Totally Unofficial Brings Lemkin the Man into Focus


By Gabriella Gage

Mirror-Spectator Staff

The recently-released Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin begins with an introduction by editor Donna-Lee Frieze into the life of the “Insistent Prophet,” international crusader against genocide, Raphael Lemkin. The chapter opens with Lemkin’s death from a heart attack, as he stands alone at the 42nd Street bus stop in New York City on August 29, 1959. This tragic opening sets the tone for Lemkin’s own narrative — the story of a single man, on a crusade to change the world against all odds and with tremendous sacrifice.

Born in 1900, Lemkin was the son of Polish-Jewish parents. He was a gifted child with a keen interest in literature and the ability to read and converse in multiple languages. He spent the first 10 years of his life on a farm called Ozerisko in what is present-day Belarus.

As a young man, Lemkin was keenly interested in events surrounding the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks and the subsequent suppression of these events in public consciousness.

He studied at the John Casimir University in Lviv and then the University of Heidelberg in Germany, returning to Lviv eventually to earn his law degree. He then began work as a public prosecutor in Warsaw and started to develop language and case studies for presentation on what he would later deem “genocide” to present at various global assemblies, including the League of Nations conference.

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Lemkin served in the Polish army during World War II, narrowly escaping German capture only to find that he had lost dozens of relatives during the Holocaust. He continued his work for justice after the war and lectured as a professor in the US and provided advice to several human rights-oriented trials.

Chapter Nine of his autobiography provides a firsthand account of the events in Geneva and later Paris during his presentation before the United Nations General Assembly proposing the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.

The UN adopted this convention which used Lemkin’s case-study of the Armenian Genocide and his language for defining the term genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”

The convention came into force when the 20th nation ratified the treaty in 1951. Currently 142 states have ratified the convention.

While at times the work seems more hagiography, than autobiography, Lemkin’s dedication to this cause and accompanying indignation place this reverence for his legacy in an understandable context.

As editor, Frieze seems to understand Lemkin’s overwhelming dedication to his task and to recognize the notion of his own self-importance in the appropriate context and marry it with his personal sacrifices. As a narrative, Lemkin’s unfinished biography can at times be a heavy read and the notion of one man’s journey to change the world can at times neglect surrounding geopolitical circumstances and key players that contributed to Lemkin’s success.

The strength of the text is in its personal historical utility and understanding of both a hugely influential historical figure and his struggles. Despite tendencies into what can seem indulgent self-awareness, it is impossible to argue with Lemkin’s dedication and ultimate impact. Indeed, it is this honesty and accurate depiction of Lemkin’s psyche — both the dedication and the understanding of his own self-importance — that is so unique as a resource for understanding the humanity behind historical heroes, as opposed to removing them from criticism or avoiding study at the personal level. It also serves as a reminder that there is still much left to be done in order to prevent further atrocities around the world.

Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin

Edited by Donna-Lee Frieze

Yale University Press

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