The Armenian Great Catastrophe

“A Century of Silence” by Raffi Khatchadourian. The New Yorker, 1/5/2015.
“Armenian Classmates.” This blog, 7/12/2005.

The New Yorker article is very long, a length that usually signals a forthcoming book. There is no way I can do it justice; you will have to read it for yourself.

Or not.

American Armenians keep a low profile (except for the Kardashians) and are only vaguely known by many. Their story of why they are here is complicated and depressing and fading into the unfortunate past that we cannot change.  There is no new lesson we can learn from it, no lesson that does not have many, more recent examples.  I probably would have skipped the article myself if Armenian descendants were not such a prominent part of my childhood. In about the third grade, Kathrine Tasjian told me the Turks had killed her grandparents. Neither one of us had a clear idea what a Turk was. It was time I learned.

The article builds around the reconstruction of an Armenian church, Sourp Giragos, in the southeastern Turkish town of Diyarbakir, a church that was destroyed in the Armenian genocide of 1915 by the Ottomans.  In all, over one million Armenians were killed, and in Turkey, the genocide was successful.

(The Ottoman Empire began as a Sunni state founded by Osman I in 1299. It grew into an empire, and ended after WWI when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk formed the modern republic. The Ottomans strove to unite the diverse cultures of their empire into one, by force if necessary. This continued under the republic whose stated purpose was to create “an ideal homeland that gathers in all the Turks and excludes foreigners.”)

The author travels there to learn about his grandfather and how he was able to survive the genocide.   The article weaves together his grandfather’s story, the complex relationship between the Turks, the Kurds, and the Armenians, and what the author found on his journey.

In the town of Diyarbakir in 1915, the Kurds, working for the Ottoman bureaucracy, were the main executors of the Armenian genocide and grew rich by the seizure of property. By 1923, the Ottoman Empire was gone and the violence against the Armenians was mainly over, but its ideology persisted. The president of the new Republic of Turkey said, “Our duty is to make Turks out of the non-Turks within the Turkish country, no matter what. We will cut out and throw away any elements that will oppose Turks and Turkishness.”

With the Armenians gone, the violence was ironically turned on the Kurds who now have their own story of oppression and massacre.

The list of atrocities goes depressingly on and on. The Jewish holocaust of WWII was institutionalized, but the Armenian genocide was personal. In Diyarbakir, Christian Armenians were arrested and put on rafts on the Tigris River. They were told they had been pardoned and were being taken temporarily to Mosul. The raft captains, if that is what they are called, were told where to pull over into the banks where Kurdish executioners were waiting. The captains must had pretended all was well until the killing began. Forced marches across the desert, caravans of death, killed even more. A contemporary report describes the bodies littering the landscape and clogging the rivers outside the walls of Diyarbakir. Reading all of this nastiness is depressing and is difficult to accept as a manifestation of the evil tendencies lying dormant in all of us.

Like the massacre of the Tutsi by the Hutu in 1994 in Rwanda, nothing can change the ugly facts, so widespread that nothing can be done to punish the perpetrators. Forgive, no, but move on, yes. Where to direct anger? It is estimated 60% of the Turks now have Armenian blood, although that is little more than a guess. “You are saying my grandfather did what to your grandmother? He is your grandfather, too.  Why am I burdened with his sins, but not you?”

Today, many Armenians find the difficulty of their families surviving 1915 is not as painful as the subsequent official Turkish denials and the ambivalence that still remains.  For example, the Turkish  government today admits the Armenians suffered greatly, then adds, “as did many in those times.”

“State sponsored denial is not a void, a simple absence of truth; it is a wounding instrument,” says the author.

Trivia: “Hagop” is Armenian for “Jacob,” and the ending “-ian” means “son of.” So,classmates Ed Hagopian and Keith Jacobsen had the same last name, just from different Jacobs.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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