A Poem That Shows How to Remember the Holocaust

Raphael Lemkin
PICTURE ALLIANCE / BETTMANN / GETTY / CEDRIC VON NIEDERHAUSERN / THE ATLANTIC

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.

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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.

Lemkin’s 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. (We’ve republished the full poem, and posted our own translation.) In language echoing the Israelite prophets, medieval Ashkenazic liturgical elegies, and the modern Hebrew poet Haim Nahman 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 lament spoke directly to the fate of the law he’d championed. In his original vision, the crime of genocide encompassed any systematic eliminationist attack on a group’s collective existence via its culture—the targeting of art, books, religion, language. That is why he’d hoped the UN convention would include both physical and cultural aspects of genocide. To his great dismay, the latter half of his definition was dropped from the convention, falling victim to Cold War realpolitik: the great powers’ fear of being held accountable for their own colonial and racial injustices, and the broader Western reluctance to acknowledge the specifically Jewish character of the Holocaust.

But 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. Yet tribalism is no less dangerous. The uniqueness of the Holocaust does not require us to deny the possibility of comparison with other genocides.

Lemkin titled his poem not “Shoah” or “Holocaust” but “Genocide.” The supremacist hatred he described in it, “on account of race and religion,” can endanger any people. The crime in question is ultimately a universal one: the demonization of difference. All genocides share some common features, Lemkin insisted. Systematic cultural destruction and mass slaughter represent interdependent facets of a malevolent assault on minority identity, a philosophical rejection of the very idea of human diversity. Physical and cultural genocide are two sides of the same coin.

The problem today is not, as is often claimed, that we possess too little Holocaust memory. Neither, for that matter, do we suffer from Holocaust-memory overload. After all, memory is not data. We cannot simply bundle it into packets that we then deposit in the hands of the next generation or plug into moral algorithms. Nor is memory a sacred flame that we must zealously guard lest powerful winds—or competing fires—threaten to overwhelm it. Rather, memory is an ongoing process of active reckoning with the past from the vantage point of the present. The duty of remembrance is inseparable from the burden of moral reasoning. The Shoah deserves its own specific day, but the lessons we extract from its memory can never be isolated from the other dangers that plague the world.

Meeting this challenge requires us to hold in balance the Holocaust’s unique features and its broader meaning as a form of genocide and mass atrocity. What was true of the Holocaust is also true of every great act of human evil. Each is horrific in its own way and must be remembered in its specificity, yet all feed into the record of history that demands our attention and inspires our vigilance.