Channeling Lemkin — Bob Skloot
Professor of History & Dean of General Studies
Stockton University, NJ
December 9, 2014
Yesterday evening the School of General Studies and the MAHG Program presented a reading of Bob Skloot’s captivating play, “If the Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin & the Treaty Against Genocide” in the Alton Auditorium. The play is by turns quirky and profound. It provides a look into the mind of Raphael Lemkin who coined the term genocide, and who campaigned throughout his life to have the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide endorsed by member nations. He was successful in having this mechanism created, which would bring to light the victims of genocide and bring many perpetrators to justice, though he was never able to gain the support of the United States, his adopted homeland.
The quirkiness of the play comes not just from its
author’s cross-lingual wordplay — Lemkin spoke
many languages and could pun in any of them
apparently — it also is found in the imagined con-
versations between Lemkin and Anne Frank, hiding
in her Amsterdam residence, and between the
protagonist and William Proxmire, the senator
from Wisconsin who made it his life’s work to have
the United States adopt the U.N. Genocide Conven-
tion (this was accomplished in 1988, long after
Lemkin’s death). Neither of these interactions could
have occurred in reality, but this transhistorical and
fictional aspect added significantly to the poignancy
of the play, and seemed to reveal more about the
inner workings of Lemkin’s mind than a more slavishly
historical play would have done.
So, what is the takeaway? Bob’s reasons for writing this play back in 2005 were twofold — to bring attention to the greatness and importance of Raphael Lemkin in the on-going struggles against genocide, and to find a vehicle to allow the arts (theatre) to join in discussions of the Holocaust and genocide. He achieved both these goals admirably. However, I think he did one thing in addition to these stated goals. By revealing the almost prosaic existence of this great man, the fact that in his own mind he was a failure (or someone who wasn’t recognized in the way that he believed he ought to have been) and that when he died only seven people came to the funeral, we (the members of the audience) are encouraged to see him as an accomplish something of great and lasting significance. As Bob wrote in the program notes, “Through this little play, I hope the life of this “unofficial man” will be better remembered, and that it will encourage people to put some time to opposing, in whatever way they can, the horror and suffering that motivated Lemkin to change the world.” Change the world he did; but that which has been changed can ossify and stagnate without constant attention from those who would want to ensure that “the horror” ends.