Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959) coined the term genocide and was the initiator of the UN Genocide Convention of 1948.

Lemkin was born in Bezwodne in the western part of the Russian Empire (today’s Belarus). In 1920, he enrolled as a student of Law, Literature and Philosophy in Lwów, while also studying in Heidelberg for a short period of time. He completed his doctorate in 1926. Beginning in 1929, he worked as a federal prosecutor in Warsaw. He focused on the legal aspects of violence against minorities, and within that context, he looked into the subject of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire. Having experienced pogroms and discrimination of the Jewish population in Poland first hand, he demanded – without avail – an international convention in 1933 that would force governments to intervene in the murder of ethnic or religious groups and prosecute those responsible.

© US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jack L. Bloom
Students and faculty members of the Duke University, Durham, early 1940s. After he had fled from Poland to the US, Lemkin (back row, sixth from left) began teaching Law there in 1941.

At the beginning of the war in 1939, Lemkin fled the German occupied zone via Vilna/Vilnius. He sought asylum in Sweden, where he taught at the University of Stockholm. During this time, he collected documents on the persecution of different ethnic groups in German-occupied Europe. In 1941, he began teaching in the US. There he published his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), in which he introduced the term genocide, defined as: “A coordinated plan of numerous actions aimed at obliterating the essential living foundations of a group of people with the aim of destroying that group.

© American Jewish Historical Society, New York, Raphael Lemkin Collection; P-154; Bo x 14; Folder 6
Information sheet about the adoption and the contents of the Genocide Convention, 1950s. After the war, the United States Committee for a United Nations Genocide Conventions was founded. Lemkin was a member of this committee. It was dedicated to the realization and public promotion of the international covenant.

Following the end of the war, Lemkin first worked for Robert Jackson, the US Chief-Prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials. In 1948, the United Nations passed the Genocide Convention, for which Lemkin had laid the foundation.

“If women, children, and old people would be murdered a hundred miles from here, wouldn’t you run to help? Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is 3000 miles instead of a hundred?”

Raphael Lemkin