Total­ly Unof­fi­cial: The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin; Don­na-Lee Frieze, ed.
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By – August 28, 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 (19001959) 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.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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