Raphael Lemkin [1900–1959]: The Chronicle of Higher Education writes: “Raphael Lemkin’s single-minded dedication led to the adoption of the Genocide Convention, in 1948. Most of his family had been killed in the Holocaust.”
Photo Credit: U.N.
An article, by Jay Winter, in The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a man we ought to all remember and thank for his relentless courage and pursuit of justice and liberty, a man whom few remember, but should: Raphael Lemkin [1099–1959], one of the two men responsible for enshrining into law the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Two Jewish lawyers were the pilots of those measures. The first was Raphael Lemkin, Polish-born but living in the United States. The second was René Cassin, then head of France's highest administrative court, the Conseil d'État. The two men could not have been more different. Lemkin was a loner, a man who, like others flirting with sainthood or martyrdom, made solitude into a virtue and a sign of election. Cassin was a man of endless sociability, serving a host of human-rights organizations. Cassin was an insider, Lemkin an outsider who managed to become an insider for a time. He was Isaiah Berlin's quintessential hedgehog, a man who knows one thing and only one thing, and knows it with his whole being.
Lemkin's life's work was to make the destruction of an entire people illegal. First, in 1943, not long after his parents were gassed in Treblinka, he invented a word to describe the crime—"genocide"—and then he insinuated himself into official circles in Washington and elsewhere to see the convention through the legal and diplomatic shoals.
How did he do it? The publication this month of his unfinished autobiography, Totally Unofficial (Yale University Press), skillfully woven together by Donna-Lee Frieze from drafts deposited in the New York Public Library, helps us to answer that question. But it raises other questions: Has the law against genocide been effective? And why has Lemkin, a remarkable man, largely disappeared from history?
After those two eventful days at the U.N. in Paris in 1948, when both Cassin and Lemkin held center stage, their fates and fortunes diverged. Cassin won every honor in sight, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968. Lemkin was a prophet without honors, descending into illness and poverty and dying alone, in 1959, of a heart attack at a bus stop on 42nd Street in New York City. Seven people showed up at his funeral.
Even during the height of his work at the U.N., he was virtually penniless, enduring the indignities of an indigent academic, whose minor celebrity did not pay the rent. His autobiography is unsparing in its description of his plight:
Such is a sad, insulting and offensive end for a man who gave much in the cause of raising human dignity and human rights. Would anything be different today? Not likely, when film stars, athletes, business moguls and politicians are given more attention than they justly deserve. As for me, I am glad to have finally learned about this noble and honourable man; may his name be remembered for eternity.My hotel bill in N.Y. goes unpaid for some weeks. The calculated insults of the elevator boy. Finally, my clothes are confiscated, and I am locked out of my room. I arrange to pay off my bill, giving a few dollars each week or month, and finally redeem my things, only to find that they have served as banquet for the hotel's moths. Thus, I find myself pleading a holy cause at the U.N. while wearing holey clothes. My friends at the U.N. "plot" to see that I eat at least one meal a day. I am ashamed and try to limit myself to a bowl of soup when I am their guest. I move into a furnished room in an apt. on the West Side. For a time, I manage to borrow out enough money to pay my rent promptly, but eventually my "lend lease" arrangements fail, and I fall behind. My landlord takes to coming into my room at midnight each night and pouring abuse at me for not paying my rent. I pretend to sleep, although soon even my snoring cannot drown out his shouts. He disconnects my heat and takes my blankets away. He fixes the lock so I cannot lock him out at night, so I shove the dresser against the door each night, leaving him to shout at me.
You can read the rest of the article at [Chronicles]