April 2024 Curriculum Tips

April 1, 2024

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By Elena Kingsbury (FSWC Senior Educator)

Strand B: Understanding Context: Canada’s Global Interactions

B3.5 describe the responses of the Canadian government to human rights violations during the Holocaust and the impact that global changes in understanding and legislation around human rights since World War II have had on the development of Canada’s responses to acts of hate and human rights violations.

Understanding genocide begins with understanding the history of the term, and the lifelong pursuit of justice by its originator, Raphaël Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish legal scholar (and refugee of Nazism). Not only did Lemkin coin the word genocide, he led an international legal campaign to have the concept adopted as a legal framework by the United Nations in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.  

Lemkin first defined genocide in a work of legal scholarship titled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944. In it, he defined genocide as the destruction of “a nation or an ethnic group.” He conceived the word, “from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), thus linking it to such words as tyrannicide, homicide, infanticide, etc.” He wrote, “Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.” Lemkin emphasized that people were subject to violence not because of anything they had personally done, but because of the identity group to which they belonged.

By the 1940s, when Lemkin published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe and defined the word genocide for future generations, he had already been working for decades to make the world recognize mass murder as an international crime. In his autobiography, Lemkin wrote that his life’s work to outlaw genocide was derived from his childhood experience of trying to survive as a member of a Polish-speaking Jewish family of tenant farmers in late Imperial Russia, in a region historians have termed “bloodlands” and “the shatterzone of empires.”

His first-hand experience with antisemitic violence led Lemkin to broader questions about mass atrocities in his own times. The massacres against the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War captured Lemkin’s attention as a university student, shaping his lifelong dedication to this area of legal scholarship.

The scale of atrocities committed against Jews and Poles during the early days of World War II gave Lemkin’s work a new sense of urgency. They also had a direct and devastating impact on Lemkin personally; when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin joined the resistance and was wounded while fighting. He spent several months hiding in the Polish forests before escaping to Sweden and became a visiting lecturer of law at the University of Stockholm. From Sweden, he emigrated to the United States in 1941, continuing his work as a lecturer and legal scholar. Although Lemkin escaped, 49 of his family members were killed during the Holocaust.

When World War II ended, Lemkin returned to Europe and served as an advisor to Justice Robert H. Jackson, the lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials where senior Nazis faced justice. Following the trials, which Lemkin only considered a partial success, he devoted himself to persuading the United Nations to recognize and prosecute genocide as a crime of international interest. In these efforts, he was ultimately successful. On December 9, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention, which classified genocide as a crime under international law and used many of Lemkin’s ideas as its foundation.

Lemkin continued his work as a legal scholar and lectured at Yale, Rutgers and Princeton universities in the post-war years. In 1950 and 1952, he was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Lemkin died on August 28, 1959.

Article Sources:


Irvin-Erickson, Douglas. Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide (2017), Partial Access: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4ds5


Lesson Plans:

Exploring Raphael Lemkin’s Actions: The Invention of the Word “Genocide:” https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/exploring-raphael-lemkins-actions-invention-word-genocide

Totally Unofficial: Raphael Lemkin and the Genocide Convention: https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/totally-unofficial-raphael-lemkin-genocide-convention-0