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Armenian Genocide

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This is a story about my family. More exactly, this is a story about the family tree I had to put together in high school. We were all told to go back “as far as you can,” and I had great fun researching my family’s history: German Enslins, Swedish Larsons, Scottish McNichols, Pennsylvania Dutch Yoders. I found a transcription of an oral account of my Hochstetler ancestors, in the mid-eighteenth century, hacked to death by American Indians. “Murdered by Indians is good,” as Fred Savage would quip; I was sure I would have the most interesting story in the class.

The difficulties began when I started looking into my father’s father’s family, from Sivas in modern-day Turkey. My paternal grandfather died young: my father was only 24, younger than I am today, and I was a baby. He was famously tight-lipped about his family history, even to his wife and children, so all I had were documents and records. I learned that my maiden name, Oren, was not my grandfather’s birth name: in 1942, his parents changed all four of their childrens’ from Jorjorian, with its telltale Armenian patronymic, to Oren. (Oren is, in fact, Dutch for “pine tree.”) There was a birth certificate for my grandfather, born in 1909 in Cook County, Chicago. And before that – nothing.

My great-grandparents, Teresa Mehderian and Hovhannes Jorjorian, fled from Armenia just before the turn of the century. They had seen the first evil flashes of what would become an ugly, full-scale storm: the first genocide of the twentieth century, the twisted plan that would lay the foundation for the Nazi Holocaust. The Ottomans saw in the Armenians what Hitler later found in the Jews: a cultured, wealthy minority, a perfect scapegoat for the economic problems that plagued their aging empire. They seized property and lands of thousands of Armenians in 1895, just before the empire fell to the hands of the Three Young Turks, idealists who promised justice and freedom. My grandparents weren’t confident these promises would be kept. They got out.

They got out just in time. On April 24, 1915, the government of the Young Turks rounded up several hundred Armenian scholars, politicians and teachers in Constantinople and sent them to prison, where most were killed. Hundreds of thousands more were given a week to pack for the “journey” to Aleppo or Smyrna, then sent on long death marches through the desert. Women and children were beaten, raped and bludgeoned. They died in droves. In the end, approximately 1.5 million were killed through brutality and starvation, and another million were driven from their homes. The Armenian community, which numbered about two million at the turn of the century, was all but destroyed outright. As a genocide, it was a great success, so much so that Hitler famously invoked the Turkish plan as he plotted to rid his empire of Jewish blood. When Nazi officers expressed skepticism that such a thing could be done, he answered that it wouldn’t be a problem: “Who, after all, remembers the Armenians?”

Ninety-two years after that initial capture in Constantinople, my family and I arrive at the Soorp Khatch (Holy Cross) church in Bethesda, quiet and smiling in the midst of the haze of Armenian chatter that surrounds us. “I’m going to call my mom and be mad at her again for never teaching me Armenian,” my cousin Kristen says. But her mother never knew Armenian. My grandfather was a pious man, and his church in San Jose was little more than a glorified social club for friends from the old country. He picked up his family and went to the Presbyterian church, and we didn’t look back until almost 50 years later, when we began searching for the roots of the Apostolic church and converted to Orthodox Christianity, of which the Armenian church is one jurisdiction.

His family was obsessed with being American. They wore American clothes and spoke English in the house. My father’s Armenian is limited to a few basic words, which is a dangerous thing in a group: it can easily get you into a conversation that’s way over your head. He doesn’t bring out his five-word arsenal here, but smiles and shakes hands with the men who stand around puffing on cigarettes and donning bright T-shirts in the colors of the Armenian flag.

We board school buses and drive to the Turkish embassy. My heart is pounding, and not just from the close, warm quarters. I was taught the basic facts in grade school, but a few years ago I began doing my own research through the works of Peter Balakian and Atom Egoyan, Armenian-North Americans who cannot escape their bitter history. The book closes, the film ends, and you are dropped back into reality: the United States State Department has refused to acknowledge the genocide for what it is, choosing instead to placate the Turkish government. A few weeks ago, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) interviewed Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (“interviewed” is really not the proper word; “grilled” is more like it) about the controversy. “Now is not the time for us to intervene,” she said over and over again, treating the problem like an age-old border dispute. “It wouldn’t be helpful.” Not helpful for our purposes, certainly. We need Turkey to like us; we need their military bases and we need a friend on the outskirts of that volatile region. President after President has bent over backwards to placate their demands: Carter, Bush Sr., Clinton, and now this administration, in a colossal disappointment. They went so far as to drop a U.N. resolution to commemorate the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda because Turkey objected to its mention of the Armenia genocide. Our love affair with the Turks breaks all partisan boundaries and sits, stubborn and placid, in the way of justice for a wronged people.

A group is gathering in front of the Turkish embassy, hoping at last to secure recognition of their fate. Old ladies in polka-dotted silk suits unwrap foil-wrapped bottles of water and pass them around to the children; teenagers, draped in Armenian flags and Scout uniforms, laugh nervously as they are handed signs and directed to their places on the street. They act like teenagers, the boys betting on who will be arrested first and the girls adjusting stray locks of hair that have slipped from beneath red and blue ribbons. Police cars arrive and unroll yellow tape to keep us from stepping into the traffic on Massachusetts Avenue.

We wait. Across the street, a handful of Turkish counter-protesters have gathered, waving Turkish and American flags and displaying oddly-worded signs, “Ethnic Hatred Breeds Trouble Children” and “Armenian Terrorists are not welcome in regional cooperation projects.” They lean up against the trees that flank the Japanese Embassy. They are waiting, too.

Finally, one of the teenaged boys picks up a bullhorn. “1915, Never Again!” The crowd repeats this in a roar. He goes on to instigate more chanting: “Turkey, admit your guilt!” “We will never forget!” Each time, the crowd grows louder, swelling with passion.

Abigail and Zach, sister and friend, meet us there. They have already taken signs and staked out spots along the front line, but we soon move across the driveway to take up even more room. For a full hour, we scream, pure catharsis. My sister’s sign reads, “Honk for Justice,” and the motorists do, visibly enjoying the effect their words have on the crowd, which erupts each time in a wave of childlike screeches. We echo the words of the ringleader with the bullhorn: “Turkey, run! Turkey, hide! Turkey, guilty of genocide!” It is a crude rhyme, but it fits. In recent years, the government of Turkey has moved from a refusal to discuss the issue at all to an outright denial of the facts. There was no genocide, they say. It was a war, and people die in wars. They have paid for the most experienced lobbyists and taken out full-page ads in the New York Times. Some have gone so far as to accuse the Armenians of genocide against the Turks, a proposition that would be laughable (a five-percent minority against the ruling majority) if it weren’t so earnestly spoken. But there are hundreds of eyewitness accounts: one of the most prominent is that of the United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, who saw what was happening and begged permission to stop it. And there are artifacts in our culture, as well: a whole generation of children was told to eat their dinners because of the “starving Armenians.” Such a phrase speaks volumes about the knowledge of the time, knowledge that has now been abandoned and forgotten.

The under-30 crowd continues to scream, egged on by the Turkish protesters across the way who lean against the trees and watch us, for the most part, with bemusement. My father’s behavior is slightly puzzling: for someone who can get into a heated debate about gay marriage or anti-smoking laws at a moment’s notice, he is remarkably reserved, alternately holding his sign aloft and crossing the street to take pictures. His face reminds me of the time my husband and I took him to see The Who in concert: he smiled and hummed along happily, but paused every few minutes to stare incredulously at my friends and me as we yelled out the words and played air-guitar. “How do you know all these songs?” he asked, again and again. And his face said, “Why are you even interested in this?”

The Turkish crowd has now grown to about 30, and its epicenter is a short, stocky woman with a shrill voice. She has a bullhorn, too, and is chanting, “We want justice! We want the truth!” The signs have proliferated, too, and represent a multitude of approaches: distraction (“Armenia Leave Nagorno Karabakh,” a reference to an Azerbaijani conflict that doesn’t even involve Turkey), claiming higher ground (“Teach your kids love not hate”) and descent into obscurity (“Turkish archives are open, Where are Armenian archives?”) Zach finds this one especially amusing. “Sorry, guys, but during all the raping and pillaging we must have neglected to save our archives.” It’s hard not to be angry.

After several hours, exhausted, we head back to the buses and drive to Capitol Hill. Our guide passes out water and sandwiches (“Hey! Why are we eating turkey sandwiches?” one of the boys quips.) We walk to the Cannon Building, where we have a meeting with the Armenian National Committee. There is a reception with wonderful Armenian food, for which I only know Greek names: baklava, spanikopita, pastitsio. We are told there will be a delay because the House is voting at the moment; we wait, and the crowd (with its Middle-Eastern propensity toward lateness) gathers and swells to five or six hundred, standing and sitting against the walls in the back. Many of the protestors have shed their red T-shirts in favor of suit jackets, and I am feeling mightily underdressed in my jeans and ponytail, with a sunburned face and a bright orange top. I slink lower in my chair and roll my cuffs down.

Behind me sits the wife of Soorp Khatch’s priest, Maggie. She is small, with bobbed honey-colored hair, smooth skin, and huge, sad eyes. She tells me, in English that is remarkably good for only six years in the States, about her background: born and raised in Aleppo, along with the woman next to her. “Down there – ” she gestures down the aisle – “Down there they come from Lebanon.” They have no home; the cities of their ancestors are Turkish now. Armenia is a diaspora, sovereign at last after hundreds of years of occupation by the Ottomans and the Soviet Union. Mount Ararat, the site of Noah’s landing and a national icon, is no longer in Armenia. Their identity is mingled with that of their enemies, a great shame.

I ask the two ladies, who sing in the choir and beam with pride for their children, what they think about the most recent developments in Turkey. Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist, was assassinated in Turkey several months ago for daring to use the word “genocide” about the 1915 massacres. The public outcry after his death was stupendous: hundreds of thousands swarmed the streets of Constantinople in protest for his funeral, carrying signs that read “I am Hrant Dink” and “We are All Armenians.” Could this mean that a generation raised on lies might be owning up to the sins of its fathers?

The women shake their heads, bemused. “They fake. They always fake,” one says, with a rueful smile. Even if the Turks were to apologize today, at this very moment, it would be another generation before they would be trusted. These wounds run deep.

The meeting opens with a prayer by the Armenian Archbishop, whose words are both poetic and challenging. “Truth is not just destroyed by falsehood; it is equally outraged by silence.” A horizontal prayer, yes, but one that comes from a deeply troubled heart. We cross ourselves as one, and elected representatives begin to gather at the front. One by one they take the podium, full of idealism and sympathy. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) says that Turkey is acting like “a big bully.” Adam Schiff is relentless and optimistic. This could be the year, he says. After nineteen years or failed attempts, the legislation introduced in the Reagan era by Reagan himself may indeed come to pass.

My mind wanders back to the day I inadvertently snuck into the Hagia Eirini church in Constantinople. I had thought it was open to the public; actually, the guard had just been on a bathroom break, and they would have taken me into custody for trespassing if I hadn’t produced an American passport. In the minutes before I was discovered, sitting alone in a space that had been designed for worship and was now used exclusively for secular concerts, I reflected on the enormity of the fall of Byzantium. All that remained of Christianity in that lofty space was a huge, simple Latin cross on the apse. But the cross was enough.

I am brought back to reality by the words of the current speaker: “The Turkish government has lots of money, lots of lobbyists, lots of big words. But we have the truth.”

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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