Thursday, April 30, 2015

Standing witness

A while back, I reviewed a book by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Wein. One of the things that stuck me about Rose Under Fire was a very simple message that it put forth to the readers: Tell the World. Without spoiling why that was put forward, the point was for the main character to let everyone know of the horrors that had happened, because people should know what had happened, should know that atrocities had occurred.

Because there are some occasions when a government pushes hard enough that they are successful in muting the remembrance of the horrors that happened in their country.

Over the past couple of weeks, there have actually been quite a lot of news stories about the Armenian genocide. That in itself has been amazing to me, because I spent a good number of years in my teens telling people about the systematic campaign of the Ottoman Empire to purge the Armenian people from what is now Turkey in the early days of World War I. See, the Ottoman Empire feared that the Armenians – a people originating from the southwestern border of Russia – were siding with the Russians against the Ottoman Empire. And you know, some Armenians probably were. But the proper response to that was certainly not to kill 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, and then spend the next century denying the systematic nature of the executions.

 Photo uploaded by user narek781, shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

By this point, you've probably guessed from the somewhat bitter nature of my tone that I have a personal stake in the story. And I do – it's only through sheer luck that I even exist today. My great-grandmother grew up in a town along the coast of the Black Sea. But when word came of forced death marches, and of the eradication of entire towns of Armenians, my ancestors decided it would be prudent to flee. My great-great grandparents took their daughter Berjouhe, then 14, and escaped across Turkey. Based on who you ask in my family, they either dressed my great-grandmother up as a boy or as an old woman, to protect her from harassment (and worse) by the Turkish soldiers.

Photo, in the public domain, found on Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, they were able to board at train that would take them to safety in Syria. But once they were on the train, they were caught by Turkish soldiers. They would have been sent to their deaths, but the captain of the squad recognized my great-great grandfather as the tailor who had made his uniform. And so… he let them go. They escaped to Syria, where they settled in with many, many other refugees. Berjouhe stayed in Syria for several years, got married, and had three sons. My grandfather Joseph was born in Aleppo, Syria (which adds a different poignancy to everything that's been happening in Syria in recent years), and when he was three years old, the family emigrated to the United States.

And so, that is the story of my Armenian ancestors. I wanted to tell it to you today because the government of Turkey does still deny that the killings were genocide, as if 1.5 million people of a minority ethnicity could have been killed entirely by accident, as if the death marches and the forcing of entire villages into churches and then burning them down was anything but premeditated and deliberate.

Photo, in the public domain, found on Wikimedia Commons

I'm not telling you this story because I want anything from the Turkish government. I mean, I don't presume in the least to speak for other descendants of genocide survivors, but I know my family personally has no interest in reparations. What makes me truly, incandescently angry in a way I've never otherwise experienced is that denial. The fact that anyone, in the face of overwhelming evidence, could baldly deny that these killings were deliberate and systematic. Because denial of our shared human history, and the ugly things in it, only leads to further ugliness. Because Hitler actually said in 1939, "Who now remembers the Armenians?"

And that is why I'm writing about this today. Because even 100 years later, it's not too late to stand witness. It's not too late to learn about what happened in Turkey, or in Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia, and many, many others. It's certainly never too late to remind yourself of what happened in World War II, because there are still those out there who don't even believe that the Holocaust happened.

Knowledge, and remembrance, and speaking up against those who would deny. That is what I ask, for the memory of my ancestors who were not so lucky to escape.

Tell the world.

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