Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin

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Among the greatest intellectual heroes of modern times, Raphael Lemkin lived an extraordinary life of struggle and hardship, yet altered international law and redefined the world’s understanding of group rights. He invented the concept and word “genocide” and propelled the idea into international legal status. An uncommonly creative pioneer in ethical thought, he twice was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Although Lemkin died alone and in poverty, he left behind a model for a life of activism, a legacy of major contributions to international law, and—not least—an unpublished autobiography. Presented here for the first time is his own account of his life, from his boyhood on a small farm in Poland with his Jewish parents, to his perilous escape from Nazi Europe, through his arrival in the United States and rise to influence as an academic, thinker, and revered lawyer of international criminal law.

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Editorial Reviews

New Republic - Michael Ignatieff
"If the history of the Western moral imagination is the story of an enduring and unending revolt against human cruelty, there are few more consequential figures than Raphael Lemkin—and few whose achievements have been more ignored by the general public. . . . Totally Unofficial is at its most alive when he evokes his childhood in the Jewish world of Eastern Europe before World War I. . . . Vivid chapters of Lemkin's autobiography describe the incredible odyssey of his escape."—Michael Ignatieff, New Republic
JM Northern Media LLC - Southern California Book Festival
Won Honorable Mention for the 2013 Southern California Book Festival, in the Biography/Autobiography category, sponored by JM Northern Media LLC.
JM Northern Media - New England Book Festival
Won an Honorable Mention for the 2013 New England Book Festival given by the JM Northern Media Family of Festivals, in the Biography/Autobiography Category.
TLS - Lawrence R. Douglas
'The publication of Lemkin’s autobiography…is…a welcome event.'—Lawrence R. Douglas, TLS
Kirkus Reviews
A previously unpublished biography of a pioneer in the field of international law who is responsible for inventing the word "genocide" and defining legal terms for preventing future genocidal acts. When Nobel Peace Prize nominee Lemkin died in 1959, the manuscript of his biography was near completion. However, it is only recently that Jewish historian Frieze digitized Lemkin's manuscript and, in the process, pulled the biography together into a readable narrative. The story of Lemkin's life begins with recollections of his early years on a farm in Lithuania (b. 1900), where he became engrossed with the natural world surrounding him and, also, began a fascination with reading about historical instances of group persecution. As the deputy public prosecutor of Warsaw, the Armenian genocide drove Lemkin toward a focus on the prevention of government attempts at destroying a collective identity. For Lemkin, the act of genocide did not just target the lives of a particular group, but it also aimed to destroy the cultural identity of the persecuted minority. The realities of genocide became personal when Lemkin was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Poland, while his family back in Poland fell as victims of the Holocaust. After making it to America, Lemkin sacrificed his physical health, the comforts of family life and the financial stability associated with faculty appointments at Duke and Yale to dedicate his life to alerting the world to the dangers of genocide. His dedication bore fruit when the United Nations ratified the Genocide Convention, but Raphael would spend the rest of his life alone and in poverty. Although the particulars of the inner workings of the U.N. can be overwhelming, the story is enriched by Lemkin's keen eye for describing the environment and characters that he encounters. An engaging account of one man's determination to overcome personal, financial and bureaucratic obstacles in his quest to pass a landmark law that would protect collective cultural life and identity.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300186963
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2013
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 1,393,197
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959), US jurist and Holocaust survivor, served as adviser to the U.S. War Department during World War II and played a crucial role in the discussions leading to the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Donna-Lee Frieze taught a graduate unit on genocide at Deakin University in Melbourne, lectures frequently on the Holocaust and genocide, and is a 2013 Prins Foundation Senior Scholar at the Center for Jewish History in New York City. She has digitized Lemkin’s entire autobiography, the original of which is held in the New York Public Library.

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Read an Excerpt

Totally Unofficial

The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin

By Donna-Lee Frieze


Copyright © 2013 Donna-Lee Frieze
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18696-3



Early Years

I WAS BORN IN A PART of the world historically known as Lithuania or White Russia, where Poles, Russians (or, rather, White Russians), and Jews had lived together for many centuries. They disliked each other and even fought, but in spite of this turmoil they shared a deep love for their towns, hills, and rivers. It was a feeling of common destiny that prevented them from destroying one another completely. This area was between ethnographic Poland to the west, East Prussia to the north, Ukraine to the south, and Great Russia to the east.

The Russians and Poles had fought for centuries for political supremacy in this area, while the Jews struggled for bare survival. A common proverb among the Jews went, "When three persons are in one bed under a common blanket, and when the man to the right pulls the blanket to himself, while the man to the left does likewise, the man in the middle is sure of being covered by the blanket."

I lived my first ten years on a farm called Ozerisko, fourteen miles from the city of Wolkowysk. The city was named after two brigands, Wolk and Wysk. In the seventeenth century these two men controlled a village built within a huge forest. From this village they led the people to rob and kill travelers and tradesmen. Wolk and Wysk were ultimately caught and hanged. But this ignominy did not prevent them from perpetuating themselves, if modestly, on the map of the world.

The city built on the site of their murderous exploits was later connected with many historic events. The Swedish and Napoleonic armies marched through it, and innumerable skirmishes took place there between the Russians and the Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians, and, earlier, between the Mongols and the Tartars.

Ozerisko lay in a large clearing between huge forests. It was a joint tenancy of two families, my father's and my uncle's. We children, who were mostly of the same age, spent our days together in one happy gang. When our parents were busy on the farm, especially in the summer months, the children escaped the control of eight parental eyes and had full freedom to explore and play in every corner of the farm.

Summer days on the farm started at sunrise. The alarm was given with amazing regularity by the roosters. They led the farm in its daily resurrection from oblivious sleep to the rhythm of toil. The earth was fresh from the chill of the night and silvery with dew. The animals breakfasted fast. The cows were prevented from kicking during the early milking by directing their personal attention to food. The fields again received their guests for the day: the farmhands and shepherds, sheep, horses, and cows. We were not permitted to get up so early, but from the windows we regularly watched the exodus of our friends. We were so much part of them that we could not miss this great moment.

When the timidity of the early sun changed to a bright flush of living gold, we ran to join the workers in the fields. Ahead of us was our friend and faithful companion, a dog called Riabczyk. He was all white except for a black button nose. He kept us company from early morning to night. Dogs usually absorb the moods of children more easily than those of adults. They integrate themselves forcefully into the lives of children because of the latter's spontaneity. Our dog always seemed to adjust his movements to the rhythm of our life. Sometimes it seemed to us that we were jumping with his feet or barking with his friendly voice. The dog and we were one.

This harmonious flow of busy happiness was sometimes interrupted by disasters. One day Riabczyk followed a rider on a horse who was passing on the road behind our farm. For some reason he started to bark at him. Then we suddenly heard a shot from the side of the road. The dog came running to us with a bleeding mouth. After several days of groaning, Riabczyk died. We cried bitterly, carried him to the top of a hill, and buried him at a spot we could see from our windows.

Although the farmhands treated us like nuisances, they missed us when we were not around. Occasionally they got help from us. We loved to listen to the metallic whisper of the swinging scythes and to the sighs of the clover and rye falling like wounded heroes. The workers used to laugh at our screams when we hurt our bare feet on the sharp stubs of the cut rye.

At noon, when the sun was in the middle of the sky, work stopped for luncheon and rest. The food was meager: black bread, raw onions, potato pudding, and sometimes cold tea or water. Then, within a minute, the farmhands' tired heads would fall on bundles of rye in heavy sleep. We watched how the sun would play on their noses and how they struggled through their sleep with fleas trying to enter their open mouths. While they were sleeping we jumped to the horses having their luncheon of grass. What fun we had stroking their thighs and plunging our fingers into their manes. If we were lucky we could gently caress one horse's silky nose. The horse would answer with a look of tender detachment, by sneezing or raising his ears. We were then sure he had returned our friendship.

Another outlet for our energies was riding horses. We were not permitted to disturb the farmhands during their day work. But at sunset we joined the workers in the fields, when they were ready to return to the farms. I remember with pride that I was three years old when I first rode a horse. My playmates argued that I was too small for this heroic sport. I felt humiliated and resented this inequality. I could not wait endlessly to grow up. I bribed myself into my first horse ride by offering a croissant to our farmhand. He ate the croissant with one hand and used the other hand to put me on the back of the white horse. I grabbed its mane and the world around me started to move as fast as a whirlpool. The sun was shining in my eyes. I saw nothing but the neck of the horse. When I approached the farm and the stables, my frightened mother and our barking dogs greeted me. Then I descended the horse, having achieved much cherished equality with my playmates. As I continued to ride the white horse every day, the feeling of joy deepened. I looked with pride from the horse downward at the earth, and my perception of the world unconsciously gained a new dimension.

The climax of farm life was the return of the entire animal world at sunset. The farm received each of us like a loving mother. First came the sheep and the cows, in a serious procession, some still chewing a last mouthful of grass. When the impatient shepherd put the sheep to run, the whole herd would descend upon the farm in a cloud of dust.

The first duty of the evening was to care for the thirsty. We, the happy gang of children, busily helped water the animals. The water was poured from buckets lifted by hand from the well. I can never forget how intensely they drank. It was as if new life was entering every part of their bodies. Their nostrils were enlarged and their eyes fixed as they sucked the water into their necks. There is a difference in the quenching of thirst between men and animals. Usually a man drinks when he wants, but an animal drinks when man wants it to drink. Desperate thirst exists always with animals, and fulfillment is overwhelming.

Several years later, in Paris, I was reminded of this difference when I saw the sketch by Daumier called "They Are Thirsty." It consists of two parts. In the upper part, men are drinking coffee in a Parisian cafe. They hold their cups nonchalantly and their faces express a blasé indifference. In the lower part, a worker and a horse are drinking directly from a stream with absorbing intensity.

The reception for our four-legged friends was like a huge cocktail party, crowded and noisy, all the animals clamoring for attention under the caresses of a sinking sun. Its rays set afire the windows of our house or tossed playful reflections on the horn of a cow or the shining steel of scythes put to rest. The doors of the stables were wide open, sending smells of manure and sweat into the evening air. The cows and horses were then driven into the stable for food and rest.

Image of Entirety

The adult population of the farm, lost in their daily chores, didn't realize how beautiful it all was. They saw only the part they touched with their hands and senses. But we were hungry to see all the marvels of our world at once. We climbed to the tops of trees and hay carts. When the hay and the clover was brought from the fields to be put into the hay barns, we rode on top of the mountainous carts. From there we could see the distant outskirts of the fields, the neighboring villages, and the roads. The joy of conquering space from the vantage point of a hay top was equaled only by the enchantment of the smell of hay and fresh clover.

Another way to look at the world from above was to climb trees. When the cherry season arrived we almost lived in the trees, like birds. We hid from our parents between the leaves. Who could resist the darkening fullness of a ripe cherry smiling alluringly from the green leaves? From the top we could see the dark green potato fields or the challenging yellow greeting of a carpet of flowers in the grass fields. The roads looked to us like wrinkles on a dear face and the forest like hair on the head of a giant.

The Forest

The forest was the heart of the farm. A great part of our food, like mushrooms, blackberries and raspberries, nuts and game, came from it. It sustained life on the farm by providing wood for fuel. In the winter, it replaced the warmth of the sun.

Many roads and paths led from the farm to the forest. We used each of them. To us little children, and especially to me, it was a place of a thousand miracles to be discovered every day, with more left over for tomorrow.

The trees were ancient and so broad in their trunks that sometimes it took the joined hands of five or six children to encircle them. When we thus felt our hearts pressed against the trunk of an oak, it was like listening to his secret and giving him our own. I especially liked the small clearings in the forest where shadows struggled with the jumping rays of the sun. This constant fight made green carpets on the green underbrush. Here we would find discreet mushrooms and timidly hidden raspberries, between the oaks and nuts growing on winding underbrush. What a joy it was to spy a bundle of nuts growing closely together high up, and then plan the strategy of bending the branches close to our grasping hands.

The ground of the forest was covered with dried leaves and pine needles, a ready-made bed for tired heads of child explorers, hungry for dreams. This was the world that gave me my first lessons in solitude. From an early age I took a special delight in being alone, so that I could think and feel without disturbance. At that time I did not understand the meaning and purpose of this feeling, but I fully enjoyed the delight of contemplation. Away from my companions, I spent hours in the forest listening through my third ear to how the story of life was sung by the sparrows, robins, crows, and blackbirds, the innumerable mosquitoes and insects. Though they played discordant instruments, they still produced harmonious melodies.

The Lake

On one end of the farm was a lake that slept peacefully in the summer in the shade of a row of white birches. To us children this lake exercised the special attraction of a tale begun and never ended. When we looked at the water and couldn't see the bottom, we felt that this lake held a mystery that it wouldn't reveal to us. On this lake we used to build barges with my brothers and playmates.

The barges were small, but when we were on top of them they appeared huge to us. We moved them by leaning on long sticks placed into the mud beneath the water. We played pirates, modern Vikings conquering foreign lands and castles that we built lavishly in our imagination.

On top of the rafts we felt like grown-ups. This desire to prove that we were doing things like adults was with us most of the day.

Once I put on my new trousers for our seafaring and fell into the water. It was my first spanking, by my mother, who in principle did not believe in violence. Apparently she wanted to save her son from future gallows, as Dr. Samuel Johnson's teacher said when he spanked his pupil.

Birch Tree

Somewhere between our house and the lake stood a lonely birch, leaning in the summer against a rye field. The birches on our farm, especially this one, had a special quality of containing and giving a white, aromatic juice. Sometimes it ran down the trunk into the soil. We would make a little hole in the trunk and soon see it fill with juice. We used straws to drink its lemonade. I was especially enamored of this birch. I used to lie for hours on the grass under its shadows after having quenched my thirst. To me the birch was more than a tree. I loved her dearly and was sorry when she got into trouble with the elements of nature. I watched from our house as she bravely defied the onslaughts of storms and lightning and stood half naked during the winter. Many years later, when I was searching for strength in the recollections of my youth, I wrote the following poem: [Poem not included.]


In a larger sense, the world of nature is one. Nature does not care why man has divided the rye field or the loam between two owners, or why he put down stones to mark a line of ownership. The same flowers grow on both sides of the property line, and the same sky, sun, and rain cover them. Children follow nature. While renting out the farm to our parents, the farm's owner retained for himself two fruit gardens and left to us only some fruit trees scattered over the farm. When summer came, the full ripeness of the black cherries, the juicy yellow pears and apples in both gardens exercised a powerful attraction upon us. Merely noticing that the gardens were empty was enough to send us jumping on the trees and plucking the fruit. Our parents pleaded with us to stop this mischief. We were caught several times by the aggrieved owner, sometimes at the very moment when our hands were stretching out for an alluring cherry or plum. This prohibition, we felt, was against nature. We simply could not look indifferently through the fence at the fruit, and we succumbed to our temptation.

In one of the gardens we removed a plank in the fence behind a bush. Through this hole we slipped inside. My heart was beating fast, and my head was almost dizzy with a feeling of danger. But my eye was already caressing the voluptuous fullness of a pear or an apple. One instant—the apples were already plucked and put quickly into our hats, which we wore especially for this. Then we ran to the hole in the fence. Our faces shone with excitement. I distinctly remember that this danger of stealing touched off waves of pleasure, quickening my pulse and firing my imagination.

I was, I think, three or four years old when I joined my playmates in the raids on the gardens. Despite my inclination for loneliness, I joined the raids because I wanted this excitement and equality. I was the youngest and had to fight my way up for the right to play on an equal footing. Participation in the fruit raids was the price I paid for acceptance.

One day my parents broached the subject. My father told me and my elder brother that stealing is forbidden by God, and God would punish us. I wondered how God could see what we were doing, but then it was explained that he sees everything. It was not, however, until we started to read and were shown the words in the Bible, "Do not steal," that we believed the prohibition was true. Originally we thought our parents were inventing another prohibition, like the one against driving barges. Our raids stopped: there was no way of preventing God from seeing us. There must have been symbolic power in the written words of the prohibition.

The Harvest

The labors of the summer culminated in the ceremony celebrating the harvest. On this memorable occasion the workers were served vodka and sausages in abundance. They drank and sang. The women put garlands of blue field flowers in their hair. A belt was made of rye, and each year a different person was chosen as the king of the harvest, around whom the belt was tied. Later, everyone danced around the "king." I remember that once I was given this honor. It was so abrupt that I stood blushing and almost burst into tears from happiness. The entire community was one song, one joy, and one big pride.

Children of Farmhands

We not only played on our farm but performed useful tasks. One of our activities, performed with great solemnity, was the selection of chickens for egg-laying. Every chicken had to be examined by introducing a finger into a discreet part of her body to ascertain whether she was expected to lay an egg during the night. This was usually done by our mother or one of the female workers. After the examination, we carried the expectant chick–ens to a separate barn and put them in the straw. Next morning we collected the delicate rosy eggs from the barn and brought them into the house.

Another task and great joy was planting potatoes. These first had to be cut in such a way that every part would have a bud on its skin. When the planting started, we followed behind the plow with baskets in our hands and put pieces of potatoes at equal intervals in the freshly dug furrow. On the next turn the plow produced another furrow while the newly turned earth fell and covered the potato seeds we had just planted. It was simple but it bore witness to an iron logic in nature that made the earth the chief nutritionist of mankind, from time immemorial.

Excerpted from Totally Unofficial by Donna-Lee Frieze. Copyright © 2013 by Donna-Lee Frieze. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments....................     vii     

introduction. The "Insistent Prophet," by Donna-Lee Frieze.................     ix     

Preface....................     1     

ONE. Early Years....................     3     

TWO. The Flight, 1939....................     25     

THREE. The Flight, 1939–1940....................     41     

FOUR. A Refugee in Lithuania, Latvia, and Sweden....................     60     

FIVE. From Sweden to the United States....................     79     

SIX. First Impressions of America: April–June 1941....................     98     

SEVEN. Alerting the World to Genocide....................     112     

EIGHT. The Birth of the Convention....................     118     

NINE. Geneva, 1948....................     133     

TEN. Paris, 1948....................     150     

ELEVEN. Climbing a Mountain Again....................     180     

TWELVE. Nearing the End....................     219     

Appendixes....................     223     

Notes....................     241     

Bibliography....................     267     

Index....................     277     

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