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Raphael Lemkin

(1901 – 1959)

Raphael Lemkin was an international lawyer who initiated the use of the term “genocide.” Educated in Poland, Germany, and France, he became secretary of the Court of Appeal, Warsaw, in 1927.

Early in his career he tried to mobilize support for the international penalization of genocide, despite his view that crimes committed by acts of sovereign states are not subject to international jurisdiction. Returning to Warsaw in 1933, after the Madrid Conference for the unification of penal law, he was compelled to give up his official position. He suffered under Colonel Beck’s pro-German anti-Semitic government.

In the early part of World War II most of his family (49 people) was murdered in Warsaw by the Germans. Lemkin fought in the Polish underground, eventually escaping and finally reaching the United States in 1941. There he taught at Duke and Yale universities and served on the Board of Economic Warfare under Henry Wallace. He moved to Washington, DC, in 1942 to join the War Department.

In 1944, he published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government Proposals for Redress, in which he documented Nazi atrocities and coined the word “genocide” from the Greek word genos (race, tribe) and Latin cide (killing). He wrote:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.

Lemkin worked on a team to prepare for the Nuremberg trials and succeeded in including the word “genocide” in the indictment against the accused. Genocide was not a crime, however, and the Holocaust Encyclopedia notes, “the verdict at Nuremberg did not cover peacetime attacks against groups, only crimes committed in conjunction with an aggressive war.”

In 1946, Lemkin succeeded in mobilizing sufficient support to have genocide put on the agenda of the UN General Assembly. The Economic and Social Council invited him to present a draft convention. Assisted by Herbert V. Evatt, the Australian president of the General Assembly, he was able to get that body to pass a resolution in December 1948 on the adoption of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Although he was not an official of an international organization, Lemkin nevertheless played an important role through his forceful personal insistence.

Afterward, he committed his life to encouraging nations to support the Convention.

He died in 1959.


H. Maza, Neuf meneurs internationaux (1965), 341–57; E. Aroneanu, Le Crime contre l'Humanité (1961).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
“Coining A Word And Championing A Cause: The Story Of Raphael Lemkin,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Photo: Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.