and to Communism.[citation needed]


For his work on international law and the prevention of war crimes, Lemkin received a number of awards, including the Cuban Grand Cross of the Order of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes in 1950, the Stephen Wise Award of the American Jewish Congress in 1951, and the Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1955. On the 50th anniversary of the Convention entering into force, Lemkin was also honored by the UN Secretary-General as "an inspiring example of moral engagement." He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize ten times.[36]

In 1989 he was awarded, posthumously, the Four Freedoms Award for the Freedom of Worship.[37]

Lemkin is the subject of the plays Lemkin's House by Catherine Filloux (2005),[38] and If The Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty Against Genocide by Robert Skloot (2006).[39] He was also profiled in the 2014 American documentary film, Watchers of the Sky.

Every year, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (T’ruah) gives the Raphael Lemkin Human Rights Award to a layperson who draws on his or her Jewish values to be a human rights leader.[40]

On 20 November 2015, Lemkin's article Soviet genocide in Ukraine was added to the Russian index of "extremist publications", whose distribution in Russia is forbidden.[41][42]

On 15 September 2018 the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation ( and its supporters in the US unveiled the world's first Ukrainian/English/Hebrew/Yiddish plaque honouring Lemkin for his recognition of the genocidal Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Soviet Ukraine, the Holodomor, at the Ukrainian Institute of America, in New York City, marking the 75th anniversary of Lemkin's address, "Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine".


  • The Polish Penal Code of 1932 and The Law of Minor Offenses. Translated by McDermott, Malcolm; Lemkin, Raphael. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 1939.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (1933). Acts Constituting a General (Transnational) Danger Considered as Offences Against the Law of Nations (5th Conference for the Unification of Penal Law). Madrid.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (1939). La réglementation des paiements internationaux; traité de droit comparé sur les devises, le clearing et les accords de paiements, les conflits des lois. Paris: A. Pedone.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (1942). Key laws, decrees and regulations issued by the Axis in occupied Europe. Washington: Board of Economic Warfare, Blockade and Supply Branch, Reoccupation Division.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (2008). Axis rule in occupied Europe : laws of occupation, analysis of government, proposals for redress. Clark, N.J: Lawbook Exchange. ISBN 978-1-58477-901-8.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (April 1945). "Genocide - A Modern Crime". Free World. New York. 9 (4): 39–43.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (April 1946). "The Crime of Genocide". American Scholar. 15 (2): 227–230.
  • "Genocide: A Commentary on the Convention". Yale Law Journal. 58 (7): 1142–56. June 1949. doi:10.2307/792930. JSTOR 792930.
  • Stone, Dan (2013). The Holocaust, Fascism, and memory : essays in the history of ideas (Chapt 2). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-137-02952-2.
  • Lemkin, Raphael, Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine (Kingston: Kashtan Press, 2014)

See also


  1. ^ When Lemkin was born, the town was part of the Russian Empire. During the Interwar period it was located in Poland. In 1939, it was transferred to Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and has been part of independent Belarus since 1991.



  1. ^ Ishay 2008.
  2. ^ Jenkins 2008, p. 140.
  3. ^ Hyde, Jennifer (2 December 2008), Polish Jew gave his life defining, fighting genocide, CNN, retrieved 2 December 2008
  4. ^ "What is Genocide?". Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 7 February 2017. In 1944, Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term "genocide" in a book documenting Nazi policies of systematically destroying national and ethnic groups, including the mass murder of European Jews
  5. ^ a b c Kornat 2010, p. 55.
  6. ^ Dan, Stone (2008). The Historiography of Genocide. Palgrave MacMillan. p. 10.
  7. ^ a b Power 2002, p. 20.
  8. ^ Szawłowski 2005, p. 102.
  9. ^ a b Schaller & Zimmerer 2009, p. 29.
  10. ^ a b c d Power 2002, p. 21.
  11. ^ "NAPF Programs: Youth Outreach: Peace Heroes: Raphael Lemkin, by Holly A. Lukasiewicz". 10 February 2005. Archived from the original on 10 February 2005. Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  12. ^ Sands, Phillipe (2016). East West Street. Penguin Randomhouse.
  13. ^ a b Yair Auron. The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide. — Transaction Publishers, 2004. — p. 9:

    ...when Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide in 1944 he cited the 1915 annihilation of Armenians as a seminal example of genocide"

  14. ^ a b William Schabas. Genocide in international law: the crimes of crimes. — Cambridge University Press, 2000. — p. 25:

    Lemkin's interest in the subject dates to his days as a student at Lvov University, when he intently followed attempts to prosecute the perpetration of the massacres of the Armenians

  15. ^ a b A. Dirk Moses. Genocide and settler society: frontier violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian history. — Berghahn Books, 2004. — p. 21:"Indignant that the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide had largely escaped prosecution, Lemkin, who was a young state prosecutor in Poland, began lobbying in the early 1930s for international law to criminalize the destruction of such groups."
  16. ^ a b "Coining a Word and Championing a Cause: The Story of Raphael Lemkin". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), Holocaust Encyclopedia. Lemkin's memoirs detail early exposure to the history of Ottoman attacks against Armenians (which most scholars believe constitute genocide), antisemitic pogroms, and other histories of group-targeted violence as key to forming his beliefs about the need for legal protection of groups.
  17. ^ a b "Genocide Background". Jewish World Watch. Archived from the original on 11 April 2015. Retrieved 11 April 2015. The Armenian genocide (1915–1923) was the first of the 20th century to capture world-wide attention; in fact, Raphael Lemkin coined his term genocide in reference to the mass murder of ethnic Armenians by the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire.
  18. ^ a b Raphael Lemkin – EuropaWorld, 22/6/2001
  19. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.69
  20. ^ William Korey, "Raphael Lemkin: 'The Unofficial Man'," Midstream, June–July 1989, p. 45–48
  21. ^ Philippe Sands, East West Street, p. 159
  22. ^ a b c Paul R. Bartrop. Modern Genocide: The Definitive Resource and Document Collection. Vol. I. ABC-CLIO. 2014. pp. 1301–1302.
  23. ^ Sands, p.165
  24. ^ Sands, Philippe (27 May 2016). "69". East West Street: On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes Against Humanity". New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-385-35071-6.
  25. ^ For more information on this period, see Bliwise, Robert. "The Man Who Criminalized Genocide". Duke Magazine. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
  26. ^ Lemkin, Raphael (1944). "IX: Genocide—A New Term and New Conception for Destruction of Nations". Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress. 700 Jackson Place, N. W. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Division of International Law. pp. 79–95. ISBN 9781584779018. Archived from the original on 29 August 2019.CS1 maint: location (link)
  27. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.112
  28. ^ Winter, Jay (2017). "Citation The Genesis Of Genocide". MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. Vienna, Virginia: History.Net. 29 (3): 19.
  29. ^ Fussell, Jim. "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Chapter IX: Genocide, by Raphael Lemkin, 1944 – – Prevent Genocide International". Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  30. ^ Fussell, Jim. "Sec. II of Chap. IX from "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe," by Raphael Lemkin, 1944 – – Prevent Genocide International". Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  31. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.217
  32. ^ D. Irvin-Erickson, "Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide", University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, p.229
  33. ^ Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide
  34. ^ a b c Lemkin, Raphael; Frieze, Donna-Lee (2013). Totally Unofficial, The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 19, 20. ISBN 9780300188066.
  35. ^ Raphael Lemkin Papers, The New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation, Raphael Lemkin ZL-273. Reel 3. Published in L.Y. Luciuk (ed), Holodomor: Reflections on the Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Soviet Ukraine (Kingston: The Kashtan Press, 2008). Available online Archived 2012-03-02 at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ "Nomination Database – Raphael Lemkin". Nobel Media AB 2014. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  37. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 25 March 2015. Retrieved 25 March 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  38. ^ "Catherine Filloux – Playwright". Archived from the original on 25 October 2016. Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  39. ^ "If The Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty Against Genocide by Robert Skloot". Archived from the original on 13 April 2015. Retrieved 30 April 2017.
  40. ^ The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
  41. ^ "Федеральный список экстремистских материалов дорос до п. 3152". SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. Retrieved 28 November 2015.
  42. ^ "ФЕДЕРАЛЬНЫЙ СПИСОК ЭКСТРЕМИСТСКИХ МАТЕРИАЛОВ". The Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation. Retrieved 18 April 2017.


Further reading


  • Irvin-Erickson, Douglas. Raphaël Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. ISBN 9780812293418.
  • Cooper, John. Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention. Palgrave/Macmallin, 2008. ISBN 0-230-51691-2.
  • Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Basic Books, 2002 (original hardcover). ISBN 0-465-06150-8. (Chapters 2–5)
  • Sands, Philippe (2016). East West Street : on the origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes Against Humanity". New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-385-35071-6.
  • Shaw, Martin, 'What is Genocide?'. Polity Press, 2007. ISBN 0-7456-3183-5. (Chapter 2)
  • Olivier Beauvallet, Lemkin: face au génocide, (with a French translation of "The legal case against Hitler" released in 1945), Michalon, 2011– ISBN 9782841865604.
  • Lemkin, Raphael (author); Frieze, Donna-Lee (editor). Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin (Jun 24, 2013)
  • Civilians in contemporary armed conflicts: Rafał Lemkin's heritage, red. nauk. Agnieszka Bieńczyk-Missala, Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego 2017
  • A. Redzik, Rafał Lemkin (1900–1959) – co-creator of international criminal law. Short biography, Warsaw 2017, ss. 70; ISBN 978-83-931111-3-8


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