Raphael Lemkin started thinking about the injustice of the fact that there is punishment for killing a single person, but for the extermination of entire nations, there is none already in 1921, while studying philology at the Lviv University.
To his question about this discrepancy, the professor replied: “Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens. He kills them, and this is his business, his sovereign right. If you interfere, you are trespassing.”
The sovereignty of countries then assumed complete freedom of action for the rulers, up to the extermination of large groups of the population, without any legal consequences for the perpetrators.
To correct this mistake, after a philological education Lemkin received a degree in law and began to develop legislation to prosecute and prevent the massacres of ethnic groups.
The combination of philology and jurisprudence played a decisive role in the emergence of the coined by him term “genocide” — the combination of two words from different languages: “genos” (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and “cide” (Latin for killing).
For the first time in legal practice, the definition of “genocide” was voiced and applied by Lemkin at the Nuremberg trials, including in relation to the mass extermination of Jews. And in 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Winston Churchill, who called such crimes “a crime without a name,” twice supported the candidacy of Raphael Lemkin for the Nobel Peace Prize, but, unfortunately, both times unsuccessfully.
The European Day of the Righteous Among the Nations is celebrated on March 6. Although the Jew Raphael Lemkin, whose 49 relatives had been killed during the Holocaust, could not formally receive the title of the Righteous, awarded to non-Jews for saving Jews, he was essentially such a person, having devoted his whole life to saving millions of lives and preventing tragedies like the Holocaust in the future.
Join me, Boris Lozhkin, on Twitter @lozhkin_boris for news and commentary on Judaism in Ukraine and around the world. Follow me on Facebook for updates on the work of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine.
Find out more about my work at borislozhkin.org.