Raphael Lemkin and Samantha Power's Problem From Hell

50 Years Later, Legal Scholar's Writings on Genocide Prove Prescient

Raphel Lemkin, who died penniless in 1959, was the hero of Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, ‘A Problem From Hell.’
Ambassador of Nuremberg
Raphel Lemkin, who died penniless in 1959, was the hero of Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, ‘A Problem From Hell.’

By Gabriel Sanders

Published July 29, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.
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Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin
Edited by Donna-Lee Frieze
Yale University Press, 328 pages, $35

Ten years ago, Samantha Power won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “A Problem From Hell,” a history of American inaction in the face of genocide. As she awaits Senate confirmation to be the country’s next ambassador to the United Nations, the book offers a glimpse into Power’s political philosophy — and a sense of whom she might want to emulate as America’s voice at the world body.

The hero of Power’s book — insofar as a book on genocide can be said to have a hero — is Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish legal scholar who coined the term “genocide” and fought to have the concept recognized by the U.N. In Power’s telling, Lemkin emerges as a tireless crusader who gives both form and name to the ultimate crime. And yet, Power’s portrait is not entirely sympathetic. Her Lemkin is humorless, arrogant, serious to a fault — a longwinded nag whom correspondents on deadline would avoid like the plague.

A decade after Power’s book, Lemkin is being given the chance to speak for himself. When he died, in 1959 — bitter, penniless and alone — Lemkin was nearly finished writing an autobiography. More than a half-century later, Yale University Press, in an edition painstakingly assembled from a variety of drafts, is now publishing the book.

By 21st-century standards, this is an unusual memoir — light on introspection, heavy on historical detail. As the book’s editor, Donna-Lee Frieze, astutely points out, it is an autobiography that ultimately gives way to a “biography” of the Genocide Convention that Lemkin conceived and championed.

Born in 1900, Lemkin was raised on a farm in eastern Poland (now Belarus) where he, his siblings and his cousins spent their days running around as part of a “happy gang.” Lemkin’s idyllic — perhaps idealized — portrait of farm life stands in stark contrast with the solitary, urban life he later came to lead.

Lemkin describes as a formative experience the 1921 trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian accused of murdering a Turkish minister identified as one of the architects of what later became known as the Armenian Genocide. Tehlirian was acquitted; he had acted, a Berlin court said, under “psychological compulsion.” For Lemkin, there was deep irony in the verdict — and a cautionary tale. “Tehlirian, who upheld the moral order of mankind, was classified as insane,” he writes. “But can a man appoint himself to mete out justice?” After earning a law degree in Lvov, Lemkin became a public prosecutor in Warsaw and an active figure on the international legal scene.

Among the notable features of Lemkin’s legal thinking is that he begins talking about the “destruction of groups” as early as 1927. (He doesn’t use the term “genocide” — a combination of the Greek genos, meaning “race,” and the Latin cide, for “murder” — until 1944.) And though the Holocaust clearly played a role in the evolution of his concept — to say nothing of the urgency with which he fought to have it enshrined into law — genocide, for Lemkin, was meant not as shorthand for the murder of the Jews, but as a comparative term with deep, indeed ancient, historical roots.

On September 6, 1939, Lemkin fled Warsaw and, with Nazi tanks blocking the highways and the Luftwaffe targeting train stations, headed into Poland’s forests. After the Soviets invaded from the East, he decided to flee to then-neutral Lithuania. While there, he contacted a Duke University professor who ultimately secured a position for him there. But to get to North Carolina, Lemkin went the long way, traveling through Latvia, then Sweden, where he briefly taught international law, then to Moscow and on to the Pacific via the trans-Siberian railway. From Vladivostok he traveled to Japan and then across the ocean to Seattle. He topped things off with a cross-country train ride. But while Lemkin found his way to freedom, the bulk of his family did not. Close to 50 of his relatives perished.

Lemkin’s career in the 1940s and ’50s was animated by a kind of survivor’s guilt. At certain moments, he addresses this directly: “I was ashamed of my helplessness in dealing with the murderers of humanity,” he writes, “a shame that has not left me to this day.” At other points, his expressions of guilt are more oblique. Before leaving Poland, he paid a final visit to his parents. His mother’s parting words — as reported by Lemkin — seem more the product of wish fulfillment than reality:

You realize, Raphael, that it is you, not we, who needs protection now…. [O]f all of us only you do not live the life of love. You are the lonely and the loveless one. Still, you have been carrying the burden of your idea, which is based on love…. We know you will continue your work, for the protection of peoples. Unfortunately, it is needed now more than ever before.

It is the book’s falsest-sounding note — and its most heartbreaking.

In Washington, D.C., Lemkin served as a consultant to the Board of Economic Warfare and, later, as an adviser to the War Department. He tried to draw attention to the fact that the Axis powers planned nothing less than the “destruction of the peoples under their control.” He sent a memo to FDR, encouraging a treaty banning genocide. The president responded by urging “patience.” Lemkin worked with the prosecution team at Nuremberg but was unhappy with the result. “The Allies decided their case against a past Hitler,” he writes, “but refused to envisage future Hitlers.”

The problem with Nuremberg, in Lemkin’s eyes, was that it linked the destruction of groups with wars of aggression. According to international law as it stood in 1945, Germany really became culpable only when it crossed into Poland. Had the Nazis killed only German Jews, they would not have been liable. Lemkin’s aim was to undo this absurdity and uncouple genocide from war, and he ultimately succeeded. In December 1946, the U.N. passed a resolution condemning genocide. In December 1948, the General Assembly passed a law banning it, and in January 1951, the Genocide Convention went into force.

Lemkin’s single-mindedness did not come without costs. He alienated friends, made enemies and burned bridges. His work on the convention kept him from teaching — and earning. His health suffered. The final pages of his book offer a chilling picture of hand-to-mouth living: borrowing from one friend to repay another, mounting bills, moth-eaten clothes. By book’s end, he is a humbled, dying man looking to lay claim to the honor he felt was his due.

Lemkin has been called a prophet, and the term is not inapt. He understood humankind’s capacity for destruction earlier and more fully than any of his contemporaries. But prophets don’t always come in appealing packages or say what you want to hear — even from beyond the grave. Critics can argue that Lemkin accomplished nothing. Genocide marches on. But Rwanda and Srebrenica are not refutations of his legacy; they are affirmations of his prescience. Without Lemkin, they would have been atrocities. In the light of his Genocide Convention, they were crimes.

Gabriel Sanders is director of public programs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.


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