Looking For Lemkin

Investigating the life and impact 0f Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the word ‘genocide.’ 

Lemkin in Poland

When Lemkin was studying in Lviv, he asked his professors why no one had been prosecuted for massacring Armenians in 1915. When he was a lawyer in Warsaw in the 1920s, Lemkin thought about this more. He came up with an idea for laws banning the killing of human groups. He called this crime ‘barbarity’. When the Nazis invaded, Lemkin had to flee.

Lemkin in Sweden

Lemkin was able to escape to Sweden. Whilst he was in Stockholm he began to collect information about what the Nazis were doing in countries, like Poland, that they had occupied. Documents were smuggled out of Poland and given to Lemkin. He began to realise that the Nazis were intent on wiping out every single Jewish man, woman and child.

Lemkin at Duke University, USA

Lemkin continued his journey in 1941. He travelled from Sweden, through Russia, to Japan before eventually arriving at Duke University in North Carolina. Here he lectured and spoke to groups outside the university about his experiences in Europe. Whilst he may not have used the term “genocide” while at Duke, his stay helped him formulate his ideas.

Lemkin after Duke

Lemkin used his legal expertise to work for the US government after his time at Duke. Most importantly, in 1944, he published a book called ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’ which mentioned the term ‘genocide’ for the first time.

Lemkin and The Genocide Convention

Lemkin spoke to every powerful person he could find to persuade them to make ‘Genocide’ a crime. He finally succeeded and, on December 9th 1948, the United Nations passed the ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’. It was a triumph for Lem- kin.

Lemkin’s later years

Unfortunately, Lemkin died of a heart attack in New York in 1959. He was only 59 years old. Right up until the end of his life Lemkin fought to make more countries take notice of the Genocide Convention.

Why was Lemkin important?

We think that without Lemkin there would not have been the word ‘genocide’. Without that word there would not be a way to prosecute the people who commit genocide and maybe deter those people who are thinking about it.

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