Wednesday, March 12, 2008

'A man called Lemkin'

Well, Samantha Power flamed out last week when she was asked to resign as an adviser to Barack Obama. Turned out her views of Hillary Clinton were similar to the worst held by some evangelicals. That wasn't the problem; the problem was that she was a bit too candid in sharing it.

Still, I'm enjoying the Pulitzer Prize-winning book she wrote a few years back, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." A central character of this story is Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish lawyer who fled Poland for the United States, losing most his family in the process, and dedicated his life to fighting "genocide," a word that he created.

History has remembered Lemkin well, even if his contemporaries found him an obsessive annoyance. But of the Lemkin remembrances, I like Abe Rosenthal's best.
The story in the paper reported that after 40 years of consideration the U.S. Senate voted last Friday to make it a Federal offense to commit genocide. That is the crime of acting with intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

The story did not mention a man called Lemkin.

Raphael Lemkin pokes his head into a newspaper office in the headquarters of the United Nations in the village of Lake Success on Long Island.

''Here is that pest, that Lemkin,'' he says. ''I have a genocide story for you.''

Everybody groans; Oh, Lemkin again? He makes a funny face, folds his hands in begging gestures. The reporters gather around for a few minutes. He gets his little story about the genocide convention, usually tucked away in the paper on a Sunday.

Raphael Lemkin was a Polish professor of law, a distinguished academician who spoke nine languages. He was a Jew. During the Holocaust the Germans murdered 49 members of his family; see how few words it takes to tell the whole story.

He escaped to Sweden, reached the United States, found good positions at Duke and Yale. He left them and gave himself over to his life's work.

His work was to convince the nations of the world that they must make it a crime to plan or carry out another Holocaust of any people. He coined ''genocide'' from the Greek word for race and the Latin for killing. He wrote a convention, a treaty for the nations to sign.

Then he walked the corridors of the U.N. He stopped journalists, took junior delegates by the arm and hung on until they listened, at least a moment. To see an ambassador, he would plan and plot for weeks and sit for days in reception rooms.

He had no money, no office, no assistants. He had no U.N. status or papers, but the guards always let him pass. He carried a black briefcase stuffed with documents and his daily sandwich.

He knew that when he opened the door people would say: What, Lemkin, you here again? Sometimes it was said affectionately, sometimes with distaste. Then he would pretend he did not care. But there were many days when he sat slumped in the cafeteria over a cup of coffee, barely able to lift it for the weariness in him and the rebuff.

But if he had to wheedle and plead he did. If he met an arrogant delegate who had influence, he made himself small and fawned. Then he would turn away and make the small smacking noises of a man trying to get a bad taste out of his mouth.

He would bluff a little sometimes about pulling political levers, but he had none. All he had was himself, his briefcase and the conviction burning in him. We would say to him: Lemkin, what good will it do to write mass murder down as a crime; will a piece of paper stop a new Hitler or Stalin?

Then he put aside cajolery and his face stiffened.

''Only man has law. Law must be built, do you understand me? You must build the law!''

He walked the halls every day from the spring of 1946 until Dec. 9, 1948, when the General Assembly, in Paris, adopted a resolution approving his convention. That day reporters went looking for him to rejoice in his triumph. But we could not find him until, hours later, we thought to look into the darkened Assembly hall. He sat there weeping as if his heart would break. He asked please to be left in solitude. Then this Lemkin came back to the corridors for years, pleading with delegation after delegation to follow through on the U.N. resolution by getting their countries to sign the treaty. There was a time when he was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize; Winston Churchill backed him.

But he died alone on Aug. 28, 1959, without medals or prizes, in a hotel in New York. There were seven people at the graveside when Raphael Lemkin was buried.

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