Have you ever feared death because you are different? What if our government sought to exterminate everyone like you? As Americans and Millennials, we tend to take our security and the presence of an international justice system for granted. We trust that when an atrocity occurs, international law will intervene and the guilty parties will be punished. However, it was not so long ago that mass murder was not a crime. Until after World War II, an attempt to wipe out a nation or race was not against any law. The word “genocide” did not exist.
In 1944, Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” from the Greek for “race,” genos, and the Latin for “killing,” cide. Lemkin was a Polish Jewish lawyer who fled when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. After spending time in Lithuania and Sweden, followed by a long journey that took him through Moscow, Vladivostok, Tsuruga, Yokohama, Vancouver and Seattle, Lemkin arrived at Duke University, where his friend and Duke Law professor Malcom McDermott had arranged for him to be a special lecturer. Later in his career, Lemkin worked in numerous capacities for the United States government and the United Nations. His work was the basis for the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
In a speech he gave at Duke, Lemkin said, “If women, children and old people would be murdered a hundred miles from here, wouldn’t you run to help? Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is 5,000 miles instead of a hundred?” By asking these questions, Lemkin encouraged people to embrace their common humanity and acknowledge that every individual has a right to exist. When we fail to protect this fundamental right, we have a duty to remember each victim.
The Coalition for Preserving Memory is an organization founded by Duke students dedicated to memorializing genocide victims from the 20th and 21st centuries in a way that will be meaningful and relevant to future generations. Through CPM, people from all backgrounds and stages of life come together to remember those who have unjustly perished. It is our responsibility as humans to make the promise of “Never Again” a reality, and we are honored as members of the Duke community to be able to continue Lemkin’s efforts.
This year, we invite you to commemorate victims of the Holocaust and other genocides around the world through a series of CPM events in April. In addition to our annual 24-hour genocide victim name-reading outside the Duke Chapel, we will present an opening ceremony featuring a Rwandan genocide survivor, a panel discussion at the Sanford School of Public Policy, a Music Night demonstrating that cultures can persevere through music and an art exhibit that will include contributions from many student groups.
We cannot take justice for granted. Let us join together as one Duke community to remember humanity at its worst and to inspire humanity at its best.
Together We Remember.
Sarah Garland is a Trinity junior. She is Vice President of the Coalition for Preserving Memory.