Rafał Lemkin (better known as Raphael Lemkin) was born in a country that did not exist. In 1900, the year of Lemkin’s birth, Poland had not yet regained its independence, yet Rafał Lemkin considered himself Polish. The village of Bezwodne (not too far from Grodno, now in Belarus), the birthplace of this great man, lay in what was then Imperial Russia. Being both Polish (with no Poland) and Jewish (with Anti-Semitism particularly strong in Imperial Russia), Lemkin knew exactly what it meant to be part of an ostracised minority. He knew what it meant to be different. He was therefore also acutely aware of the importance and value of freedom.
Rafał Lemkin studied linguistics at the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów. While at Lwów, he became interested and then began researching the Armenian massacre at the hands of the Turks in 1915-1916. He was later to continue his research into similar massacres of this kind with work on the Simele massacre in which the Iraqi government ordered the murder and forced exile of the Assyrians in 1933. Lemkin, through his research, became interested in crime and justice and, through his grounding in linguistics, was disturbed by the lack of definitions of various crimes, particularly those perpetrated by the Turks and the Iraqis.
When Hilter began his rampage through Poland killing Jews, Poles and many others in the Nazi death camps, Lemkin saw that the mistakes and atrocities of the past perpetrated on the Armenians and Assyrians were coming back to haunt humanity and in particular him – he was both Jewish and Polish. He felt the need to define these atrocities from a criminal (and linguistic) point of view. In 1943 Lemkin coined the word genocide from the Greek genos (tribe, race) and the Latin –cide (killing) to describe what Hitler and the Nazis were doing. Lemkin’s definition of genocide became a part of international law and one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials against Nazi war criminals.
In his own words, Lemkin said, “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group… Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor”. The word “genocide” has been in the news in recent weeks. Many Polish politicians declare the Katyń massacre of 1940 by the Soviets on Polish military officers and intellectuals to be genocide. The Russians, of course, do not agree. Several days ago, the Deputy Speaker of the House Stefan Niesiołowski hit the headlines by stating that Katyń was a war crime, not genocide.
This comment has not only outraged members of the opposition, particularly Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jarosław Kaczyński, but also members of Niesiołowski’s own party Civic Platform (PO). Kaczyński claims that Niesiołowski has gone too far and is being disloyal to his country. The Polish parlimanent wishes to pass a resolution this week regarding the atrocities of WWII. The PiS resolution talks about genocide, rape, murder perpertrated on the Polish nation by two totalitarian governments. PO prefers a milder resolution. However, the question of whether Katyń is “genocide” (as Lemkin defined it) or not still seems unresolved.