Raphael Lemkin - Photo by: Arthur Leipzig 

“Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?” – Raphael Lemkin

A New Word for an Old Practice:

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, coined the term ‘genocide’ and spent most of his life advocating that the international community recognize genocide as a crime.

After learning about the massacres of the Armenians in 1915–in what we now call the Armenian genocide–Lemkin could not understand how the mass killing of a people, simply because of who they are, and what religion they belong to, was not a crime. When Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian man, who lost his entire family in the genocide, murdered Talaat Pasha, one of the main organizers of the mass killings, and was immediately arrested, Lemkin was baffled. He asked, “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?”

When Hitler and the Nazi party rose to power, Lemkin saw the writing on the wall and knew what was to come. He fled Poland, but could not convince his family to join him. He ended up losing 49 members of his family in Nazi concentration camps. Lemkin knew that in order for the world to recognize what the Nazis were doing was a crime, he needed to create a word that described the crime; he created the term ‘genocide.’ Created from the Greek genos (race or tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), this new word sought to provide crimes that, while not new in practice, had not yet had a specific label.

The Crime Defined

After World War II came to an end, the Holocaust and other horrific crimes committed by the Nazis throughout Europe came to light. The United Nations (UN) was created to prevent conflict, promote cooperation, and protect human rights. Due in large part to Lemkin’s persistent advocacy and passion, the UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on December 9, 1948–one of the first pieces of international law created by the UN.

Host a Screening of Watchers of the Sky

Our partners at Watchers of the Sky have made a tremendously important and inspiring documentary about Raphael Lemkin and genocide. Watch the trailer of the documentary below, and contact us if you are interested in hosting a screening.