Top of page

Dr. Raphael Lemkin, the Totally Unofficial Man

Share this post:

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish international law jurist who lived and taught law in the United States at the end of his life, is famous for coining the word “genocide”. He also worked to make the act of genocide a crime in international law. As a child in rural Poland, Lemkin was fascinated by historical atrocities and was particularly struck by the story of Nero feeding Christians to the lions in Quo Vadis (Lemkin, Totally Unofficial, p. 1).  The story of the Armenian genocide also captivated Lemkin. In a sad twist of fate, the man who was so interested in the tragedies of other cultural groups experienced the horrible loss of his own family and people in the Holocaust.

After he finished his doctorate of law at Lwow University, he started writing law books, working as Warsaw’s deputy public prosecutor, and teaching law at university. One of the books he wrote during this time he coauthored with Duke University professor Malcolm McDermott— a contact who would later save his life (Lemkin, 21). Lemkin also wrote an influential article that argued for laws outlawing acts of barbarity and vandalism (Lemkin, 23).

Black and white bust portrait photograph of Raphael Lemkin wearing a suit and tie
Raphael Lemkin, 1900-1959, undated photo [American Jewish Historical Society, Source: Flickr Commons Project, 2009]
At the start of World War II, Lemkin fled Poland when the German army invaded. He first retreated to Stockholm, where he taught at the university. In Stockholm, he collected all the national official gazettes and Third Reich gazettes he could find to research the aims of Hitler and the Nazis, concluding that their policies of mass murder had the intention to wholly obliterate other peoples (Lemkin, 102). Lemkin’s conclusion from these studies was that “genocide is a premeditated crime with clearly defined goals, rather than just an aberration.

With the help of his colleague Dr. McDermott, Lemkin was able to take a teaching job at Duke University in 1941. He and his brother Elias were the only members of Lemkin’s family to escape; 49 members of his family died in the Holocaust.  During the early 1940s he wrote, traveled, taught, and lectured. Lemkin met John Vance, Law Librarian of Congress and began translating and analyzing Nazi decrees. Lemkin wrote:

I wanted to secure a regular flow of such decrees from occupied Europe and suggested in a letter to Vance that he might get them through book dealers in neutral countries– Portugal, Switzerland, or Sweden. In this way I hoped to build up in the Library of Congress a center of documentation that would be helpful in explaining the “war on the peoples” behind the current European “war on the armies” (Lemkin, 109).

This work was the basis for his later (and arguably most important) book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In this text he introduced the term “genocide,” which is a combination of the Greek “genos” (race, tribe) and the Latin “-cide” (killing) (Lemkin, Axis, p. 79). The name was important; Churchill had called the acts of the Holocaust “the crime without a name.” Lemkin’s concept of genocide as an international crime, formulated at this time, provided one of the legal bases for the Nuremburg Trials.

However, at the Nuremburg Trials, the charge of genocide was thrown out. The Statute of the International Military Tribunal, which did not include a charge of genocide, bound the Nuremburg Tribunal. This defeat bolstered Lemkin’s resolve and although his health continued to decline, he tirelessly worked to establish genocide as an international crime. Throughout the late 1940s, Lemkin traveled throughout Europe and the States to talk to every diplomat, legal academic, politician and statesman he could about the legal concept of genocide, working to get allies to advocate for the Genocide Convention.

On December 9, 1948, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Raphael Lemkin spent the rest of his life working to get nations to pass laws against genocide, teaching, and writing articles as well as his autobiography, though he died before he could complete it. The tentative title was “Totally Unofficial” from a 1957 New York Times editorial describing him as, “…that exceedingly patient and totally unofficial man, Prof. Raphael Lemkin” (Lemkin, xxv). His patience and single-minded pursuit of his goal was best explained in a speech he gave in Durham:

“If women, children, and old people would be murdered a hundred miles from here, wouldn’t you run to help? Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is five thousand miles instead of a hundred?” (Lemkin, 103).


Following is a list of resources available in the Law Library; a few of these are found in the Library’s general collection.


Comments (2)

  1. Congratulations for this excellent blog. Not only does it highlight the riches of the Library’s collections, it also presents again the life and work of a most humane man from the past whose name should not be forgotten.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.