Powell-Heller Conference for Holocaust Education

About Raphael Lemkin

This lecture is named in honor of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born Jew who escaped from Nazi-controlled Poland during the war. After many perilous adventures across Europe at war, Lemkin made it to the United States. He obtained a position teaching international law at Duke University. While at Duke he was asked to serve on the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare and later he became a special advisor on foreign affairs at the War Department.

Lemkin was a tireless fighter for human rights. He studied what the Nazis were doing and compiled material into a book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It this book on occupation, Lemkin created a new word to describe what he termed “the crime with no name.” The word he made was genocide. “Genocide” is derived from the Greek word :”genos” (race, clan) and the Latin suffix “cide” (killing). He defined genocide as a state sponsored, coordinated attempt to annihilate a national group of people.

Lemkin was so dedicated to preventing further genocides that he –at his own expense- spent all of his days at the United Nations Organization. There, he tried his best to convince UN Delegates to support his draft of the Genocide Convention. When the General Assembly at the U.N. approved the Convention on 9 December 1948, reporters went searching for Lemkin to get his reaction. Legend has it that the reporters located Lemkin, in a darkened assembly hall, weeping in solitude.

Lemkin’s dedication to preventing future genocides made him a tireless fighter for human rights. Before his death in 1959 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (twice). He won numerous awards but he died largely penniless and alone.

Each year, PLU offers students a chance to participate in a Lemkin Essay contest. Students are asked to write a 7-10 page essay on the topic “Genocide: What does it mean to you?” A panel of faculty members judge the essays. The first place essay winner will be awarded $750. Second place award is $250. All essay contributors will be invited to attend the Lemkin Lecture on April 7, 2016 where the awards will be announced.