Interview: Edet Belzberg, Director Of 'Watchers Of The Sky' Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the word in 1943, as part of his lifelong campaign to make the world acknowledge and prosecute the crime. A new documentary, Watchers of the Sky, tells his story.

The Man Who Coined 'Genocide' Spent His Life Trying To Stop It

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It may be a sad comment on human history that so many of us are familiar with the word genocide. But it wasn't always so. Not to say, sadly, that the crime is new, but the word genocide didn't exist until 1943. Lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the word, pairing the Greek genos, for race or people, with the Latin cidere, for killing. Lemkin spent his life campaigning to make the world acknowledge and prosecute the crime. Edet Belzberg is the director of a new documentary, "Watchers Of The Sky," which tells Lemkin's story.

EDET BELZBERG: Every day he was going to the U.N. and hounding people. And this was a man who didn't speak English very well. He didn't represent a country. He didn't represent an institution. He barely had a home. He barely had food. And yet he was there every day, lobbying the delegates and the ambassadors to make this a crime.

RATH: Raphael Lemkin was born in Poland in 1900 and his passion for justice was evident in his youth. In his teens, he became obsessed with what was then called the Armenian Massacres, the Ottoman Empire's campaign to exterminate its Armenian population. Lemkin became fixated on the story of one Armenian man who lost his entire family in the killings and went on to assassinate one of the leaders responsible. The man was arrested and put on trial.

BELZBERG: Lemkin read about this. And at a young age he said to himself, why is the killing of an individual a greater crime than the killing of millions? And that really set him on his path. And he decided that he was going to be the person who would develop and create the law to stop this from happening again.

RATH: And how did he come up with the word genocide? And can you talk also about why he thought the word was important?

BELZBERG: He believed that if he could find the right word, if he could find the word that would unite people, that would ignite people to come together to stop these crimes. He was very good at languages. He spoke about seven languages. And he thought that there wasn't a word that described the horror of this crime. And so he set off on a path to do that.

RATH: And let's go back a little bit to, you know, prior to World War II. When he was first trying to kind of proselytize this notion of making the murder of millions a crime, what was the reaction that he got?

BELZBERG: I think that people saw him as a pest, as someone who was relentless in his cause. I think that many people hoped that he would stop and go away, and then he didn't. And as much as he didn't before World War II, he was even more persistent following the war.

RATH: A short ways into the film, you have this kind of nauseating sensation where you're dealing with the earlier part of his life where he's establishing this idea of genocide. And you realize that he's a Polish Jew.

BELZBERG: Forty-nine members of his family were killed in the Holocaust. He tried, of course, to persuade his family to leave with him in 1939. He knew what was coming and he tried to persuade his family to go with him to America. And they said that they would be fine. And although he was thinking about these crimes before, after that he was thinking my God, there has to be something that people - would outrage people in the same way that he was outraged by this.

RATH: Can you talk about what his role was as the world went into those prosecutions after World War II, around Nuremberg?

BELZBERG: After having coined this word, he went to Nuremberg. And in Lemkin form was equally persistent at that time and was going to Nuremberg to try and get them to use this word. Genocide was not a crime at that time. So they couldn't prosecute for genocide. But Ben Ferencz, who's in the film, who is one of the chief prosecutors during the Nuremberg trials, did use the word genocide because he was moved by Lemkin and he believed that that word held the weight necessary to describe what was going on.


BEN FERENCZ: Killing of defenseless civilians during a war may be a war crime, but the same killings are part of another crime - a graver one if you will - genocide.

BELZBERG: So because Nuremberg - they couldn't prosecute for genocide. That left Lemkin completely heartbroken.

RATH: Because by the Nuremberg standard, it was a crime if it was taking part during war, so -

BELZBERG: That's right.

RATH: - If you had genocide inside your own country, nobody could do anything.

BELZBERG: Exactly. And he understood that there was a flaw in what was happening, that had Hitler not invaded Poland and had he killed all the Jews in Germany at that time, he wouldn't have been committing a crime that could've been prosecuted by Nuremberg. That's what really enraged Lemkin. He felt a leader shouldn't have to cross a border in order to be held accountable for their crimes. He felt that crimes against humanity and war crimes weren't enough. And so he continued his cause and he then took it to the United Nations and he continued lobbying the leaders there to make this an international crime. And he continued until his death.

RATH: This film covers really an incredible range of material, you know, the Armenian genocide in 1915, the Holocaust, Rwanda. Darfur takes up a lot of time, what's happening in Syria...

BELZBERG: Oh God, I don't think people are going to see this now.

RATH: Well, I will say, for a two-hour film about genocide, it's very watchable. How are you able to get through all of that material?

BELZBERG: That was the biggest challenge of how to interweave all of these different stories together. We had about 800 hours of footage, 5,000 stills and that's not even including the archival material. And it was how to interweave these stories in a coherent and lyrical way that people can be taken from one story to the next and not be fatigued but be enriched by it. Change takes time. It doesn't happen overnight. And it takes the persistence of individuals over time until we can see the results.

RATH: Edet Belzberg is the director of the documentary "Watchers Of The Sky." Edet, thank you so much.

BELZBERG: Thank you so much for having me here.

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