Raphael Lemkin Background Information

Raphael Lemkin was the Polish-Jewish jurist who coined the word “genocide” and led a global crusade to have the destruction of human groups criminalized. While he has been overshadowed by his brain-child of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, he was one of the most impressive figures of 20th century history. A modern day “renaissance man,” he was fluent in almost a dozen languages, a jurisprudential marvel, a politically astute lobbyist and campaigner, a keen student of the social sciences, and a devoted admirer of the arts. His miraculous escape from Nazi-occupied Poland (which saw him traverse nearly 10,000 miles across the Baltic Sea, Siberia, Japan, the Pacific Ocean, and the continental United States), together with his tragic losses (most of his family was killed in the Holocaust), amounts to an incredible story of the human spirit. Indeed, Lemkin’s passionate appreciation for cultural diversity, which he considered to be the soul of humanity, was what drove him to establish genocide as the “crime of crimes.” For decades after he died in 1959, poor and destitute, his memory was forgotten by society. Thankfully, Lemkin’s legacy is enjoying a resurgence of interests. He is rightfully assuming the mantle of appreciation he deserves. It is because of him that we today have an enterprising academic field in genocide studies and an ever vigorous movement in international law and politics against genocide and crimes against humanity.

Rutgers-Newark enjoys a special connection to Raphael Lemkin, who taught at our law school in the mid-1950s. Thus, the Genocide Program of Rutgers Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights (CGHR) is honoring the memory of Lemkin by launching the Raphael Lemkin Project. In spring 2011, an advanced graduate seminar was convened by Dr. Alex Hinton, in which students conducted primary source research in Lemkin’s archives and organized a symposium at the end of the semester. The present page provides detailed information and resources on Lemkin, beginning with a comprehensive biographical timeline, followed by a bibliography of Lemkin’s works, including his archival collections, a bibliography of works about Lemkin, and finally a collection of internet links to relevant websites and pages. Soon, we will include videos from the CGHR’s YouTube channel of our ongoing interviews of people who were associated with or somehow were connected to Lemkin.


Biographical Timeline

1900, June 24: Born to a Polish-Jewish family on a farm near Bezwodene in what was then Czarist Russia (in what is now Belorussia)

1920: Entered Lvov University to study philology, eventually switching to law

1926: Received doctorate in law from Lvov University, Poland (in what is now Ukraine) 

1929–1934: Deputy public prosecutor, Warsaw, Poland

1929–1939: Professor of family law at Takhemoni College, Warsaw, Poland

1930–1932: Secretary of the Committee for Codification of Laws of the Republic of Poland

1933, October: Paper delivered at the Association Internationale de Droit Penal proposing the codification of the crimes of “barbarity” and “vandalism”; Lemkin’s proposals not accepted, but the conceptual groundwork is laid for his later development of “genocide”

1939, September: After Nazi invasion of Poland, Lemkin begins his escape from Occupied Europe

1939, October: Arrives in Vilnus, Lithuania, where he arranged for emigration to Sweden

1939, winter: After a brief stop in Riga, Latvia, arrives in Sweden

1940–1941: Visiting lecturer at Stockholm University, Sweden, where he began collecting German occupation decrees and other primary source material

1941, January-February: After receiving necessary visas, leaves the United States, travelling eastwards through the Soviet Union, Japan, and the Pacific Ocean

1941, April: Arrives on west coast of the United States, embarks for Durham, North Carolina

1941–1942: Lecturer at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

1942–1944: Chief consultant to the Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration, USA War Department, Washington, D.C.; develops manuscript for Axis Rule in Occupied Europe

1944, November: Axis Rule in Occupied Europe published by the Carnegie Endowment

1945–1947: Adviser on Foreign Affairs, assigned to War Crimes Office of the Judge Advocate General’s Office in Washington, D.C.; sent to London and then Nuremberg to assist Robert Jackson, Chief US Prosecutor at Nuremberg Trial, and helped prepare drafting indictment of major war criminals

1946, July and October: Twice confined to a military hospital in Paris for high blood pressure after learning that almost all of his family had perished during the war and having his efforts rebuffed to introduce a law against genocide into the forthcoming peace treaties

1946, October: Arrived in Lake Success, Long Island, New York, for the first meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN), where he began lobbying for a law against genocide

1946, November: Drafts resolution for UN to begin process of convening a “Genocide Convention” after Lemkin secures three sponsoring delegations – Panama, Cuba, and India

1946, 11 December: Resolution 96(I) submitted to General Assembly, began procedure to begin drafting legislation for an international law against genocide

1947, May: Trygve Lie, the Secretary-General of the UN, invites Lemkin along with two other esteemed jurists – Donnedieu de Vabres of France and Vespasin Pella of Romania – to prepare draft convention

1947, 26 June: Lemkin and his colleagues submit the “Secretariat Draft” (UN Document E/447), providing first draft of Genocide Convention

1947, summer: Establishes residence in Manhattan, continues lobbying UN and reaches out to various civil society groups, including some Jewish organizations, the international women’s movement, Christian religious leaders, and labor organizations, to gather support for Convention; Lemkin also begins his study of a global history of genocide

1948, spring: The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), one of the principle organs of the UN, begins making preparations for redrafting a Genocide Convention, and convenes a seven-delegation committee for the task; Lemkin not included in the committee, as he was not an official delegate

1948, March – 1951: Visiting lecturer with the rank of full professor by Yale University Law School, New Haven, Connecticut; given a light lecture schedule so that he could primarily focus on lobbying for the Convention and to continue his academic study of genocide

1948, 5 April – 10 May: The Ad Hoc Committee organized by the ECOSOC prepares report for a new draft Convention, dubbed the “Ad Hoc Committee Draft” (UN Document E/794); a significantly watered-down version of the previous “Secretariat Draft”

1948, July: Travels to Geneva, Switzerland, to lobby delegates to a meeting of the ECOSOC

1948, September: Arrives in Paris, France, where the third session of the General Assembly of the UN was meeting to discuss, among other things, the Genocide Convention

1948, 5 October – 4 November: The Sixth Committee of the General Assembly, which deals with legal matters, discusses the Ad Hoc Committee Draft; they ultimately watered down the draft Convention even more

1948, 9 December: The Sixth Committee draft is submitted to the General Assembly for final consideration; the General Assembly unanimously adopted the Convention, the final draft of which was officially called “The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” (UN Resolution 260 (III))

1948, mid-December: Lemkin spends three weeks in a hospital in Paris, probably suffering from exhaustion and a nervous breakdown

1949, January: Returns to the United States, where he begins his international campaign to secure the ratification of the Convention by at least twenty states so that it could be established as an international law

1949, May: After another bout of illness, returns to his teaching position at Yale University

1949–1951: Engages in a massive campaign, lobbying and corresponding with diplomats and civil society groups to secure ratification; has a very difficult time any support from the American Bar Association and the United States Senate

1950: Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize; does not win

1951, 12 January: The Genocide Convention comes into force after receiving the requisite number of ratifications

1951: Nominated once again for Nobel Peace Prize; once again, does not win

1951, 17 December: The Civil Rights Congress, a leftist civil rights organization, submitted a petition to the UN entitled “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People”; Lemkin voices his opposition

1951, October – 1952, March: Suffers from another bout of illness; meanwhile, he had lost his position at Yale and his financial situation became destitute

1952: Nominated once again for Nobel Peace Prize; once again, does not win

1953–1958: Manages to secure meager funds from various organizations and institutions to continue his academic research project, which eventually was envisioned to include a primary volume entitled “Introduction to the Study of Genocide,” followed by three volumes entitled “History of Genocide”; unfortunately, he was not successful in finding any interested publishers

1955: Nominated once again for Nobel Peace Prize; once again, does not win

1956: Nominated once again for Nobel Peace Prize; once again, does not win

1956–1957: Professor of International Law at Rutgers University Law School, Newark, New Jersey

1958: Nominated once last time for Nobel Peace Prize; as every time before, does not win

1958, August: Begins compiling his memoirs and drafting an autobiography provisionally entitled “Totally Unofficial”; as with his academic research project, he fails to find any interested publishers

1959, August 28: Dies of heart failure while working for the publication of his autobiography