Haunting memories of 20th century's first genocide

April 28, 2000|By Florence Avakian

THIS WEEK marks the 85th anniversary of the first genocide of the 20th century.

From 1915 to 1923, 1.5 million Armenians were systematically deported and massacred by the government of Ottoman Turkey, on the land they had inhabited for more than 3,000 years. Few remember it. Many do not know it happened. Some deny it altogether.

As Armenians all over the world again commemorate this sad anniversary, Turkey still continues to deny this tragic event in its history. Mountains of archival evidence by scores of non-Armenian eyewitnesses -- missionaries, diplomats and noted historians attest to the organized, systematic murder of a people. Community killings

The carnage began on April 24, 1915, with the beheading and hanging of hundreds of Armenian community leaders. All able-bodied men were taken away and slaughtered. Women, children and the elderly were rounded up in villages and towns, and marched hundreds of miles through mountains to the "valley of death" -- the sun-scorched deserts of Syria. On the way, they suffered rape, drowning, disembowelment and mutilation. Few made it. To avoid such atrocities, women clutched their children and threw themselves from crevices into running rivers. Growing up in a home filled with Armenian traditions, my sister and I rarely heard of our family's history. But through research, I learned that my mother and her two sisters, young children at the time, were the only survivors of the genocide in an immediate family of 10. They were taken by Near East Relief, an American philanthropic organization, to an orphanage in Greece.

An outstanding worker for the Near East Relief, Katherine McCormick of the Baltimore McCormick tea and spice family, brought my mother and one of her sisters to the United States, where they grew up with her and eventually went to college. "Mother McCormick" was the second mother for the two young sisters. My sister is named for her.

Throughout her life, my mother dedicated her life to teaching the Armenian language and culture. She could never speak of the horrors she witnessed as a child. Often she expressed the hope of returning one day to see her childhood home and retrieving the precious family Bibles in which her date of birth (which she never knew) was written.

Proud Americans

My father, also a very young genocide survivor along with two brothers in a large family, came to New York, worked his way through New York University Dental School, and became a productive member of this country. As a new dentist, he volunteered during World War II and was honored with medallions from Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Proud to be an American citizen, his patients often heard him singing "God Bless America" as he worked.

Today, fewer than 50,000 Armenians live in Turkey out of a pre-World War I population of more than 2 million. After World War I, Turkey's post-war government, under pressure by the Allied powers, held trials and found the perpetrators guilty even though they had fled the country. However, most people in Turkey know nothing about this history since there are no references in any of their books. Anyone attempting to bring the genocide to light is dealt with very harshly.

In spite of the heavily financed Turkish propaganda machine, some courageous Turkish scholars and intellectuals who, though threatened by Turkish authorities, have started to speak out for justice. Among them is political economist and scientist Taner Akcam, who was imprisoned and forced to flee. "Turkey cannot escape its history. It must build a new meaning to our existence, a history built on the remembrance of the genocide," he said recently.

The wall of denial is cracking. One hopes the door to recognition of human rights, not only for the Armenians but for all people, will soon be fully open.

Florence Avakian is a New York-based free-lance writer.

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