Raphael Lemkin, unknown to most of us, is one of those unsung heroes. Born a Polish Jew in 1900, his interest in the experiences of oppressed groups led him to study law. His interest in the Armenian genocide motivated Lemkin to try to learn how he could use the law to protect human life in the face of large-scale atrocities.
When Hitler’s troops invaded Poland, Lemkin, unmarried and childless, made the decision to flee from Poland. He spent his last evening trying unsuccessfully to convince his parents to join him. He escaped by way of Lithuania, Sweden, the Soviet Union, and Japan, before immigrating to the U.S. as a refugee in 1941.
Lemkin never saw his parents again. Forty-nine members of his family were slaughtered in the Holocaust. The impact of such loss on the human psyche is unimaginable. Haunted by what was happening to the Jews in Europe, Lemkin was unable to convince U.S. officials, including President Roosevelt, to stop the killing.
Lemkin believed that a crime like the Holocaust involving the planned, systematic destruction of entire groups needed to be differentiated from other forms of murder. He searched for a legal term to hold perpetrators accountable for such crimes, and in 1944, he created the word “genocide,” which has its roots in the Greek and Latin hybrid, “genos,” meaning people, tribe, or race, and “cide,” from the Latin for killing or destroying.
Lemkin dedicated the rest of his life to getting legal status for the term “genocide” in international law. Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust were tried after the war for committing crimes against humanity, a term referring to the killing of large numbers of individuals, while genocide refers to the destruction of distinct groups. (Philippe Sands).
With the creation of the United Nations in 1948, he pursued delegates from all over the world to convince them of the need for a legal treaty to hold accountable the perpetrators and prevent further genocides. Because of Lemkin’s extraordinary efforts, the U.N. approved The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on Dec. 9, 1948. It was, “the epitaph on his mother’s grave.” (Dr. Bridget Conley)
Lemkin died in 1959, almost four decades before the first trial based on the crime of genocide. In 1998, Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba, was the first person found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity under the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of Genocide.
Lemkin’s goal of preventing further genocides has not been realized. He devoted his life to getting legal status for a heinous crime, but also to create awareness that no country is immune from genocide.
Ellen Kennedy, the executive director of World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, speaks to the importance of political will in preventing genocide. She reminds us that former President Clinton confessed that he had the power to save hundreds of thousands of lives during the Rwanda genocide, but remained silent, “because he didn’t hear from a single one of our 100 senators in Washington, or a single one of the 435 representatives, asking him to take a stand. He didn’t hear from them for a very simple reason: They didn’t hear from us.” (Ellen Kennedy)
We can honor the legacy of Rafael Lemken, by continuing to work for a world without genocide, and by holding the planners and perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Education encompassing the history and prevention of genocide is imperative if we ever hope to end it.
Massachusetts does not require a genocide course for public school students. H692, An Act Concerning Genocide Education, is a bill that would require Massachusetts public schools to provide genocide education. The bill is currently in the Joint Committee on Education.
Demonstrate your support for this bill by contacting members of the Joint Committee on Education, as well as your state representative.
It’s fine to bask in April’s beauty. Stop and smell the fragrant hyacinths, but take time to reflect on the following list of events, all of them beginning in April:
■The Armenian Genocide began in 1915.
■The Nazis issued the first of many laws stripping Jews of their civil rights in 1933.
■The Khmer Rouge began their genocide in Cambodia killing 2 million people in 1975.
■The siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia began, resulting in the deaths of more than 10,000 people in 1992
■The Rwanda genocide, which killed 800,000 people in 100 days, began in 1994.
■The slaughter of civilians in the Darfur region of Sudan, which has resulted in the deaths of 400,000 people and continues today, began in 2003.
Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at email@example.com.