The Center for Jewish History is currently showing an exhibit dedicated to the life and work of Raphael Lemkin. If his name isn’t quite familiar to you, rest assured, you’re not alone. In any event, you certainly know the one word that’s become synonymous with him: genocide. In 1943, Lemkin invented the term. And in 1951, he saw to it that the United Nations make it a punishable crime.

The exhibit is a timely one, but you might say it’s timeless too.  There is the matter of Darfur, of course, but perhaps just as tragic is the ongoing resistance to what is often called “Lemkin’s Law.” A walk through the exhibit’s myriad of letters, legal documents and grainy recorded speeches gives you a pretty good understanding why.

From the beginning, Lemkin knew that his task wouldn’t be easy. In 1933, for instance, Lemkin, a young Jewish lawyer born in Poland and then working for its government, traveled to Madrid for a League of Nations conference. His mission was straightforward enough: prosecute the Turkish officials who initiated the Armenian genocide. One million Armenians had been slaughtered at the outbreak of World War I, and Lemkin, a fresh-faced 33-year-old, wondered why nothing was being done. “Why,” he asked, “is it a crime for one man to murder another, but not for a government to kill a million?”

Alas, his timing was off. The year of the Madrid conference, the Nazis seized power, and under Hitler’s watchful eye the Polish government pressured Lemkin to resign. Six years later, the Nazi invasion of Poland forced him to flee, and in 1941 he landed in the United States. He got prestigious teaching posts at the Duke and University of Virginia law schools with the help of sympathetic American professors. But his growing awareness of the Holocaust pulled him out of the ivory tower. He last heard from his parents just after he fled Poland, and by the war’s end, he learned that 49 of his closest relatives had been killed. Years later, he described his march to criminalize genocide as an “epitaph on his mother’s grave.”

What Samantha Power, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book that also recaps Lemkin’s career, called “a problem from hell,” had for Lemkin become personal. By 1943, he had already coined the term “genocide” — from the Greek word genos, for “tribe,” and cide, for “kill” — but the word went into wide circulation only after the publication of his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe,” published in 1944. Once the war had ended and the UN had been created, Lemkin began the next phase of his career: turning a word into a crime.

It’s at this point that Lemkin’s real tragedy begins. Power’s book does an especially good job bringing to life the shameful recalcitrance of even the most civilized governments, particularly America’s, to endorse the genocide resolution. The main sticking point was clear: the U.S. did not want to endorse a law that might put their own government at risk. While respectable institutions like the American Bar Association made a smart case that the UN law allowed for too expansive a reading, it was obvious that the real stumbling block was the U.S. government. Segregation was still allowed in the South, and the government felt that under related war-crime clauses, it might be found guilty.

Of course the U.S. was fine leading the charge at the Nuremburg Trials, which prosecuted Nazis just after the war. But the laws used to indict the Nazis employed the softer “crimes against humanity” clause, a holdover from the League of Nations days. That clause prevented the prosecution of governments for crimes committed within their own borders. “If the Nazis had exterminated the entire German Jewish population,” Power writes, “but never invaded Poland, they would not have been liable at Nuremberg.” Lemkin’s mission at the UN was to close that loophole.

He succeeded, but the legacy of criminalized genocide is disheartening. The UN may have criminalized it in 1951, but the United States did not sign on until 1987. (Lemkin died in 1959.)  More recently, the International Criminal Court, which in 2002 became the body responsible for prosecuting genocides, has been severely handicapped. It has still not been ratified by the U.S., to say nothing of Israel, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and China, among others. And even then, it is a court of last resort, summoned only when independent countries do not try criminals themselves.

To date, eight people have been convicted of genocide in a period that has seen millions die in its name. Given that record, it’s worth asking what Lemkin’s Law means if his legacy goes unheeded. He worked tirelessly in the name of the law, but that was only the handmaiden of his larger aim. Justice was what mattered, and it is something that eludes him, and us, still.


Eric Herschthal covers arts and culture for the paper.