This post is a dedication to the memory of 1.5 million Armenians who perished under brutal and barbaric circumstances in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and to the courageous survivors who are no longer with us. To my family.
For many decades Armenians have commemorated April 24 as the day that officially began the annihilation process of the Armenian people by Ottoman Turkey and continued, even after the collapse of the empire, under successive governments.
This year, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of this tragedy. It is the subject of worldwide interest as well as controversy.
I am Armenian, born in America, living in Europe. People often ask me why it is that I have relatives in France. In South America. And so the story begins.
On both sides of my family there were great sufferings. My mother was a genocide survivor, the only one out of her family. Her story is dramatic as are those of all who survived the killings. Almost everyone I knew in that generation was a survivor with incredible stories. Many were able to write memoires. From time-to-time I read the surrealistic memoires of my mother’s cousin (translated into English by another cousin who miraculously survived 24 stab wounds), and of my father’s brother-in-law, a professor, whose family ended up in France, via Beirut and Germany. These stories are too long to write about here.
Living in Germany and having international cable I find myself often watching documentaries on the various channels – German, French, Russian, English – about the two world wars, the Holocaust, Viet Nam, the Cambodian and Rwandan Genocides, even the Armenian Genocide. I always watch trying to understand.
As for the 100th centenary of the Armenian Genocide, what is the significance of this genocide? Volumnes have been written about it but there are two vital points:
First, it was the premeditated methodology of its implementation. Chills will go up your spine when you learn of the similarities in organization and methods of the extermination of Armenians with the Jewish Holocaust that began only 25 years later. The two are inextricably linked. Hitler and the Nazis used the Armenian Genocide as a template. Hitler thought that it had been completely forgotten. “Who remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” was his comment to a journalist. Could things have turned out differently if there were criminal consequences? Perhaps he would have continued but maybe the French Vichy government would have considered this before collaborating with the Nazis.
Two – and the most serious point – the genocide is still on-going. The perpetrator country, Turkey, for 100 years continues to refuse to acknowledge that a genocide occurred. Denial, as genocide scholars explain, is the last stage of genocide. Genocide is a process with specific stages. Notwithstanding the recent comment of the spineless UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who said the Armenian killings were “mass atrocities but did not amount to genocide,” annihilating a race of people takes planning and organization. To understand that process click here.
With denial comes cultural genocide – to distort and whitewash history and erase the cultural heritage of the victimes.
For decades Turkey flatly denied all accusations of perpetrating a genocide. When the facts began to emerge, international PR firms were hired in the 1980s to generate a new spin. Suddenly it was the Armenians who committed a genocide against Turks. That didn’t hold water very long so the spin masters came up with the current mantra to minimize and whitewash the affair: It was war and there were casualties on all sides; there was no plan for genocide; let’s make up and be friends.
Everywhere one turns, its denial. For 100 years the pleas for recognition have fallen on deaf ears. I am always reminded of the Ervard Munch painting The Cry. The cry with no sound. The Turkish government is so paranoid about the mention of genocide that it goes to great lengths to try to prohibit any reference of it around the world from art exhibits to resolutions for recognition. Click here to see how it’s done.
America and the UK have a shameful record of allowing Turkey to bully them into submission by placing gag orders on them when it comes to any mention of the Armenian Genocide. What are they afraid of? France doesn’t seem to have a problem standing up to Turkey. Twice they’ve had their ambassador recalled. Once it was for two years when it did not capitulate about allowing a genocide monument to be erected in Marseille within the wrought iron gate of the church courtyard. Turkey did not want the monument to be visible by passersby.
In Germany the Armenian Genocide is now widely understood with actions calling for official recognition as reflected in an eloquent speech given by German President Joachim Gauck this week at an ecumenical conference which you can read here in English. Nevertheless this issue still remains unofficially recognized with the Foreign Minister stating this could “overshadow the Holocaust.” I don’t understand. Is there a genocide hierarchy?
The cultural genocide comes at us from everywhere such as picking up Turkish tourism books and seeing pictures of ancient Armenian monasteries and churches in Turkey, some from the 4th and 5th centuries, mentioned as “early christian monuments- origins unknown.” These were Armenian lands since antiquity. (You may view pictures of some of these neglected monuments featured recently in The Atlantic. There are hundreds if not thousands of them.
And how can I forget the expression on my mother’s face when I read her the letter from the Social Security Administration about her petition to have her birth year corrected.
She arrived in America as a stateless person, her only official document being a laissez passer. She looked younger than her age and the immigration officer wrote down a birthdate about 4 or 5 years younger than she was. It didn’t seem to matter in 1929 so that’s how it stayed. Social Security didn’t exist. Over the years she tried to get more accurate data from relatives and friends who knew her and her family in their village and began to confirm a more accurate birth year.
Years later, in the 1960s, the lawyer I was working for suggested we prepare affidavits from the relatives and friends while they were still living so that my mother could ask for the correction to receive her meager social security pension and not wait the extra years. We did this and a hearing date was set.
I sat with her during the interview. The hearing officer asked questions. My mother answered them correctly. He took notes. We then had to wait for him to prepare his report.
If there is one specific asset and quality my mother valued the most, besides her Christian faith, it was her integrity. That was totally shattered a few weeks later as I read to her the hearing officer’s findings.
He was “infuriated” that she had the audacity to “insult his intelligence” by “fabricating” a preposterous story about Turks trying to kill Armenians. (Obviously, in trying to learn more about the situation he must have contacted the Turkish Embassy.)
That’s how it’s been for 100 years. But now on the centenary of the Genocide, which received much attention in America and Europe at the time – where, by the way, an enormous and well-organized humanitarian aid movement was initiated to help the surviving Armenians by providing orphanages, nurturing care, education and vocational training – the deafness may gradually be lifting from within. Many people in Turkey who thought they were Turks or Kurds are discovering they are actually Armenian, which had to be kept secret out of fear. They want to go back to their roots. You can read about this here as well as here.
The genocide survivors eventually settled in places around the globe, mainly in North and South America, France and Middle Eastern countries. Life was not easy for sure. There were setbacks: a depression, another war where many sent their sons off to fight. (My cousin in France became a German POW, but escaped via an arduous route through the Alps. My brother fought and was wounded in the Koren War, one of the very few survivors of the Battle of Cho Sen.) They worked hard, started businesses, married, raised families, built churches, educated their children and became dedicated citizens of their adopted countries. If you met them you would never know from their disposition the terrors they lived through. PTSD was unheard of and I don’t think they would understand it.
This is a tribute to them and to all who have succumbed or survived such horrific events.
As for Adolph Hitler who thought no one remembers the Armenians, from his hot seat in hell he should look up and see that we’re still around and being remembered.
Photography courtesy of Raffi Youredjian – London – Winter In Armenia series