A Russian-born lawyer and committed Zionist, Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) is best known for coining the word genocide in 1933, and for his role in laying the legal groundwork for the Nuremberg trials. He also wrote Hebrew verse, much of which has been lost. But James Loeffler and Leora Bilsky recently discovered a poem (translated here) he published in an Israeli newspaper in 1957. They write:
In a prefatory note to the poem, . . . Lemkin said that “the world had begun to forget the great crime against the Jews.” [The] poem takes the form of a classic Hebrew lamentation over the tragic losses suffered by the Jewish people, whose names had been blotted out by their persecutors. In language echoing the Israelite prophets, medieval Ashkenazi liturgical elegies, and the modern Hebrew poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, Lemkin evokes the classic imagery of the ruined Jewish cityscape. In his verse, dogs and pigs defile half-buried Jewish bones as a terrible silence reigns in the empty streets. Like Bialik’s Kishinev in pre-World War I Russia and Isaiah’s Jerusalem millennia before, the ransacked, desolate city symbolizes the vanquished Jewish people, who, to paraphrase Isaiah, live on only in the form of “a sign and a remembrance.”
Lemkin’s anguished text also explains why the world had already begun to forget the Holocaust. Genocide represents more than a large-scale physical assault on human bodies, he suggests; it is also an attack on the very existence of minority cultures. In a genocide, books are burned and memories are extinguished. Lemkin describes a silent piano and a muted violin, whose owners have been disappeared and whose songs will never be heard again. “In the school, where you once taught,” he wrote, “Your gifted student will be punished,/ For praising your name.”
Lemkin’s lost poem reminds us of something valuable. When we remember the Holocaust only as a universal parable of racial hatred and religious stigmatization, we miss its full import as an attack against Jews as Jews. If we likewise condition the memory of the Holocaust on its relevance to contemporary political issues, we risk distorting the crime itself and dishonoring its Jewish victims once more.