"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Raphael Lemkin and the Origins of "Genocide"

I noted its appearance in 2013, but only recently had a chance to read it myself. It is an odd book in some ways, reflecting an odd life too abruptly ended after enduring what I could only regard has terribly shabby treatment. That life is portrayed in this book: Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin, Donna-Lee Frieze, ed., (Yale UP, 2013), 328pp.

It seems to be the fate of some men that their enormously important contributions to intellectual history and human civilization are not recognized until after their deaths, when our ability to repay debts to them is obviated. Such was the case with Lemkin, to whom Eastern Christians--notably beginning with the Armenians in 1915, but including also Assyrian Christians (also in 1915), Ukrainians (1932-33 in the Holodomor), and others--owe a very great deal indeed. Beginning with the Armenians, they and other Eastern Christians have been on the front-lines of some of the worst mass atrocities of the last century. But it was only in the aftermath of the Holocaust that the term "genocide" was coined, and the story of how that came to be is told in part by the man who came up with that term in this newly published autobiography:

About this book we are told:
Among the greatest intellectual heroes of modern times, Raphael Lemkin lived an extraordinary life of struggle and hardship, yet altered international law and redefined the world’s understanding of group rights. He invented the concept and word “genocide” and propelled the idea into international legal status. An uncommonly creative pioneer in ethical thought, he twice was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.   Although Lemkin died alone and in poverty, he left behind a model for a life of activism, a legacy of major contributions to international law, and—not least—an unpublished autobiography. Presented here for the first time is his own account of his life, from his boyhood on a small farm in Poland with his Jewish parents, to his perilous escape from Nazi Europe, through his arrival in the United States and rise to influence as an academic, thinker, and revered lawyer of international criminal law.

About this book, Yale psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, author perhaps most famously of The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing And The Psychology Of Genocide (whose own autobiography I discussed here) has this to say:
We have studied much about the mentality of those who perpetrate genocide but know little about that of the man who named the crime and did most to combat it. Raphael Lemkin was one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century. In this stirring memoir Lemkin tells us how he combined his experiences as a Polish-Jewish survivor of the Nazis, a legal scholar, and a passionate defender of human rights to articulate a concept that has been all too crucial in our time. Doing that required him to undergo a profound extension of his personal identity that could enable him to apply his ethical imagination to the entire human species. Donna-Lee Frieze has performed a remarkable scholarly task in rescuing a manuscript that might otherwise have been lost, and in meticulously preparing it for a wide reading audience. We encounter a man who, whatever his vulnerabilities and defeats, persists doggedly, courageously, and at considerable personal cost, in a lifelong mission to give international legal status to resisting the most extreme expression of human evil. The entire story is strangely hopeful.
And Peter Balakian, author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response has this to say:
Totally Unofficial is a unique and compelling memoir of the twentieth century. Lemkin’s blend of narrative strategies gives voice, shape, and scope to his remarkable life and large achievement—an achievement that has come to define something essential about our age and the urgency of human rights. In writing about his tireless lifelong efforts to make genocide a crime in international law, Lemkin shows us a rich and textured world, from his flight from Nazi occupied Poland, through northern Europe, the Soviet Union and Japan to the United States, and then to corridors of international political process in Paris, Geneva, and at the U.N. This is essential reading. Donna Frieze has done a remarkable job unearthing it from the archives and bringing it to the world.

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