© Armenian National Institute, Inc., courtesy of Sybil Stevens (daughter of Armin T. Wegner). Wegner Collection, Deutches Literaturarchiv, Marbach & United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
An Armenian woman carrying a child in her arms, shielding it from the sun with a shawl; man on left is carrying bedding; no other belongings or food noticeable among effects being carried in this photon from 1915.
It began on April 24, 1915, and went on until 1923 -- the systematic slaughter of about 1,500,000 Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. It’s called: the Armenian Genocide.
Throughout the world this week, Armenians are lighting candles in their churches. Here, in New York City, many candles are being lighted at St. Vartan’s Cathedral on Second Avenue, the largest Armenian Church in America.
It’s a sad anniversary for the thousands of Armenians in the New York area, and for Armenians everywhere. They are linked by history to that horrible day in April, 1915 when the extermination began. For nearly every Armenian family that was their Kristillnacht. Though they did not witness the massacres, every family mourns grandfathers and grandmothers, aunts and uncles, the victims who died then.
It began on that fateful day in April 95 years ago when the Ottoman Turks rounded up 300 Armenian leaders in Constantinople [now known as Istanbul]. These writers, philosophers and professionals were executed. And 5,000 of the poorest Armenians were butchered in the streets.
Then the brutal executions spread to the whole Armenian community in Anatolia [present day Turkey]. Deportations and killings were carried out. There were death marches through the desert and a mass killing of people condemned by representatives of the British, French, Russian, German and Austrian governments stationed in Turkey.
Through the years, Turkish governments have denied that any genocide took place.
It seems almost pathetic that the Armenians scattered around the world want just one thing: for the world and Turkey itself to recognize that a genocide did take place. These descendants of the victims don’t want reparations. They just want to close the book on a horrible event and have the world acknowledge that it took place.
I spoke to Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, primate of the Armenian Church of North America. He said: “It’s a sad moment for the entire world. Our goal is to move forward, to get closure and bring peace and understanding to both peoples, the Turks and the Armenians.”
The archbishop’s own personal history goes back to the dark days. He lost his grandfather and his grandfather’s brothers in the blood bath. “My father,” he said, “had no father.”
But, as President, he has toned down his words. When Obama met recently with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, in Ankara, Obama ducked the genocide question and said he had not changed his views but wanted the Armenian and Turkish people to move forward “and deal with a difficult and tragic history.”
The needs of international diplomacy have clearly affected Obama’s views. But the Congress of the United States has not pulled its punches. The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to condemn the genocide -- despite the efforts by Turkish officials and the White House to keep the resolution bottled up.
An Armenian church official, Chris Zakian, told me: “We take it for granted that we live in a constitutional country. In 1915, in Ottoman Turkey, whole communities were uprooted and annihilated. It was an act of savagery as state policy, creating a shock wave that we still feel a century later.”
On the other hand, Zakian declares, not all the Turks or followers of what was then called the Young Turk political party took part in the genocide. “There were Turkish people who helped to shelter Armenians and made it possible for many of us to survive.”
Zakian added: “We have to be grateful to God and remember.”
Back in 1939, Adolph Hitler, to justify his attack on Poland, said, to ward off any criticism: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Well, we’re still speaking of it, long after the leader of Nazi Germany killed himself in his bunker in Berlin. We remember it.
Memory is a powerful force. As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize lecture “it is memory that will save humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.”
Our Armenian neighbors and friends can cherish their survival -- and hope for a better world for their children and children’s children.