Raphael Lemkin 1900-1959
An Exceptional Personality in the History of the Twentieth Century
The humanist and lawyer Raphael Lemkin was born in Poland and in 1939 became a refugee travelling through Europe, arriving finally to his final destination in the US. Lemkin coined the neologism genocide in 1943, combining the Greek word genos + the Latin word cide, which literarily means, “to kill a people”.
In his autobiography titled Totally Unofficial, Raphael Lemkin recounts the life of an exceptional personality in the history of the twentieth century, a person with such empathy and courage in his convictions of civic responsibility that he dedicated his life to educating, raising awareness and struggling for the existence of a legal framework that would check barbarism through the medium of an international treaty: The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Lemkin followed Tolstoy’s maxim that ‘to believe in an idea requires experiencing it’ and turned the achievement of his ideal into his way of life. His empathy and the contemporary story of the development of civic conscience and justice in the Twentieth century afford us an insight into a dark and immanent part of the history of mankind. Lemkin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 and 1952 and through his legacy help us to understand that moral conscience and action to preserve human rights are not just an entelechy.
Raphael Lemkin was a person whose intelligence and personal experiences enabled him to “think generously” and embrace a view of Humankind utterly opposed to the nationalist, supremacist or strictly ethnic views of the 20th century; and opposed also to the attitudes we are seeing in our 21st century. The figure and the legacy of Lemkin is an extraordinary achievement the combined the author’s passion and overwhelming need to understand, by his intellectual development and obsession to address injustice, not only to those closest to him but also universally. In the year 1944, Lemkin coined a new word, a word widely used nowadays: “genocide”. The concept genocide defines part of a constant in man’s history, an atrocious act of violence committed against human beings, an act that killed forty-nine members of Lemkin’s family, including his parents who died at Treblinka.
In the words of Lemkin himself, “The function of memory is not merely to register past events, but to stimulate human conscience”. Thanks to Lemkin when we will be able to celebrate the 73nd anniversary of the adoption by the General Assembly of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, on 9th of December 1948, just one day before the adoption also by the UN General Assembly of yet another essential text drafted in the first half of the 20th century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Lemkin did not just create a new word, but also facilitated the existence of new scenarios to achieve more justice.