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Rafał Lemkin

About Rafał Lemkin

Picture of Raphael Lemkin

Rafał Lemkin (24 June 1900 – 28 August 1959) was a Polish lawyer of Jewish origin, best known for his work on the documentation of the Nazi German atrocities during World War II, which led to him coining the phrase “genocide” to describe those atrocities.

Lemkin was born on 24th June 1900 in Bezwodne, near Wołkowysk, in what was then the Russian Empire, to Józef Lemkin and Bella née Pomeranz. He graduated from the gymnasium in Białystok and moved first to Kraków and then to Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine), where he studied law, attending lectures i.a. of Ludwik Ehrlich, Roman Longchamps de Bérier, Maurycy Allerhand and Julian Makarewicz. He graduated from Jan Kazimierz University in July 1926 with a doctorate in law. Lemkin then moved to Warsaw, where he worked as a clerk to the Secretary General of the Polish Codification Commission while pursuing his legal apprenticeship. In 1929 he became a prosecutor, first at the provincial court in Brzeżany, then in Warsaw. In 1934 he resigned as prosecutor and became an attorney.

During his studies and later his professional career, Rafał Lemkin was always interested in criminal law, especially in crimes committed against groups and peoples. He was member of Polish delegations to the conferences on the unification of criminal law in Paris (1931) and Copenhagen (1935). In his paper for the 1933 Madrid Conference of the International Bureau for Unification of Criminal Law (which he ultimately did not attend, because the Polish Government rescinded his nomination at the last minute), Lemkin postulated the international penalization of the crimes of “barbarity”, which he defined as felonies committed out of hatred for an ethnic, religious or social group or with the aim to exterminate such a group, as well as “vandalism”, understood as the destruction of cultural property of an ethnic, religious or social group for the same reasons.

After the outbreak of the Second World War Lemkin managed to flee Soviet-occupied Poland first to Lithuania and then to Sweden, where he lectured at the University of Stockholm. In spring 1941 he received permission to move to the United States, where he joined the law faculty at Duke University. In 1943 Lemkin became a consultant for the Bureau of Economic Warfare, Foreign Economic Administration and later a special adviser on foreign relations at the War Department. During his stay in Stockholm Lemkin started collecting, translating and analysing German official documents imposing Nazi rule in occupied European countries. The analysis of these documents led him to believe that the German war aims in occupied Europe were the destruction of nations and ethnic and religious groups. He published his findings in 1944 in his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe”, in which he developed the concept of “genocide” as a crime under international law. His work was recognised as an important contribution to international law and in 1945 Lemkin Lemkin became an advisor to Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who was chief counsel at the Nuremberg Trials.

After the war Lemkin remained in the United States and lectured on criminal law at Yale and later Rutgers School of Law, where he became a professor. He campaigned for international criminalization of genocide and crimes against humanity and drafted a resolution calling for a treaty on the prohibition of genocide. With the sponsorship of the United States, the resolution was presented to the UN General Assembly, which quickly took up work on the topic and adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on 9 December 1949 as Resolution 260.

Rafał Lemkin died in 1959 after suffering a heart attack. He is buried at Mount Hebron Cemetary in New York.

Lemkin about the Genocide Convention