Today, we call what happened at Auschwitz and the other death camps “genocide.” But at the time, there was no name for the Nazis’ crimes. The word “genocide” did not exist.
In 1944, Lemkin wrote a book about the Nazis. In it, he combined the Greek “genos” for race with the Latin “-cide” for killing: Genocide. Lemkin had named the crime he spent a lifetime trying to prevent.
As a child in Poland, Lemkin was inspired by the stories his mother told him at the fireside — stories of history and heroism, of suffering and struggle. As a Jew he witnessed cruelty and persecution firsthand: from the bribes his parents were forced to pay, to a pogrom that killed dozens nearby.
From his mother, and from his circumstance, Lemkin developed early a strong desire to better the world and protect the innocent and the weak.
“The appeal for the protection of the innocent from destruction set a chain reaction in my mind,” Lemkin later wrote. “It followed me all my life.”