April is designated as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month each year, as it marks important anniversaries for multiple acts of genocide in the 20th century. Last week – April 5 – marked the anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. In 1992, the multi-ethnic republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina – then Yugoslavia – became a site of deadly warfare and ethnic cleansing, which left an estimated 200,000 people dead and some 2.7 million refugees – the largest displacement in Europe since the Second World War.
April also marks the 22nd anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi. From April to July 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in the east-central African nation of Rwanda murdered as many as 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority. Begun by extreme Hutu nationalists in the capital of Kigali, the genocide spread throughout the country with staggering speed and brutality, as ordinary citizens were incited by local officials and the Hutu Power government to take up arms against their neighbors. By the time the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front gained control of the country through a military offensive in early July, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were dead and many more displaced from their homes.
Where does the term “genocide” originate, and why is it critical that we mark Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month each year? At AFC we believe that in order to engage fully in making “never again” truly mean “never” we must discuss and promote an awareness of global genocides, from special programs that mark the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, to our annual Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance Day event.
In 1941, a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin, described the policies of systematic murder founded by the Nazis as “genocide.” The word genocide is the combination of the Greek prefix geno- (meaning tribe or race) and caedere (the Latin word for to kill). According to Lemkin, genocide was defined as “a coordinated strategy to destroy a group of people, a process that could be accomplished through total annihilation as well as strategies that eliminate key elements of the group’s basic existence, including language, culture, and economic infrastructure.”
As a young teenage boy, Raphael Lemkin was deeply disturbed by the massacre of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. It was inconceivable to Lemkin that nearly 2 million innocent people could be exterminated simply because they were Christian. His obsession with understanding the Armenian genocide intensified when he realized that the perpetrators of the atrocities were not held accountable for their crimes. Lemkin’s disbelief escalated when Soghomon Tehlirian, a young Armenian man, who witnessed the execution of his entire family, shot and killed Talaat Pasha, one of the chief architects of the Armenian genocide. Tehlirian was immediately arrested and prosecuted. Lemkin asked his mother a simple question: “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?” This question haunted him. Lemkin believed that if a single individual could order the deaths of millions of people, then one person also had the power to prevent such violence. It is because of this that Lemkin made it his life’s work to end genocide.
Lemkin later served with the team of Americans working to prepare the Nuremberg trials, where he was able to have the word “genocide” included in the indictment against Nazi leadership. But “genocide” was not yet a legal crime, and the verdict at Nuremberg did not cover peacetime attacks against groups, only crimes committed in conjunction with an aggressive war. While in Nuremberg, Lemkin also learned of the death of 49 members of his family, including his parents, in concentration camps, the Warsaw ghetto, and on the death marches. He returned from Europe determined to see “genocide” added to international law and began lobbying for this at early sessions of the United Nations. His tireless efforts to enlist the support of national delegations and influential leaders eventually paid off. On December 9, 1948, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide
In addition to anniversaries this month marking the start of the Cambodian genocide (April 17th) and the Armenian Genocide, (April 24th) we will be marking Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) which this year falls on May 5. Join us for a special screening of the new documentary film, Remember Us: The Hungarian Hidden Children. Directed by Jason Auerbach and Rudy Vegliante, this powerful new film focuses not only on who these children were, but the adults they have become. For this special screening we are thrilled to welcome, Evi Blaikie, Hungarian hidden child and friend of The Anne Frank Center, who will introduce the film, and share some of her own experiences of the war and its aftermath.
In her memoir, Evi writes “They are human and they deserve to be remembered as such. This family and these circumstances shaped my life. I knew them; I remember them. I am still here: I, the Perpetual Refugee, the Wandering Jew, the Survivor.” (Magda’s Daughter: A Hidden Child’s Journey Home, CUNY: The Feminist Press, 2003.) For Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month this year, we ask you to join us in remembering, organizing and acting on behalf of those affected by genocide.
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