A previously unpublished biography of a pioneer in the field of international law who is responsible for inventing the word “genocide” and defining legal terms for preventing future genocidal acts.
When Nobel Peace Prize nominee Lemkin died in 1959, the manuscript of his biography was near completion. However, it is only recently that Jewish historian Frieze digitized Lemkin’s manuscript and, in the process, pulled the biography together into a readable narrative. The story of Lemkin’s life begins with recollections of his early years on a farm in Lithuania (b. 1900), where he became engrossed with the natural world surrounding him and, also, began a fascination with reading about historical instances of group persecution. As the deputy public prosecutor of Warsaw, the Armenian genocide drove Lemkin toward a focus on the prevention of government attempts at destroying a collective identity. For Lemkin, the act of genocide did not just target the lives of a particular group, but it also aimed to destroy the cultural identity of the persecuted minority. The realities of genocide became personal when Lemkin was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Poland, while his family back in Poland fell as victims of the Holocaust. After making it to America, Lemkin sacrificed his physical health, the comforts of family life and the financial stability associated with faculty appointments at Duke and Yale to dedicate his life to alerting the world to the dangers of genocide. His dedication bore fruit when the United Nations ratified the Genocide Convention, but Raphael would spend the rest of his life alone and in poverty. Although the particulars of the inner workings of the U.N. can be overwhelming, the story is enriched by Lemkin’s keen eye for describing the environment and characters that he encounters.
An engaging account of one man’s determination to overcome personal, financial and bureaucratic obstacles in his quest to pass a landmark law that would protect collective cultural life and identity.