Born into a Jewish family in eastern Poland in 1900, Lemkin devoted his life to ensuring that genocide be added to international law and to preventing this crime from recurring. As a child, in Poland, he was struck by his mother’s tales of heroism, suffering and struggle, and he was later to experience anti-Semitism first hand. He soon developed the determination to protect the innocent and the weak and to strive for a better world, which – as he was to say later - “triggered a chain reaction” in his mind.
During adolescence Lemkin heard how the Armenians had been persecuted by the Turkish government. A million people, including children, were exterminated in repeated massacres and forced marches. Today Turkey still denies that genocide was committed and only a handful of the perpetrators were ever brought to justice. “I was shocked”, wrote Lemkin. “Why is killing a million people less serious than killing one?”. His conscience led him to reflect on the need for such crimes – as yet undefined – to be properly codified and punishable under the law.
In October 1933, when Hitler seized power in Germany, Lemkin was a young but influential lawyer in Warsaw, with brilliant public relations and a great talent for international law. He formulated a proposal for making the destruction of national, social and religious groups an international crime and sent it to an important international conference. His idea received little support, however, despite the seriousness of the systematic anti-Semitic attacks already taking place in Germany at the hands of the organs of the State.
When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin felt that his worst fears and suspicions were about to become reality. “Many people thought that Hitler was just flexing his muscles, but I was convinced that he would bring his programme to its conclusion” – he was to write later.
While 40 members of his family stayed in eastern Poland and were massacred by the Nazis, the young jurist managed to reach the United States. Here, however, he was confronted with the indifference of the American media and politicians. He did everything he could to break the wall of silence about Hitler’s gruesome plans for the “final solution”, including addressing a personal letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who replied inviting him to be patient. The American government also rejected certain Jewish groups’ demands for the concentration camps to be bombed. Lemkin then tried making a public denunciation: he wrote a book giving detailed reports of what the Nazis were doing and – for the very first time – used the word “genocide”, coined from the Greek genos for “race” and the Latin cide for “killing”. Despite his belief in the efficacy of direct and precise communication also in his definitions, his voice went unheeded and the Holocaust proceeded unhindered.
At the end of the war, the Nuremberg trials caused Lemkin great disappointment since they were subject to the rationale of the balance of power among the victors and failed to acknowledge the centrality of genocide as a crime against Humanity in the debate. As a consequence of this, the foundations for international acceptance of responsibility – the only guarantee against the horror repeating itself – were not laid.
Notwithstanding, Lemkin refused to give up and devoted all his time and effort into the approval of a convention against the international crime of genocide. He tirelessly drew up and corrected, re-thought and edited his text, contacted delegates to try to get them personally involved and wrote to world leaders in their own languages (he spoke more than ten fluently) to obtain consensus.
On 9 December 1948 the Convention was passed unanimously at the UN. Lemkin’s huge, extenuating efforts had finally been rewarded.
Worn out by the constant tension and enormous personal commitment, the great jurist fell seriously ill and, despite two nominations to the Nobel Peace Prize and other important national and international awards, he died in solitude ten years later. Only seven people attended his funeral.