Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin

Yale University Press  2013

 
The unfinished autobiography of a relatively obscure man best known for inventing the term ‘genocide’ and for advocating for United Nations ratification of a convention banning genocide in the 1950s, may not seem a terribly compelling book to most readers. Even literary omnivores may decide they know quite enough about Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) after reading Frieze’s introductory biographical sketch. A better approach might be to save that essay for later, and dive right into Lemkin’s life story. 

He begins with his earliest memories, growing up on a Polish farm in the early 1900s, where a tree might be so large, five or six children had to join hands to circle its trunk. We follow Lemkin to towns where he begins formal schooling and employment, certain—as he could not have been—that catastrophe is imminent. When the Nazis infest Poland, Lemkin escapes a transport of Jews from Warsaw and makes an extraordinary, mostly nocturnal trek across the forests and villages of Poland, just to see his parents one last time. While his freedom—his life—often hangs by a thread, it’s Lemkin’s observations of people and places en route that command attention. After a tearful farewell with his family, Lemkin becomes a full-fledged refugee, traveling from one temporary safe zone to the next, through Europe to Sweden, then across the Soviet Union to Japan before arriving in America. 

After reaching America the narrative switches gears, as Lemkin recounts his struggles to convince strategic diplomats to rally to the anti-genocide cause. Since Lemkin never lived to finish or edit this narrative, it simply ends as he did, semi-destitute but determined to see his cause to fruition. For human rights scholars, this is an essential purchase, although Lemkin has strange appeal even for the general reader. Appendixes, bibliography, index, introduction, notes.


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