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Dr. Raphael Lemkin, Father of “genocide” Fight, Dies in New York; Was 58

August 31, 1959
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Dr. Raphael Lemkin, the world’s leading individual proponent of the international movement to outlaw genocide, and the man who coined the term “genocide,” died here this week-end. He was 58.

The Jewish authority on international law was born at Bezwodene, Poland. He studied law at the University of Lwow, and later at the University of Heidelberg. While practicing law in Warsaw, in 1933, he started a campaign before the League of Nations to outlaw mass murder of people because of their religion or ethnic origin. He failed to obtain League action on this score. However, after World War II, he continued his campaign before the United Nations.

He had coined the term “genocide”–stemming from the Greek word “genos” (race) and the Latin “cide” (killing). At the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, in 1948, the UN adopted its convention outlawing genocide. To date, 56 member states have ratified the convention.

Dr. Lemkin had come to the United States in 1941, after all but one other member of his family, a brother, Elias, had been wiped out by the Nazis in Poland. He taught law at Duke University and was an advisor to the War Department. During the war crimes trials after World War II, at Nurnberg, he acted as advisor to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, chief United States prosecutor at Nurnberg. Later, he taught international law at Yale, was a professor of law at Rutgers University, and taught at Princeton University.

He wrote a number of books on the subject of genocide, and was at work on an autobiography when he died suddenly of a heart attack. He had received many honors and decorations, and was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1950 and 1952.

In the corridors, assembly rooms and delegates’ lounges at the United Nations, Dr. Lemkin was very well known to all diplomats and ranking members of the Secretariat. He was always at work on his mission–to obtain more and more backing for the convention outlawing genocide. An American citizen, he frequently expressed disappointment that his own adopted country, the United States, had never ratified that convention. The U.S.A. delegation insisted that ratification of the convention would trespass upon American sovereignty.

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