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Recent Activity in the Raphael Lemkin Papers


The subject of genocide is a difficult one to broach. Mass atrocity inflicted upon innocent people is not necessarily a favorite choice of reading. In my experience, it can be all too easy to ignore such tragedies even as they continue around the world today. Instead, we perhaps turn a blind eye to suffering and carry on with daily life as if safe from far away conflict. However, to honor April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, this post recounts recent efforts to bring more attention to the Polish philologist and international lawyer who coined the word genocide. The Raphael Lemkin papers have been safely held at NYPL since 1982. We expect more people will realize the significance of this collection as scholars, researchers, and the general public discover the life and achievement of Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959.)

Lemkin’s papers were donated to NYPL by Alexander Gabriel. Gabriel had been a reporter for the Transradio News Agency where he prepared copy to air on radio stations throughout the United States during World War II. Later, he served as head of the United Nations Press Office. Gabriel and Lemkin's friendship was likely based on the necessity for information exchange. Lemkin followed the news closely as he campaigned large and small for the terms of the Genocide Convention. Gabriel in turn relied on Lemkin for communication with various diplomats and policy makers in UN circles.

Typescript page from Lemkin's autobiography describes events of September 6, 1939.

Upon his death, typists formerly in Lemkin’s employ reached out to Gabriel to alert him of papers stored in the coal bin of his small apartment. Lemkin died penniless having spent his life's energy devoted to the great moral cause of genocide prevention. An estate lawyer advised Gabriel to keep Lemkin’s papers safe until their proper disposition was decided. In 1983, then New York Public Library President Vartan Gregorian supported the acquisition of Lemkin’s papers and intended for portions, including the unpublished autobiography, to be published. The papers were then cataloged, microfilmed, and continue to be accessed by people of all backgrounds each year.

Lemkin's autobiography published

Raphael Lemkin’s draft autobiography, 'Unofficial Man,' was finally published in 2013 by Yale University Press under the title “Totally Unofficial.” Its title derives from a New York Times editorial which described Lemkin as “that exceedingly patient and totally unofficial man.” Lemkin's autobiography finally reaching print was a result of efforts by Australian scholar Donna-Lee Frieze. "Totally Unofficial" is in fact drawn from the autobiographical writings found in the Lemkin papers. These unpublished autobiographical writings exist in manuscript drafts, composition books, and incomplete typescripts. Frieze painstakingly transcribed what she could from the Lemkin papers both at the Library and via a microfilm copy which she purchased herself for use in Australia. In his review essay of the book in the New Republic, The Unsung Hero Who Coined the Term "Genocide" Michael Ignatieff brings us closer to the Lemkin's unfinished life:

"He devoted every spare minute of his final years to a world history of genocide. This project, mad in its Borgesian determination to create a total encyclopedia of world cruelty, lay unfinished at his death. It would be easy to turn aside from Lemkin’s bleak obsessions or to dismiss them as sadomasochistic were they not paired with a redeeming belief that fate had chosen him to save future generations from the genocidal furies that had claimed his own family."

Readers may likely wonder if the Lemkin papers are available on-line, if they have been digitized. They have not. Perhaps in the future they will and those interested in such a project should add a comment below. Those interested in Raphael Lemkin, however, can now access his autobiography in print. "Totally Unofficial" is available at the Dorot Jewish Division as the Library's catalog indicates here.

A letter to Lemkin confirmed the word genocide had been added to the dictionary

Coining a new word

It was fitting for Lemkin to invent, or initiate use of a new word. A student of philology, he could speak 12 languages accrued over his life in Poland and exile in Sweden and America. As Frieze notes, “Lemkin did not just invent the word “genocide,” he labored for years to ensure the act became an influential component within international law.” Combining the words genos (Greek for family or race) and -cide (Latin for killing,) the word’s structure adheres to others such as tyrannicide, homicide, or patricide.

Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group,” the OED cites Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe as the first appearance of the word. If we consider genocide to mean only extermination of life, we overlook its Greek root 'genos.' Genos means a social group of common descent, almost like a culture or nation. For Lemkin, a nation was a unity of ideas, language, and customs. Thus genos-cide is the extermination or destruction of an actual culture, the disappearance of a way of life and set of customs. Its effects are further reaching than the destruction of individuals. Lemkin's papers include a letter from the G. & C. Merriam Company sent upon the addition of the word genocide to their New International Dictionary. This document, rarely seen, serves as a great source, even possible treasure, to genocide scholars today.

A class visit and a conference

Recently, faculty and students from the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights (CGHR,) part of the Rutgers Division of Global Affairs at the Newark campus of Rutgers University visited the Library. The visit coincided with a course project and collaboration with CGHR Director, Professor Alexander Hinton. Prof. Hinton's students were assigned to travel to the Library to perform a case study based on original research in the Lemkin papers. Although his autobiography is now published, Lemkin's multi-volume study of the history of genocide, described by Ignatieff as "mad in its Borgesian determination," remains only in manuscript. Thus, emerging genocide scholars accessed Lemkin's papers to learn how Lemkin himself studied genocide. A diligent researcher, Lemkin scoured world history to compile an exhaustive account of genocide from antiquity to the Ukrainian Genocide of 1932-1933 and beyond.

Faculty and Graduate Students of the Division of Global Affairs of Rutgers University visit the Brook Russell Astor Reading Room in March, 2014

For Prof. Hinton's class, it was a great honor to view Lemkin's papers in person. Like Donna-Lee Frieze, students had all previously spent time with the papers via microfilm surrogate. However, during the visit, this group of reseachers was able to see the papers within the context of the archives. Some even tweeted pictures of doodles found in the margins of Lemkin's papers. The reactions of the Global Affairs students was mostly positive and made me wonder if archivists and librarians take for granted the significance of research as an experience itself.

Sarah R. Husseini, a student and delegate from the Permanent Mission of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations described the class: "It has been such an interesting experience having the opportunity to use an archive for research, and such a different way of thinking from typical internet based research. This has been a particularly interesting method for my topic, exploring the potential for an Optional Protocol on Cultural Genocide, as there is not a lot of information made public about this vein of discussion of cultural genocide, and it is a "lost option" to diplomats working on social and cultural human rights issues at the United Nations. What will be the most eye-opening angle for this research paper, will be Lemkin's mindset for the inclusion, and subsequent removal of cultural genocide from the larger Convention on Genocide and I hope by using the documents available at the NYPL, through his handwritten notes and the documents, Lemkin's vision and decision making will come to light."

Marc Lane, another student, added"The role of the archive has been integral to my research. In analyzing Lemkin’s legal framework of Genocide, merely going through his papers revealed aspects of his thought process which I could then apply to my own work. The power of the documents is that it allows us, as researchers, to not simply write papers about Lemkin, but write papers as Lemkin himself. We incorporate his idiosyncrasies and viewpoints, from the most obscure to the most obvious, and become better scholars of Genocide as a result."

The Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers University in Newark and the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights will host a conference, Genocide: Passages and Pathways, on April 4-5, 2014. A portion of this conference will focus on Raphael Lemkin and Critical Genocide Studies and include student work.

And a movie

Finally, 2014 will see the release of 'Watchers of the Sky,' a film which seeks to uncover the forgotten life of Raphael Lemkin by linking his legacy to visionary humanitarians working today. Filmmaker Edet Belzberg and her team of producers from Propeller Films visited NYPL on a number of occasions to study the Lemkin papers and take inspiration from documents saved from the coal bin. Lemkin's papers impacted the filmmakers' artistic process. The 'Watchers of the Sky' trailer includes animations of text and handwriting rendered directly from documents in the archives. Lemkin's handwriting, animated on screen from pages of his autobiography, opens up possibility for a deeper connection with this scholar, lawyer, and refugee. I personally look forward to the film's appearence and hope others interested in Lemkin and his enduring cause are also able to see it soon.

'Watchers of the Sky' Clip from The Playlist on Vimeo.

Raphael Lemkin was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 and 1952. He died while attempting to publish his autobiography but lives on in archives at NYPL and via the efforts of others who continue to combat all acts of genocide and human rights atrocities. For more information about April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month go to United to End Genocide and World Without Genocide. Other institutions also hold Raphael Lemkin papers including the American Jewish Historical Society and American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Raphael Lemkin reading list


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Watchers of the Sky

Hello, thank you for this great piece on Lemkin. I wanted to let you know that "Watchers of the Sky" will be screened at the Center for Jewish History in May. For more info visit:

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