Raphael Lemkin

ID: 308
Rafał (Raphael) Lemkin (1900-1959) is by now the most prominent Polish lawyer of the 20th century, widely known for his investment in conceiving the linguistic and legal terms appropriate for what due to his efforts has become common currency under the expression genocide.

Rafał (Raphael) Lemkin (June 24 1900 - 28 August 1959) is by now the most prominent Polish lawyer of the 20th century, widely known for his investment in conceiving the linguistic and legal terms appropriate for what due to his efforts has become common currency under the expression genocide; a "new word, coined […] to denote an old practice in its modern development" (Lemkin, 1944, 79). He only gained recognition for his life's work as an advocate for the persecution of mass-extinction of groups decades after his passing. As late as the 1990s, along the lines of the establishment of genocide research as a distinct scientific discipline and the evolvement of international criminal law, a broader, worldwide interest in his life and thought emerged (Redzik, 2017, 6). Recently, the fascination with the main author of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocideexpanded towards the illumination of his youth and student years at the Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów, where he lived between 1921 and 26. [1]

Lemkin grew up on a farm south of Wołkowysk (today Vaŭkavysk, Hrodzenskaia voblast, Belarus), where he was born to the farmer Joseph Lemkin and Bella née Pomeranc. Several of Lemkin's biographers lay great emphasis on the importance of his mother's influence, a well-educated woman, sometimes even praised "a brilliant intellectual" (Kornat, 2010, 59), that manifested in the education that Rafał and his brothers Elias and Samuel received thanks to her endeavor to homeschooling them (Redzik, 2017, 8; Frieze, 2013, xi). The languages spoken at their home were Yiddish, Polish and Russian; their background was described as traditional "Eastern European Jewish" (Marrus, 2014, 246). Lemkin is said to have enrolled in a modern reformist heder, where he additionally studied Hebrew as a living language. By the time he entered Lwów University, he was already fluent in nine languages, subjoining Sanskrit and Arabic there (Cooper, 2008, 12).

The polyglot and multinational region of his upbringing has been termed "the 'shatterzone' of empires and 'bloodlands'" (Irvin-Erickson, 2017, 17), a compass needle between ethnographic Poland, East Prussia, Ukraine and under czarist Russian rule at the time, that supposedly "fostered a cosmopolitan outlook" (Marrus, 2014, 246), but also fueled tensions. Lemkin describes the Jewish position in between the Russian-Polish struggles for political supremacy in the area as rather precarious, if not life-threatening (Lemkin, 2013, 3; Marrus, 2014, 242). Through "continual redrawing of territorial boundaries" over time, "the notion of a state with fixed borders", whose hitherto untouched sovereignty would become a central point of debate in Lemkin's later work, was not a generic one (Vrdoljak, 2009, 1166; Bienczyk-Missala/ Debski, 2010, 7).

Lemkin passed his baccalaureate in 1919 and moved to Kraków to enroll at the Jagiellonian University for two semesters of legal studies (Redzik, 2017, 8) Finally, in late 1921, he matriculated at the Lwów Faculty of Law and Political Science (Redzik, 2017, 13). [2] Throughout his studies at the law department of Lwów University, Lemkin developed an interest in international and comparative criminal law (Redzik, 2017, 20; Vrdoljak, 2009, 1175).

In his autobiography, Lemkin traces back his dedication to the struggle for an international redefinition and recognition of the unnamed crime he would later call genocide to two incidents that, in terms of time, frame his residence in Lwów. The first was the case of Soghomon Tehlirian in 1921, around the time Lemkin first started his studies, the second the one of Samuel Schwartzbard in 1926, shortly after Lemkin obtained his doctorate at Jan Kazimierz University.

The case of Tehlirian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, who assassinated the former ottoman minister of the interior and Grand Visier Talaat Pasha, holding him responsible for mass killings of Armenians in the years 1915­–1918, came to Lemkin's attention through an article in a local newspaper (Power, 2002, 18). According to his autobiography, Lemkin confronted one of his professors with the injustice he saw stemming from the trial Tehlirian was exposed to after, turning into a "trial of the Turkish perpetrators" (Lemkin, 2013, 244).The following discussion led to his decision to pursue a legal career, as stated in Lemkin's version of the story.Upon the question of why Talaat wasn't trialed for the murder of thousands while Tehlirian was held captive as they spoke, Lemkin's professor responded with the analogy of a farmer killing his chickens, in which case a third-party interfering would trespass – thereby instructing him on the principle of state sovereignty. "Armenians", the young Lemkin shot back at him, "are not chickens!"

"They evoked the argument about sovereignty of states. 'But sovereignty of states,' I answered, 'implies conducting an independent foreign and internal policy, building of schools, construction of roads, in brief, all types of activity directed toward the welfare of people.' Sovereignty, I argued, 'cannot be conceived as the right to kill millions of innocent people.'" (Lemkin, 2013, 20)

Irving-Erickson believes the conservative Prof. Juliusz Makarewicz the most eligible teacher among Lemkin's law professors

[3] at Lwów University to be the counterpart referred to in this anecdote (Irvin-Erickson, 2017, 36). Lemkin formed several long-lasting friendships with his professors from Lwów (Irvin-Erickson, 2017, 17)[4], but was on closer terms with Makarewicz, "a renowned expert in criminal law, an enthusiast of the sociological school of criminal law and the main author of the Criminal Code of 1932" (Redzik, 2017, 14).

According to John Cooper, there's a gap in Lemkin's reconstruction of his first grasp of what he would later call genocide. Instead of focusing on that one case, it would seem more likely to assume that his testimony to a time shaken by mass murders of Jews in pogroms all over Eastern Galicia was the key impact agitating him, although he never mentions those in his memoirs, where he rather represents himself as a man of more universal concern (Cooper, 2008, 14–15; 272). As noted more recently, that gap extends to his political activism in the 1920s, namely the involvement with groups of the Zionist student movement, that he chose to conceal in hindsight (Loeffler, 2017, 342). Around the time he moved to Lwów, Lemkin started writing short essays and articles for local Zionist newspapers (Irvin-Erickson, 2017, 37), leaving "behind a clear, unmistakable trail" of "consistent activism" "running through the Yiddish-, Hebrew- and Polish-language Jewish press" throughout the 1920s (Loeffler, 2017, 341).

As a student chairman of the Joint Academic Committee of Eastern Galicia, he co-edited a publication celebratory of the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In one of his articles there, he wrote:

"In the universities of Europe and beyond, we have learned all the languages of the world, ancient and modern. We have absorbed many cultures. We have drunk of the beauties of Japheth in large gulps, while our own people's language, our great and beautiful culture, we have forsaken and abandoned." (Lemkin, 1925, 3–4; Loeffler, 2017, 342).

A further indication of his association with Jewish intellectual sources during his student years in Lwów, that also pinpoints his affinity to language-based approach to cultural matters, derives from his translation of Chaim Bialik's Noah i Marynka from Hebrew to Polish (Redzik, 2017, 15).

The second case that Lemkin commemorates as a starting point of his active engagement for penalizing mass murders of groups, which occurred few months after he got his degree at Lwów University, resembled the first one on different levels. "In 1926, just after obtaining my doctorate", Lemkin wrote, "another bomb exploded. In a rare moment of clarity that seeing indignation instills, I further understood the concept of the crime I was trying to establish." (Lemkin, 2013, 20). In September 1926, a leading figure of the Ukrainian directorate, Symon Petlura, was assassinated by Jewish emigrant Samuel Schwartzbard in Paris, a revengeful act after the anti-Semite pogroms committed by some troops of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic around 1919 (Gilley, 1917). Lemkin himself recalls naming Schwartzbards actions a "beautiful crime" in an article he published on the subject, stating that the problem was that "there was no law for the unification of the moral standards of mankind in relation to the destruction of national, racial and religious groups." (Lemkin, 2013, 21; Cooper, 2008, 16).

Here, the preliminaries were laid out for his later work on the "violations of the law of nations the intentional use of any instrument capable of producing a public danger." (Loeffler, 2017, 347).

After his time at Lwów University, he studied Philology and Philosophy at Heidelberg and Berlin, the Sorbonne and Italy, and eventually moved to Warsaw, where he began his legal career at the Warsaw Appellate Court, while continuing his academic education, aiming his main attention at international law and European minorities issues (Marrus, 2014, 242; Loeffler, 2017, 343; Kornat, 2010, 60; Vrodljak, 2009, 1175)

He spent ten "prosperous and successful" years in Warsaw (Frieze, 2013, xii), during which he was appointed the local deputy public prosecutor in 1933 and secretary to the Committee of Codification of the Laws of the Polish Republic (ibid.). He attended several congresses in the process of the unification of criminal law throughout the 1920s and 30s, contributing to the research on comparative criminal law by, inter alia, the translations of the Criminal Code of Soviet Russia and the Fascist Criminal Code as early as 1927/29  (Redzik, 2017, 21; 26). He also immersed in the analysis of different examples of mass murder in a systematic manner (Bienczyk-Missala/ Debski, 2010, 9). It has been argued that the "imaginative vocabulary" he needed to "reconceptualize the relationship between nationhood, culture and law in the face of modern antisemitism and violence" as a foundation for his scholarly interest in the legal definition of the modern crime that was to be named genocide, was provided to him by the Zionist movement in Eastern Europe, that he got more intensely involved with during his time in Warsaw (Loeffler, 2017, 343­–6).

When World War II descended in 1939, Lemkin was still in Warsaw. He travelled east towards his hometown, where he saw his parents for the last time. From there, he left to Wilno, gained a visa to Sweden where he stayed for one year, before he was admitted to Duke University in 1941, where he would give lectures on comparative and Roman law. He arrived to the USA via Riga, Moscow and Vladivostok (Redzik, 2017, 35–38). A year later, he assumed the position of the main adviser of the Board of Economic Warfare in Washington, where he worked on his opus magnum, the Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which was published in 1944 (ibid., 39). There, he proposed the international recognition of a crime committed against a collectivity, for which he coined the term genocide, a neologism derived from Greek "genos" and Latin suffix "caedo."

In 1945, he was appointed to the War Crimes Office of the American Advocate General's Office in the Pentagon and became an advisor at the staff of Robert Jackson, American chief prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials (Marrus, 2014, 240). Whereas the term genocide didn't enter the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, he reinforced the struggle for an international regulation of the crime after Nuremberg. Lemkin became consultant of the Legal Committee of the UN; in 1946, a resolution on genocide was passed by the UN General Assembly and on 9 December 1948 the Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide was eventually adopted (Redzik, 2017, 42–44). Lemkin lost 49 members of his family in the Holocaust (Marrus, 2014, 242).

Lemkin received several nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1950s and gave sporadic lectures on different cases of genocide of the 20th century.

In 1991, the first Lemkin Symposium on Genocide was held at Yale University; in 2000, the Raphael Lemkin Centenary Conference in took place London and the Institute for the Study of Genocide in New York established an award named after him, as did many other institutions following. In the following years, many books and articles – popular and scientific – concerned with his life and work, have been published, as well as films and plays (Redzik, 2017, 51; Loeffler, 2017, 340). Among these numerous tributes, there was an honorary plaque installed on the building of his student home on L’viv, at 21 Zamarstynivska Street, in 2017. [4]

Related Stories

Related Places


Vul. Universytetska, 1 – Lviv Ivan Franko National University main building

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Vul. Hrushevskoho, 4 – Lviv National Franko University building

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Vul. Zamarstynivska, 21

Plaque opening ceremony on the building of his student home in L’viv, at 21 Zamarstynivska Street, in 2017

Works and Projects


Rafał Lemkin et. al. (eds.), Har ha-tzofim: had yoman akademi mukdash li-fetihat ha-mikhlalah ha-‘Ivrit be-Yerushalayim [Mt. Scopus: academic newsletter dedicated to the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem] (Lwów, 1925; s. Loeffler 2017).

Chaim Bialik, Noah i Marynka, przetłumaczył i wstępem zaopatrzył Rafał Lemkin (Lwów:  Snunit, 1926).

Kochanowicz Tadeusz, Kodeks Karny Republik Sowieckich, przedmowa Juliusz Makarewicz, „Wydawnictwo Seminarium Prawa Karnego Uniwersytetu Jana Kazimierza we Lwowie” (Warsaw 1926).

Kodeks karny faszystowski, przedmowa Wacław Makowski (Warsaw: Księgarna F. Hoesicka, 1929).

Les actes constituent un danger general (interetatique) consideres comme delits de droit des gens (Paris: Editions A. Pedone, 1934).

Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Laws of Occupation; Analysis of Government. Proposals for Redress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944).




  1. Agnieszka Bienczyk-Missala/Slawomir Debski, Preface, in: Agnieszka Bienczyk-Missala/Slawomir Debski (eds.), Rafael Lemkin. A Hero of Humankind, (Warsaw: The Polish Institute of International Affairs, 2010), 7–16.
  2. John Cooper, Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide-Convention, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
  3. Douglas Irvin-Erickson, Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
  4. Donna-Lee Frieze, Introduction. The ‘Insistent Prophet’, in: Raphael Lemkin/ Donna-Lee Frieze (ed.), Totally Unofficial. The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin (London/New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), ix-xxx.
  5. Christopher Gilley, "Beyond Petliura: the Ukrainian national movement and the 1919 pogroms", East European Jewish Affairs, 2017, 47(1): 45-61.
  6. Marek Kornat, Rafael Lemkin’s Formative Years and the Beginning of International Career in Inter-War Poland (1918–1939), in: Agnieszka Bienczyk-Missala/Slawomir Debski (eds.), Rafael Lemkin. A Hero of Humankind (Warsaw: The Polish Institute of International Affairs, 2010), 59–74.
  7. Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Laws of Occupation; Analysis of Government. Proposals for Redress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944).
  8. Raphael Lemkin, Totally Unofficial. The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin, ed. by Donna-Lee Frieze (London/New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).
  9. James Loeffler, Becoming Cleopatra. The forgotten Zionism of Raphael Lemkin, in: Journal of Genocide Research 19 (2017), Vol. 3, 340–360.
  10. Michael R. Marrus, Three Jewish Émigrés at Nuremberg. Hersh Lauterpacht, Jacob Robinson, and Raphael Lemkin, in: Ezra Mendelsohn/Richard Cohen,/Stefani Hoffman (eds.), Against the Grain. Jewish Intellectuals in Hard Times (New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books 2014), 240–254.
  11. Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell. America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
  12. Adam Redzik/Julian Bakowski, Rafael Lemkin (1900–1959). Co-Creator of International Criminal Law. Short Biography (Warsaw: Oficyna Allerhanda – Instytut Allerhanda, 2017).
  13. Philippe Sands, East West Street. On The Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ (New York: Vintage Books, 2017).
  14. Ana Filipa Vrdoljak, Human Rights and Genocide. The Work of Lauterpacht and Lemkin in Modern International Law, in: The European Journal of International Law 20 (2009), Vol. 4, 1163–1194


[1] See, e.g., Sands, 2017.

[2] The information on the dates of his enrollment at Lwów university range between 1919 and 1921; statements on his first subject of study differ as well, which in some accounts appears to be linguistics, as also described in Lemkins autobiography; some sources, however, suggest he enrolled in legal studies right away (s. e.g. Irvin-Erickson, 2017, 35).

[3] Those were, in his first year there, Leon Pininski and Marceli Chlamatacz (Roman Law), Wladyslaw Abraham (Church Law), Mścisław Wartenberg (Philosophy), Ernest Till and Roman Longchamps de Bérier (Civil Law), Aleksander Doliński (Commercial Law), Kamil Stefko and Maurycy Allerhand (Civil Procedure), Zbigniew Pazdro (Administrative Law), Ignacy Weinfeld (Financial Law), Jan Piekałkiewicz (Statistics), Julian Nowotny (Criminal Law), Leopold Caro (Economy), Piotr Stebelski (Criminal Procedure), Oswald Balzer (History of Law), Stanisław Starzyński (Constitutional Law), Ludwik Ehrlich (International Law), and Juliusz Makarewicz (Criminal Policy) (Redzik , 2017, 14).

[4] It is believed that Lemkin could have met Emil Stanisław Rappaport, who would support him later in his career, at one of Makarewicz seminars or around at least around the faculty, where Rappaport worked as an assistant professor (Redzik, 2017, 15).

Author – Sophie Rabenow

The research was done in the framework of the seminar "Stadtgeschichte Digital" at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, taught by Dr. Martin Rohde, winter term 2021/22.