THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND THE BURDEN OF SHAME

Heidi Boghosian Become a fan

New York City Attorney

Posted: 04/24/2015 10:43 am EDT Updated: 3 minutes ago

A part of me cringed each time I uttered my last name in grade school.

For just as soon as I said it, I was asked: "What kind of name is
that?" Blank stares and silence usually followed when I said Armenian.

I felt embarrassed by who I was because I couldn't explain it to
my classmates. All I knew was that something unspeakable, something
secret, had happened to the Armenian people. The only public reference
I had was friends' parents cautioning fussy eaters to "remember the
starving Armenians."

Every week I overheard my father speaking Armenian on the phone
with his sister Hasmig and mother Baidzar, the sounds of hard Ks,
Vs and Zs, punctuating their incomprehensible conversation. Over time
some of the words became familiar to me but the fact that I couldn't
understand their language underscored how little I knew of my family
history. Kept in the dark, how could I embrace my heritage?

In the 1970s my father would proudly point out the occasional famous
Armenian in popular culture--the actor Mike Connors (born Krekor
Ohanian) of the television show Mannix, or Cher (born Cherilyn
Sarkisian). He told me that there weren't many Armenians left in the
world, alluding vaguely to the 1915 massacre of the Armenians by the
Ottoman Turks.

It was my mother, who was Irish, who explained--when we were
alone--that as a teenager my grandmother had seen her family
slaughtered on the steps of a church. She was taken as a slave into a
Turkish household where for she served the woman of the household by
day, then was forced to service the male by night. After three years,
my grandmother and another Armenian girl from a few doors down were
able to escape in the middle of the night. They ultimately made their
way to an orphanage in Corinth. My grandfather Mesrop, who had fled
to the United States during the genocide, paid for her passage from
Greece. They married and moved to New Britain, Connecticut to work
in the hardware factories.

I was slow to learn about Armenian culture, one of the oldest settled
societies in the world. Nonetheless, living with an Armenian father,
I grew to understand key elements of that culture: tradition, modesty,
personal reserve and propriety about the way certain things are done.

Those traits help inform the reluctance of some Armenians to talk
about the genocide, especially the details of how girls like my
grandmother were abused.

Armenians lived in the Caucasus region of Eurasia for approximately
3,000 years. Theirs was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its
official religion in 301 AD. In the 15th century, part of Armenia was
absorbed into the Ottoman Turkish Empire, ruled by Muslims. There,
Armenians were viewed as Christian "infidels," and treated unequally
and unjustly.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the late 1800s, Turkish leaders were
angered by Armenian efforts to secure civil rights. A state sanctioned
program to suppress Armenian civil rights brought protests by Armenians
and then massacres by Turkish officials. When the post-Ottoman Young
Turks assumed power, their "Turkification" campaign deemed Christian
non-Turks a threat to the new state. Turkish leaders sought to create
a Pan-Turkic and Pan-Islamic empire consisting of Turkish-speaking
Muslim regions in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

On April 24, 1915, the Armenian genocide began with the Turkish
government's arrest and execution of several hundred Armenian
intellectuals, clergy, artists, poets, and others. Armenians were
sent on death marches, often stripped naked, through the Mesopotamian
desert without food or water, until they dropped dead. "Butcher
battalions"--violent criminals released from prison specifically
for this purpose--carried out drownings, crucifixions, bayoneting,
live burnings, and throwing off cliffs. By 1923, fewer than 100,000
Armenians remained in the Ottoman Empire.

Many Armenian women genocide survivors were raped or forced into
harems. Later, they were ashamed to talk about what they had
experienced. The Turkish nationalist party's multi-pronged plan
to render Armenians extinct included taking attractive Armenian
brides and virgins into Turkish harems where many gave birth to
children fathered by their masters. In Armenian Golgotha, Grigoris
Balakian--an intellectual who was arrested in the earliest phase of
the genocide--wrote: "The young brides and virgins were yanked from
the embrace of their crying mothers and taken to Turkish harems;
even ten-year-old girls were subjected to all manner of savage,
unbearable Turkish debauchery."

These practices, and other unconscionable acts, help explain why
parents often spoke in Turkish or Assyrian instead of English or
Armenian when discussing the crimes they experienced. They did not
want their children to understand. Children of survivors describe
the topic as secret or forbidden.

Such absence of talk, and mystery about the genocide, contributed
to perpetuating a sense of shame. Observers to the worst crimes of
humanity--some burned alive, others poisoned by Turkish physicians
and pharmacists or drowned, starved to death, or left to perish from
disease--how could surviving witnesses not be haunted for the rest
of their lives?

On the centennial of the genocide, to help dispel the shame that some
Armenians feel, it is time to talk openly about the genocide. This
chapter in history--secreted away for a century--does not belong just
to Turks and Armenians. It belongs in the moral consciences of all
citizens of the world.

The talking so necessary to help dispel the shame has started. On
April 12, 2015 Pope Francis reaffirmed the Vatican's past position
that Turkey committed the first genocide of the 20th century. In words
that angered Turkey enough to recall its ambassador to the Holy See,
the Pope said: "It seems that the human family has refused to learn
from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today, too,
there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few,
and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand by."

While many around the world hoped that President Obama would
acknowledge the Armenian genocide by its 100th anniversary, it
will be still be a victory if global awareness increases. Formal
acknowledgement should follow after the shame is shared.

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