Raphael Lemkin has been described by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as “one of the unsung heroes of the international human rights movement.” In a little-known chapter in his life, Lemkin spent time at the Duke University School of Law during World War II.
Lemkin was born in 1901 to a large Jewish family in Bezwodene, Poland. After law school, he worked as the Public Prosecutor for the district court of Warsaw and as secretary of the Committee on Codification of the Laws of the Polish Republic. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the entire Lemkin family was killed, save Raphael and his brother Elias. He fled to Sweden, where he lectured at the University of Stockholm for two years. In Sweden, he began collecting documents on Nazi rule in occupied Europe. In a 1941 escape, Lemkin traveled across Siberian Russia, through Japan, and across the Pacific to finally arrive in the United States.
Malcolm McDermott, a member of the Duke Law faculty at the time, was Lemkin’s good friend and brought him to North Carolina in 1941. At the time, Lemkin held a degree of Doctor Juris from the University of Lwow in Poland.
With McDermott, Lemkin translated The Polish Penal Code of 1932 into English. Lemkin served as a “special lecturer” on Comparative Law and Roman Law at Duke between 1941 and 1942. During the Summer Session, he gave a series of lectures on Comparative Government.
Lemkin spoke at many engagements while in Durham, such as the opening session of the North Carolina Bar Association’s 44th annual convention, where he discussed “Law and Lawyers in European Subjugated Countries.” While at Duke, Lemkin published the article “The treatment of young offenders in continental Europe” in the periodical Law and Contemporary Problems in 1942.
Also during his time at Duke University, Lemkin began writing his major work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), which analyzed Axis authority and policies in occupied Europe. “Genocide,” a term coined by Lemkin, appears for the first time in print in this book.
In 1942, Lemkin left Duke to serve as chief consultant on the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration, and he was subsequently appointed as a special advisor on foreign affairs to the U.S. Department of War. In 1945-46 Lemkin worked as an advisor to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Nuremberg Trial Chief Justice, Robert Jackson.
Although he fought unsuccessfully to have the word genocide introduced in the trial, he later drafted and lobbied for the passage of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that eventually took place in 1948. His work is described as “a counterintuitive leap of the imagination beyond the realm of what common sense deemed possible” by Michael Ignatieff of Harvard University.
Lemkin was nominated in 1950 and 1952 for the Nobel Peace Prize. He died in 1959 in New York.
Morel Jones, Duke 2006