A Poem That Shows How to Remember the HolocaustRoundup
tags: Holocaust, poetry, literature, Raphael Lemkin, Holocaust Remembrance Day
JAMES LOEFFLER is the Jay Berkowitz Professor of Jewish History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century and The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire, and co-editor of the forthcoming volume, The Law of Strangers: Jewish Lawyering and International Law in Historical Perspective.
Today, Jews around the world mark Yom HaShoah, the day of Holocaust remembrance. Yet where once the memory of the Holocaust promised to unite the world in the pursuit of global justice, now it divides us. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East alike, Holocaust history is currently weaponized in all manner of political disputes. In the United States, the invocation of Holocaust analogies once signaled that a heated political debate had reached its end—now it frequently marks the beginning. Even the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization dedicated to promoting global Holocaust education, has become enmeshed in debates about the legal definition of anti-Semitism.
These battles over the memory of the Holocaust stem from the problem of its uniqueness. They pit the appreciation of the singular nature of the crime against the need to apply its lessons to other past atrocities and present-day dangers. They confront the challenge of comparing genocides without slipping into moral relativism, on the one hand, and the challenge of retreating into facile Holocaust exceptionalism on the other.
One way to approach these dilemmas comes from the work of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish lawyer who coined the term genocide. He left behind a widely varied body of work when he died in 1959, including memoirs and legal texts. But it’s a poem we recently recovered, which he wrote in 1957, that might offer us a way to navigate these tensions.
Lemkin is better known today as an international lawyer and activist than as a poet. Born in 1900 in Russian Belarus, he embarked on a career after World War I as a public prosecutor in newly independent Poland. At the same time, he worked as an editor for one of the most famous Yiddish-language newspapers of the day, the Warsaw Haynt, where he wrote a legal-advice column; he also wrote essays and poetry in Hebrew and Yiddish.
Deeply concerned about the threat of fascism, in 1933 Lemkin launched an international legal campaign to protect Jews and other European racial and religious minorities from persecution. That effort failed, and it triggered an anti-Semitic backlash that cost him his government post. Lemkin lost nearly his entire family in the Holocaust. During the war he fled via Lithuania and Sweden to the United States, where he embarked once more on his quest for an international law against what he now called genocide. Lemkin’s campaign led to the 1948 United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which took effect in 1951.
Most of what we know of Lemkin’s ideas and efforts is based on his writings in English. His prose writings in Yiddish and Polish have only recently come to light, and his Hebrew poetry had long been presumed lost. We were therefore surprised to discover this poem hiding in the pages of an old Israeli newspaper. In a prefatory note to the poem, which was published in 1957 in Al HaMishmar, a newspaper sponsored by the left-wing Zionist faction Hashomer Hatzair, Lemkin said that “the world had begun to forget the great crime against the Jews.” In response, he turned not to law or history, but to literature.
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