Raphael Lemkin: The man who coined the word ‘genocide’

A new film tells the story of a visionary who set the stage for the Nuremberg trials – but who died penniless and alone. Tom Brook reports.

“We are in the presence of a crime without a name.” Winston Churchill struggled to articulate what was happening in Europe when he expressed his unease in 1941; yet one man gave it a name. Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin – who lost 49 members of his family in Nazi concentration camps – coined the word ‘genocide’ after fleeing his native Poland during World War II.

Sundance award-winning documentary Watchers of the Sky chronicles his crusade to create a law that could protect civilians from mass atrocities. The film weaves interviews with archive footage, featuring those continuing Lemkin’s struggle and showing that the issue is still relevant today. “I think that you just have to turn on the news,” its director Edet Belzberg tells Tom Brook. “It’s very apparent that genocide is going on.”

Little is known of Lemkin himself, and when he died penniless in 1959, just a handful of people attended his funeral.  The documentary shows a few black-and-white images of Lemkin, but relies on animation to tell his story. Belzberg argues that chimes with Lemkin’s own philosophy.

“He really believed that creativity and beauty were so important, and it’s what we as humans have to give,” she says. “The way he described his childhood, and also the fairy tales that influenced him as a child … it just seemed like a natural thing to bring his story to life in that way.”

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