FAIRFAX, VA. — One hundred years ago, a remarkable man named Raphael Lemkin was born. Or maybe it was 101 years ago. The few historians who study him disagree over the year. Nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize, he devoted his life to producing what is arguably the world's most important international human rights treaty. Yet most people today, including most scholars, have never heard of him. Even the most comprehensive encyclopedia is unlikely to contain a biographic entry on him.
To find Raphael Lemkin mentioned, look up the word "genocide." For he coined this powerful word, combining the Greek "genos" (meaning race or nation) with the Latin "cide" (killing). Mr. Lemkin coined it to describe the Holocaust, though his commitment to universally outlawing what we now call "crimes against humanity" began a decade before the Nazis murdered his Jewish parents in his native Poland.
Lemkin was a scholar of international law who could read 14 languages. Early in World War II he fled Poland and ultimately settled in the United States where, in 1944, he published a book called "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe." Without sensational language, he detailed the then- known genocidal policies of the Nazi regime and its accomplices. Half of his book's 650 pages consisted of reprinted enemy decrees, laws, and statutes illustrating the Nazis' genocidal intent. He devoted only a few pages to the Jewish persecution, yet had enough information to warn: "The Jewish population in the occupied countries is undergoing a process of liquidation, [such as] in special trains in which they are transported to a so-called 'unknown' destination."
In 1945, Lemkin became an adviser to the US War Department, and played an instrumental role (though largely unpublicized) in the postwar Nuremberg trials, indicting and convicting the Nazis for, among other crimes, genocide.
Lemkin then spent the rest of his life proposing, helping to formulate, and ultimately lobbying governments to enact the genocide convention of 1948, officially called the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It bans the intentional destruction of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious group anywhere in the world, whether by mass murder or by other means of persecution. And unlike the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which does not obligate signatories, the genocide convention does obligate countries, banning genocide even in countries that have not signed it. It renders perpetrators who claim that their genocidal crimes are "none of the world's business" either ignorant or liars.
Lemkin articulated what a "crime against humanity" really is: a crime, literally, against you and everyone else. Lemkin urged us to "realize how impoverished our culture would be if the peoples doomed by [Nazi] Germany, such as the Jews, had not been permitted to create the Bible, or give birth to an Einstein, a Spinoza; if the Poles had not had the opportunity to give the world a Copernicus, a Chopin, a Curie; the Czechs, a Huss, a Dvorak; the Greeks, a Plato and a Socrates; the Russians, a Tolstoy and a Shostakovich."
Lemkin's crusade to outlaw genocide was so all-consuming that he ruined his health, threw aside an academic career despite a teaching position at Yale University, and never married. Some women were attracted to his "old school" European charm, but in his obsession he could also be abrasive - "an ordinary man with one idea," said an acquaintance. Some say he died of disappointment, for although his adopted country, the United States, was the first to sign the genocide convention, the US Senate failed to ratify it until decades after his death. Lemkin died in 1959, penniless and mourned by few. He left behind a mass of letters, published essays, and unfinished works.
And an extraordinary legacy. Today, though genocidal acts continue to be perpetrated, at least they now have the stigma of being international crimes.
Some of the man's writings can be read online at www.prevent genocide.org. Yale now awards a Raphael Lemkin Prize for international human rights. Otherwise, he is largely forgotten, in part because no genuine biography of him has yet been published. Instead, some years ago a notorious Holocaust denier published a "biography" that was more offensive than factual. The first real biography of Lemkin may be published in the next year or so. At last, he may receive the acknowledgment he deserves.
John G. Heidenrich is the author of 'How to Prevent Genocide: A Guide for Policymakers, Scholars, and the Concerned Citizen' (Praeger Publishers, 2001).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor