Menorah Honors Unsung Hero Raphael Lemkin with Two Programs

watchers of the sky (scholars series)

The theme of the Holocaust in relationship to genocide was prompted by the release of a new documentary, “Watchers of the Sky,” which we will premiere at the Boe on Dec. 1, with Professor Paul Shankman conducting the talk-back. Inspired by “A Problem from Hell,” written by Samantha Power, who is also the film’s narrator, the film takes viewers on a journey from Nuremberg to The Hague, from Bosnia to Darfur, from criminality to justice, and from apathy to action.

watchers-of-the-sky- samantha power (scholars series)
Samantha Power discusses current genocides in “Watchers of the Sky.”

Because the subject merits more discussion than a post-screening conversation allows, we are also presenting a program focused exclusively on one of the film’s main subjects: Raphael Lemkin. Professor Shankman, who has been teaching the Holocaust at CU since the 1970s, will discuss Lemkin at our Lunch & Learn on Thursday, November 12 at noon. CLICK HERE TO REGISTER

Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide before the world knew the horrors of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. A Polish Jewish refugee, he was the man behind the first UN human rights treaty, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Raaphael Lemkin (lunch and learn)
Paul Shankman discusses Lemkin’s Don Quixote-like quest to end mass murder of civilians based on race, ethnicity and religion

Lemkin was a prominent international jurist in pre-war Poland. As early as 1933, he appeared before the League of Nations in Madrid with a proposal to outlaw acts of “barbarism and vandalism.” He served as the state prosecutor in Warsaw until 1934, when anti-Semitic slurs forced him to withdraw into private practice.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin joined the resistance and was wounded in fighting. He hid in the forest for months before fleeing to Sweden.

As a visiting lecturer of law at the University of Sweden, Lemkin was the first academic to study Nazism from the standpoint of jurisprudence. Lemkin identified Hitler’s abominable intention, and labelled it genocide, a hybrid word consisting of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. In Lemkin’s view, genocide is a premeditated crime with clearly defined goals.

In 1941, he moved to the United States to teach at Duke University. Having lost over 40 members of his family to the Nazis, Lemkin sought to develop international legal instruments that would prevent any further instances of genocide. Giving up his academic career, he decided to concentrate all his efforts on defining and denouncing genocide and establishing it as crime under international law. In 1950 and 1952, he was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Professor Paul Shankman has been teaching genocide and the Holocaust at CU since the ’70s.

Working himself into an early grave, Lemkin died on August 28, 1959. More than 90 countries are signatories to the convention, although the United States, the country that had given him succor, did not ratify the treaty until 1988.

Professor Shankman will discuss the importance of Lemkin’s accomplishment and his Don Quixote-like quest to recognize and punish the perpetrators of genocide under international law.

About Kathryn Bernheimer

Kathryn has spent her professional life writing about, teaching, and presenting the arts. Founding Director of the Boulder Jewish Film Festival, Kathryn was Director of Menorah and ACE at the Boulder JCC from 2003 through August, 2019. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time."

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