Applause shook the gallery of the grand Palais de Chaillot. The year was 1948. In the wake of the Holocaust, the fledgling United Nations met in Paris for the first convention on human rights in history. All eyes fell on a single, unassuming man in the front row –a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin, the man responsible for it all. Few people imagined that this moment could ever be possible, but he never gave up hope, never stopped fighting, and literally gave his life to make it a reality.
The U.N. General Assembly voted unanimously 55-0 in support of the Genocide Convention, declaring genocide an international crime liable to punishment. The president of the General Assembly described it as an "epoch-making event" regarding the "sacred right of existence of human groups."
When the clamor died down and the delegates left the hall, the reporters searched for the man who made it all happen, but Lemkin was nowhere to be found. Instead of celebrating his monumental victory, they finally found him sitting in the darkened gallery that he had occupied all day. "Let me stay here alone," he muttered, while tears of sadness mixed with joy rolled down his cheeks. Having lost over 40 members of his family in the ashes of the Holocaust, including his parents, he dreamed for this day when the world would stand up in opposition to the most heinous of crimes against humanity. The convention, he later told a reporter, would be an "epitaph on my mother's grave."
A Crime without a Name
In a chilling radio broadcast, Winston Churchill referred to the horrors of the Nazi perpetration against European Jewry as "a crime without a name." Raphael Lemkin believed that in order to prevent such crimes in the future, it had to have a title fitting of its malicious intent. As part of his life's mission he gave it one, taken from the Greek, genos, meaning people, together with the Latin, cide, meaning death, coining the term genocide.
How could someone stand by and watch a fellow human being brutally murdered without doing anything?
Lemkin's obsession with putting an end to genocide went all the way back to his childhood. He was born to Yosef and Bella Lemkin in 1900 on a large farm near Bezvodene, on the flatlands of eastern Poland, then part of czarist Russia. His father was a farmer and his mother was an intellectual, artist, and linguist. Winters were so fierce that the three Lemkin boys were usually stuck at home all season long with little else to do but read. Bella served as her children's teacher and she instructed them in the classics, philosophy, and language. By the time Raphael entered university, he had already mastered half a dozen languages. He would soon add another four to the list, including Arabic and Sanskrit.
When he was 11, Raphael read a Polish novel about ancient Rome. One scene depicted a Roman mob watching as early Christians were fed to the lions. He couldn't understand how someone could stand by and watch a fellow human being brutally murdered without doing anything. He asked his mother how such injustice could exist. "Isn't there a law preventing one from killing people just because they are different?"
His mother responded that there were indeed laws against murder. But growing up as a Jew in Eastern Europe, witnessing pogroms on a regular basis, it did not appear that way. "The laws do not seem to be any good against massacres," he replied. She told him that he would have to find the answer himself. "That was the day," he later recalled, "I began to crusade [against genocide] because I started looking for the answer."
Lemkin entered the University of Lvov in 1920 and majored in philosophy, hoping to find answers to his questions. While he was there, an incident occurred that greatly altered his direction. In 1915 he was shocked to read about the massive slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish Empire resulting in the massacre of over a million innocent people. Six years later, a young Armenian assassinated the Turkish Interior Minister in retaliation. "That is for my mother," he said, before giving himself over to the police. Lemkin asked one of his professors why the Chief of Police had not been brought to justice for the grotesque perpetrations that he sanctioned against the Armenian people. The professor responded that he had not transgressed any international law and that it was an impingement of a nation's sovereignty to interfere with their internal affairs. He compared it to a farmer who has a right to slaughter his own chickens whenever he wishes.
"Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?"
Lemkin was shocked at the comparison. "Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?" he asked, echoing his childhood query.
This time he decided that the only way to find an answer was to become an expert in international law. He steeped himself in legal studies for the next six years, and was then appointed the position of Warsaw public prosecutor. He felt that the law was the only way to uphold moral truth. While "it is moral power that counts -- the law can make it count more," he said.
The Murder of Truth
With the Nazi rise to power, Lemkin began to draft his first treatise against genocide -- what he then termed the "crime of barbarity" -- which was presented at the League of Nations assembly in Madrid in 1933. His proposal provoked jeers of laughter. The German delegates walked out, knowing that it was primarily directed at them. Although the world was still oblivious, Lemkin saw what horrors lay ahead.
Lemkin was derided by Polish government officials for "insulting our German friends" and ridiculed in the press for his idealism. In order to invest his energy fully into fighting genocide without government pressures and restrictions, he was forced to resign from his government position. But his efforts ended abruptly when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.
After he was wounded while fighting briefly in the Polish Resistance, Lemkin escaped through Lithuania and eventually took refuge in Sweden. He later commented that witnessing the bombing of hundreds of refugee children by German war planes and being forced to leave his home and family made his passion to fight genocide even stronger. His final goodbye to his parents "was like going to their funerals while they were still alive." He was certain that the crime which he had devoted his life to prevent was about to come to fruition in his own backyard. Few people shared his ominous vision. "Hitler had already promulgated ... his blueprint for destruction," he wrote. "Many people thought he was bragging, but I believed that he would carry out his program."
In Sweden, Lemkin set to work developing a fully documented piece on Nazi policies that would provide solid evidence of their demonic plans, in the hope that the world might take notice. He was successful at obtaining hundreds of orders signed by Wehrmacht commanders and Reich cabinet ministers, including Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering, desperately wishing that he could alert the world before the Final Solution was implemented. "Would this blind world only then see it, when it would be too late?" he asked.
Deciding that his efforts would be more effective in America, Lemkin obtained a visa and immigrated to the United States in 1941 as a member of the law faculty of Duke University. When he arrived, he immediately dispatched duplicate sets of his extensive portfolio on Nazi crimes to the State and War Departments. He wasn't the first to bring evidence of the slaughter that had already begun to take place, but it was of little interest to politicians or press. He sent an urgent letter to President Roosevelt pleading for immediate action, but the response he received back was that he should have patience.
"Patience... but I could bitterly see only the faces of the millions awaiting death."
"Patience," Lemkin wrote. "But I could bitterly see only the faces of the millions awaiting death... All over Europe the Nazis were writing the book of death with the blood of my brethren." Jewish groups pressed Washington to bomb the camps or rail lines to no avail, even though Allied planes were within striking distance. "The impression of a tremendous conspiracy of silence poisoned the air," Lemkin wrote. "A double murder was taking place. . . It was the murder of the truth."
Seeing the futility of effecting change through the government, Lemkin decided to attempt to reach the public sector instead. He began writing his most important work, entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in which he depicted the reality of Nazi rule and gave name to the crime of genocide. It was published in 1944 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but did nothing to save the lives of the six million victims.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor when the United States entered the war effort, the U.S. Army recruited him to teach classes on military government at Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Board of Economic Warfare drafted him as a chief consultant, which eventually included advising US Chief Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg Tribunals. The word "genocide" became famous after its use in Nuremberg by two British prosecutors in their case against the 21 Nazi officers, but Lemkin was not satisfied. The trials did nothing to codify genocide as an international crime and did little to prevent it from happening again.
After a lifetime of heartache and hard work, his efforts finally came to fruition in 1948 when his Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was finally adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in Paris. It was only a half victory, considering that the Convention wasn't ratified until 1986. Prior to its ratification, the United States Senate was treated to a speech by Senator William Proxmire in favor of the treaty every single day that the Senate was in session between 1967 and 1986. The Convention was first implemented during the creation of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. To date, 132 nations have ratified the Convention but almost 60 have not, including Indonesia, Japan and half of the countries of Africa.
Days after the adoption of the Genocide Convention, Lemkin fell terribly ill. When doctors were unable to render a diagnosis, Lemkin offered one himself: "Genociditis -- exhaustion from work on the Genocide Convention."
He died alone, despite giving his entire life to help humanity.
Raphael Lemkin passed away of a sudden heart attack in the office of his publisher in 1959, at the age of 59. He remained unmarried, too busy with his single minded obsession to burden himself with a family. Only seven people came to his funeral. He died alone, despite giving his entire life to help humanity. All that remains is an obscure, unvisited gravestone in the Mount Hebron cemetery in Queens, New York. His gravestone reads "Dr. Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) Father of the Genocide Convention." Some years later, the B'nai Brith commissioned a bronze bust of Raphael Lemkin which my great uncle -- his distant relative and talented amateur sculptor -- gladly made.
Today, the life and work of the father of the first human rights convention is hardly known, nor is his name given any recognition anywhere in the UN. It is arguable whether or not his efforts really succeeded in preventing such crimes from taking place again in the future. Since his time the world has witnessed the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia, the repression of Kurds in Iraq, the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia, and rampant killing in The Congo and Darfur.
Most recently, we watched with horror as Iran's president was hosted by the United Nations itself, despite his unabashed public display of hatred against Israel and the Jews, in standing violation of the Genocide Convention's prohibition against the "direct and public incitement to genocide." One cannot help feeling sad that nothing has really changed in the world. Was Lemkin's life's all for naught?
Although the picture looks grim, Lemkin's contribution to the world may not have been in vain. The world may not yet be ready to practice what they preach, but the fact that most nations acknowledge, at least in theory, the evils of discrimination on the basis of race, is a step in the right direction towards the ultimate unification of humanity. It's like a diet. How many do you have to break before you actually lose weight? The first step in successful dieting is to recognize that you have a problem; it takes a life time to work on it. Everything follows after the desire.
At least the world is doing lip service to the right ideals. We may have gotten it wrong again and again over the past few millennium, but the Torah's message of world peace will eventually prevail. Until then, we must continue to look forward to the day when "nations will no longer lift sword against one another and will study war no more."