As we observe Yom HaShoah, we may not be aware that North Carolina was a haven for emigres from Nazi Europe. State campuses gave shelter to eminent scholars. Professors and executives became dirt farmers at an agricultural colony in Van Eeden, near Burgaw. The state’s Jews struggled to bring family members from abroad, petitioning the government and sending funds.
Perhaps no story was more dramatic nor significant than that of Raphael Lemkin, a law professor and public prosecutor in Warsaw who found a home at Duke University.
In 1933 Lemkin appealed to the League of Nations to ban mass murder. He anticipated a possible Holocaust. Wounded in the Polish resistance, Lemkin was carried through the German lines to Lithuania and from there fled to Stockholm. He obtained German diplomatic dispatches that proved the barbarity of German policies.
Prof. Malcolm McDermott of Duke had met Lemkin before the war in Warsaw and had collaborated with him on translating legal papers. McDermott came across a French translation of a paper that Lemkin had written in hopes of finding a position abroad. McDermott asked the Durham Jewish community to help sponsor Lemkin’s emigration to America. Local attorney Henry Bane interceded on behalf of the B’nai B’rith, and Lemkin was offered a position. Lemkin, who lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust, spoke before civic and religious groups across the state, Jewish and Christian, to anyone who would listen. He was a man obsessed. He soon left for Washington as a government adviser.
In 1944 Lemkin published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in which he coined the word genocide. He traveled to London and Nuremberg to prepare indictments against war criminals. He authored the Genocide Convention and dedicated his life to its passage, which the United Nations did so in 1948.