TORONTO, Oct. 23—They’d come to hear about the Armenian Genocide and its impact, but the 130-150 people who attended the panel discussion learned much more in the wide-ranging, three-man panel discussion held at the Ryerson University here.
Organized by the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of Canada and the university’s Department of Politics and Public Administration, Department of History, International Issues Discussion (IID) Series, the gathering featured panelists Professors Richard G. Hovannisian, Khatchig Mouradian and Chairman Alan Whitehorn.
In his introduction Prof. Whitehorn talked about the challenge First World War writers, journalists and other eyewitnesses faced in describing the unprecedented brutality that the Ottoman Turkish government inflicted upon its Armenian citizens.
Whitehorn, emeritus professor of political science at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, said that innumerable words and phrases were utilized to describe the horror because the world “genocide” had not been coined. For example, The New York Times used such words as “pillage,” “great exodus,” “great deportation,” “systematically uprooted”, “unparalleled savagery,” “acts of horror,” “unbelievable atrocities,” “fiendish massacres,” “extirpating the million and a half Armenians in the Ottoman Empire,” “policy of extermination,” “deliberate murder of a nation”… but none could adequately convey the extent of the suffering but the last phrase: it came closest to the succinct “genocide” coined by Polish jurist Rafael Lemkin. Armenians, in their grief and loss called it “Medz Yeghern”.
Whitehorn pointed out that while the world associates the word “holocaust” with the Jewish tragedy of the Second World War, non-Armenian media deployed the word, at least 15 times, to describe what the Turks had done to the Armenians between 1894 and 1923.
Prof. Hovannisian mostly began his delivery by limning the changing Armenian perception of the Genocide in the past century. He said one of the early responses was self-blame: “We must have done something wrong to have given the Turks a reason to kill us” and its variations, said Hovannisian. But long before 1965 (the 50th anniversary of the Genocide) Armenians had reconsidered their various takes of the Genocide and knew exactly what had happened and why. “But in 1965 we still surprised ourselves by our rousing public outburst. Even Soviet Armenians came out en masse to demand their lands. It was a watershed,” said Hovannisian.
“More was achieved in this centennial year than I had expected. The media attention and the Pope’s recognition made a big difference,” said Hovannisian who is emeritus professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles and has written more than 25 books, most of them related to the Genocide and to Armenian history. He then cautioned “public attention is transitory and memory is short. We have to make every effort to perpetuate the memory and to go forward.”
Because the Armenians couldn’t understand the near mortal blow they had received they were mystified by the Turkish brutality and hatred. “Thus Armenians resorted to stereotype to describe the Turks…’bloody Turk’ and other phrases became our pat answer. But now we understand the mentality of the killer,” said the California-born professor. He added that we now also know that the Genocide was not unique: there were the massacres of the mid-1890s and in Adana in 1909. “But because the Turks were not punished for the earlier massacres, they repeated it in 1915. The Young Turks had joined the First World War hoping to regain their lost empire and saw the war as a unique opportunity to get rid of the Armenians. Total annihilation of the Christian minority was the answer the Young Turk leadership decided,” concluded Hovannisian.
Usually cool in his delivery, Hovannisian became impassioned as he talked about the spatial and temporal losses caused by the Genocide. “By removing Armenians from their space to unknown spaces and then causing the destruction of all age groups (from babies to the aged), they destroyed our past, present and future. Nothing can be done to restore what was lost! no compensation, no restitution. As poet Sylva Gaboodigian said: ‘the caravans are still marching’. We, the descendants of the dead and we continue to suffer. We will suffer until we dissolve.”
Touching upon the danger of assimilation the Diaspora faces, Hovannisian talked about growing up in a small town in the San Joachim Valley (California) at a time when racism was rampant in America. “The Genocide was background music to my youth. My parents were survivors of the Genocide. I, like others of my generation, had identity problems. We wanted to be accepted in a racist country. The Genocide had also impacted the behavior of our parents. They could be harsh and forbidding. Many clammed up about the Genocide while others talked about it incessantly,” said Hovanissian.
Talking about his generation, he pointed out: “We lost our culture, language, and our connection to the past. It’s the tragedy of expatriation.”
Another Diaspora tragedy was the “absence of world-class writers who could reach to the world and tell the Armenian story. “We were not silent in the ‘20s but Armenian writers were not in the big league. We lacked a megaphone then,” he said.
But things changed with the generation that followed that of Hovannisian’s. “The second generation gave voice to their parents’ generation…books like Michael Arlen Jr.’s Passage to Ararat and others by Peter Balakian and Peter Najarian expanded our understanding of the Genocide and even explored the generational conflict between the immigrant parents and their children born in America,” said the prolific historian.
Hovannisian added that his generation’s perspective of the Genocide had been a “broad sweep. It was a mega look. The current generation is taking a micro look at what happened, region by region, town by town. They are moving into new areas using different archival material.”
Indirectly advising the audience not to give up even when the results of their efforts are sometimes marginal, Hovannisian quoted celebrated Czech writer Milan Kundera who wrote that the cardinal principle of a small groups’ battle to preserve memory against stronger forces of memory obliteration is to proceed with incremental progress.
The next panelist, Khatchig Mouradian, former editor of The Armenian Weekly, took from where Hovanissian had left off. “The Genocide casts a very long shadow,” he said and stressed “Genocide doesn’t end when the killing stops. The impact on the descendants of the victims is perpetuated, especially when they encounter Turkish denial.”
Mouradian, program coordinator of the Armenian Genocide Program at the Centre for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights at Rutgers University, told the fascinating story of two Aintab sisters who were midwives from 1890 to the early ‘20s. One of the sisters—Nuritsa—delivered 4,200 babies… Armenian, Turk, Kurd, and Jewish babies. The sisters were spared by the Turks in 1915 because of their value to the community. They continued as midwives until the early ‘20s when Ataturk’s ultra-nationalist armies set out to exterminate Genocide survivors. The two sisters fled to Aleppo. Their last word in their notebook, in Turkish but written in Armenian, were “Ishimiz bitterdee Aintabah” (Our work in Aintab is finished).
But what made the sisters particularly remarkable was that they kept notebooks of every delivery. The names of the babies, their gender, the names of their parents, their religion, weight, the money the sisters charged were carefully recorded. “The book is a priceless documentary of life in Aintab for 40 years,” said Mouradian. The books were given to him by the descendants of the two sisters. When earlier this year Mouradian was invited by an Aintab human rights group to address their conference [Mouradian is fluent in Turkish], he told his Turkish and Kurdish audience about the two sisters. He also told them that he was certain the parents and the grandparents of many of the attendees were probably delivered by Nuritsa or her sister Sephora.
Mouradian chided Armenians who believe their compatriots were totally helpless and without agency during the Genocide. He cited that the small community of Aleppo had “provided life-saving assistance to the caravans of Armenians who were passing through Aleppo and headed to Deir el-Zor …”the Auschwitz of the Armenians.” Thanks to the secret Aleppo Armenian network countless Armenians survived and contributed to the Diaspora, said Mouradian and added “it’s ironic that now Aleppo Armenians are in need of relief from the Diaspora.” He hinted that the Diaspora’s response had been less than satisfactory.
Mouradian also briefly talked about his more than 20 trips to Western Armenia, and his encounters with hidden Armenians, Islamized Armenians, and half-Armenians. In one dramatic instance, Mouradian asked a man whose father was Armenian about the location, near Dikranagerd, of a place where Armenians gathered every year for a religious holiday. The man took him to an open field and said: “If you listen closely, you will hear their voices.” Goose pimples must have raced through Mouradian and the audience.
The third panelist—Professor Ervin Staub—couldn’t attend because of illness. However, he sent his speech which Keskinian read.
Prof. Staub’s focus was on reconciliation. After describing how the Turkish authorities had proceeded with their criminal design, they had launched a century-old denial campaign, he wrote. The professor, who is a psychologist, said that because Turks have denied the Genocide, they extended their criminal policy to other minorities, such as the Kurds.
Staub called for intense action by the international community to put a stop to Turkish denial. He also demanded that the United States not only recognize the Genocide but also build an Armenian Genocide museum.
The program concluded with a Q & A session. In his reply to one of the questions, Hovannisian said that he was disappointed in the Republic of Armenia’s (RoA) leadership. “They should be more dynamic in taking a leadership role in directing Armenian national interests. The RoA needs to form a national agenda for all Armenians,” he emphasized.