My grandmother once observed that my birthday, April 23rd, is wedged every year between two rather unfortunate dates — Vladimir Lenin’s birthday, and today, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. For me, the latter has made for a sobering change of tone each year from the happy day that came before it, but — like a death in the family — it doesn’t hit you right away.
Of course, every year I’d sign petitions demanding that the President issue a statement joining a wide swath of nations and 43 American states in recognizing the Armenian Genocide. At home, we’d watch an old PBS documentary about the genocide. But how does one wrap his head around 1.5 million people having been murdered? What kind of a framework can a person — a child, no less — apply to make sense of it? How can a kid realize that, were he alive in what is now eastern Turkey in 1917, he’d likely be an orphan, his mother raped and murdered?
It is not very different from trying, in vain, to make sense of the Holocaust. Theodore Adorno might have put it best when he remarked that to try “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” How can one live after the Shoah? How can one make sense of existence?
But I am, perhaps frightfully, beginning to comprehend what it was. This year, when I attended a commemoration ceremony at an Armenian church in Trumbull, Conn., I heard a rendition of poet Paruyr Sevak’s “The Unsilenceable Belfry.” Wheelbarrows became caskets, he wrote. In the evening, I heard an old Armenian church hymn for the first time: “Mother, where are you?” The beautiful, haunting chorus sang of Christ pleading for his mother during the crucifixion. That Sunday night, for the first time, I could cry about the genocide.
When German statesman Willy Brandt went to Warsaw in 1970, he visited a memorial marking the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to lay a wreath. Then, suddenly, he knelt. He didn’t have to, but he did, and the entire world saw.
Here, the Armenian Genocide is different, because no Turkish head of state has ever knelt at a monument of the genocide. The Turkish government denies that an event amounting to anything close to genocide took place. Anti-Armenian sentiment extends to the present day, as well. Documentary clips about the Armenian Genocide on YouTube are often followed by all kinds of comments with ethnic slurs.
Obviously, these sentiments don’t express the sentiments of nearly all Turkish people. But a strong, anti-Armenian cultural strain, buttressed by resurgent Turkish nationalism, definitely thrives in modern Turkey. And it makes days like today all the more painful, because it begs the question of how to heal an open wound that will not close. How do we remember the dead when few others will — in fact, when some will actually falsify history, directly opposing most historians of the period, to claim that the names of the dead are mere fiction. But the primary source documents are all there for people to see.
The late ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr. called the Armenian Genocide a “campaign of race extermination.” In justifying the beginning of the Holocaust, Hitler asked a group of Nazis whether anyone remembered the Armenians.
But in the end, this is much more than a historical dispute — because it’s not really a dispute at all, except for those on the radical fringe. It’s a cultural struggle to forgive the crimes of those who didn’t acknowledge (and whose descendants still don’t) that they have anything for which to be forgiven.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr DIV 1914 once published a book called “The Irony of American History,” but the book is really littered with ironies of every kind. One particularly poignant one is that of Christ himself — that a man utterly mocked, condemned and crucified next to two lowly prisoners is resurrected, and that in doing so he pays for the mistakes of a world that doesn’t even acknowledge its sin. For the past hundred years, the Armenian people have been living this irony: trying to look the unrepentant in the eye and forgive. But it is hard, and the wound is not nearly closed.
Whether we will remember is an open question. I will, haunted by the faces of the genocides of the twentieth century. And tonight, I’ll accompany my friends to the Women’s Table, where we’ll remember together. We will forget politics, and we will remember the child marched into the desert by the Ottomans, stripped of a family and a home, crying out for his mother. And we will try — we will try our very hardest — to forgive.
John Aroutiounian is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .