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Man Who Coined the Term Genocide is Honored

December 16, 1983
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The man who coined the word genocide to describe the mass murder of ethnic, racial and religious groups and who, more than anyone else was responsible for the United Nations vote to outlaw such heinous acts, was honored here in a program sponsored by the B’nai B’rith International and the New York Public Library.

The man is the late Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born Jewish lawyer, who coined the word genocide from the Greek word for “race” (geno) and the Latin word for “killing” (cide).

Tribute was paid to Lemkin, who died in 1959 at the age of 58, by Jorge lllueca of Panama, President of the United Nations General Assembly; Gerald Kraft, president of B’nai B’rith International; Dr. Vartan Gregorian, president of the New York Public Library; Prof. Louis Henkin of Columbia University Law School and president of the U.S. Institute for Human Rights; and Bayard Rustin, chairman of the executive committee of Freedom House.

The tribute marked the 35th anniversary of the UN’s approval to outlaw genocide. It also marked the opening of a two-month display of Lemkin’s writings, including his voluminous correspondence with world leaders of the 1940’s and 1950’s, his unfinished and unpublished history of world genocide and his autobiography, at the New York Public Library’s central research branch in Manhattan. Lemkin published more than a dozen books, nearly all on international law.

The library and B’nai B’rith agreed to co-sponsor the exhibition after Dr. William Korey, director of policy research for the International Council of B’nai B’rith, learned of the whereabouts of Lemkin’s papers. Korey suggested the special observance of the genocide treaty to Gregorian. The latter said the exhibition of Lemkin’s papers by the library was fitting because Lemkin did a great deal of research there.


Lemkin, who often represented his homeland at international conferences — he spoke nine languages — was a living victim of genocide. Except for himself and his brother, his entire family of 49 persons, including his mother and father, was liquidated by the Nazis following the fall of Poland.

He escaped to Sweden and then came to the United States, where he taught at Duke and Yale universities. When the UN set up a temporary headquarters at Lake Success, N.Y., he gave up academia to press for the Genocide Convention.

The treaty was approved unanimously in 1948 and thus far 92 nations have ratified it. One exception is the United States which, although a leading force in formulating the treaty and the first to sign it, has been unable to force the Senate into making the ratification official.

Kraft said he hoped the display of Lem kin’s writings will spur a new effort in the Senate “and restore to the United States its proper role of a champion of international human rights and the rule of law.” He added that the failure to ratify the treaty has damaged America’s image. Kraft called on the White House to signal that it is prepared “to do battle” on behalf of Senate ratification.

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