Armenians and Jews Share Dark Chapters in History

Inscribed on a wall in the United States Holocaust Museum is a quote attributed to Adolf Hitler. It comes from a speech he made in 1939 that makes plain his genocidal intent toward the Jews and the lack of consequence for the slaughter of millions.
April 23, 2015

Inscribed on a wall in the United States Holocaust Museum is a quote attributed to Adolf Hitler. It comes from a speech he made in 1939 that makes plain his genocidal intent toward the Jews and the lack of consequence for the slaughter of millions.

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

It is now 100 years since the outbreak of genocidal violence in the Ottoman Empire, when on April 24, 1915, more than 200 community leaders were rounded up for execution. During the almost eight years that followed, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were murdered in a systematic state-sponsored genocide. The brutal mechanics included mass deportation, marching women and children into the Syrian Desert, summary hangings and shootings, as well as 25 concentration camps where detainees were starved to death. Almost three-quarters of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire was murdered.

And that was no accident.

Turkish enmity toward its Armenian minority was well established before the killings and formally described in 1915 by the allies as “crimes against humanity.” “Genocide,” that terrible word, hadn’t yet entered our vocabulary. It took Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, whose own family was murdered during the Holocaust, to define what Armenians and the Jews had been through.

In response to the deportations and growing violence in 1915, the Near East Foundation was established in New York. It was the first American nonsectarian, nongovernmental overseas development organization, founded through the foresight of American ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau. With the support of Woodrow Wilson, a small relief effort was established that provided the platform for a public campaign to raise money for civilians suffering in the crumbling Ottoman Empire, particularly Armenian orphans. It was one of the most successful public-awareness campaigns ever, raising $70 million over six years, the equivalent of at least $1.7 billion today. The point being, people did know. And then we forgot, and the Turks denied they were responsible, leading to the only conclusion Hitler could draw: You can murder an entire ethnic group, and ultimately no one is going to care.

Collective memory is quite different from documenting history. When we remember atrocity, there is a fine balance of the need to mourn personal and communal loss with social, emotional, psychological, historical, spiritual and political aspects of ensuring truth is told. Memory speaks as much about what is important to us in the present as it does about the past. It is high stakes, when genocide is involved, because identity itself depends on it. Memory is a part of how
we renew ourselves. Acknowledgement is a part of healing.

Collective memory, when in the wrong hands, is also dangerous. It has the power to hide the past, deny, trivialize, harm and exclude. The struggle for memory lies deep in our social conscience and has profound consequences, good and bad.

One has to wonder, what would have happened had more people spoken out in 1915? What if Hitler had realized that if you commit genocide, people will remember, and ruthlessly pursue justice so that its masterminds do not succeed? This is all wild conjecture of course, because Hitler was hellbent on the destruction of the Jews regardless of what was said about the Armenians. But had genocide been roundly condemned in our collective conscience, could the shameful history of genocide in the 20th century been vastly different?

One individual who did speak out was German Red Cross officer Armin Wegner, who realized what he was witnessing the Armenians go through was a horrific crime. He photographed what he saw despite the risks facing him. In the 1920s, Wegner used his photographs as evidence to pursue justice on behalf of the Armenians. Wegner had seen genocide firsthand; he understood well its architecture and its consequences. Therefore, after the Nazis had come to power, on the day of the first boycott against Jewish shops and businesses, on April 1,1933, Wegner wrote an open letter to Hitler calling for an immediate stop to the anti-Semitism, lest it result in the destruction of the Jews. Wegner served time in seven concentration camps for his outspoken resistance to the genocide of the Jews. He is also the only person to have been made Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel, without ever saving a single Jewish life. That’s because Wegner tried to save all the Jews.

The official policy of the United States government, which has the strongest influence on collective memory in this country, has been to deny use of the term “genocide” with respect to the Armenian experience. This has been a curious situation, as its own national monument to the Holocaust references Hitler musing that failure to recognize “the annihilation of the Armenians” was a green light for the annihilation of the Jews. Political censorship of this nature, purely predicated on the United States’ strategic relationship with Turkey, demonstrates how long-term harm to a community can be done for short-term political expediency.

The Turkish government is not likely to agree any time soon that its forebears committed genocide. Its response to the pope’s statement about the Armenian genocide being the first of the 20th century was to recall its ambassador from the Vatican, just when diplomacy would have been valuable. As evidenced by many years of confronting Holocaust deniers, denial invariably draws from the same well that caused the genocide in the first place. It hurts when you are denied your own history.

A few years ago, I was involved in a large international conference in Stockholm concerning the prevention of genocide. As organizers, we were pleased that more than 25 heads of state had attended and that the U.N. secretary-general had agreed to a new special adviser on the prevention of genocide. But as we left the hall, I saw standing in front of me a young woman in her 20s with tears flowing down her face in the now- empty congress hall. “But what about me?” she sobbed. “What about you?” I inquired as gently as I could. “I am Armenian, and no one said a word about me!”

Four generations on, she was using the word “me,” because denial of the genocide was hurting her. Healing can begin only when perpetrators accept responsibility. Consider what this means for the generations of family members that continue to wait for recognition. Instead of learning about their history, they spend countless hours and emotional energy lobbying for the truth to come out, just so that their identity can be acknowledged.

As the Jewish community knows very well, denial is the final act of genocide. It excuses killers, obfuscates victims and deeply hurts survivors and their families. It is an insult to the living and the dead; cowardly, weak and harmful. Genocide is never a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. The Armenian community has been hurting too. Just imagine if the government of the United States denied that the Holocaust was the genocide of the Jews.

The Jewish community and the Armenian community have much in common. They are both clearly identifiable ethnic groups, both of whom have a homeland, yet with more people living in diaspora than in the homeland itself. They each have a specific language, history and, of course, food.  They also both have genocide in living memory.

Jews and Armenians therefore hold a common responsibility. Each understands well the enduring pain and consequence of genocide. The fact that they have different backgrounds, different religions and traditions, and went through vastly different experiences makes the point all the more clearly: that genocide can visit any of us, at any time and we all need to be vigilant. How powerful when two communities speak together with one voice on behalf of humanity.

As the last few centenarians who survived the genocide die, Armenians face the challenge of living memory transitioning into history. Los Angeles resident Yevnige Salibian at 102 is one of the last, but as sharp as she is, there is not much she can say about her experiences during the genocide, as she was a child at the time.

That’s just one reason why the USC Shoah Foundation and the Armenian Film Foundation have come together to digitize and preserve more than 400 testimonies of survivors and experts on the Armenian genocide collected by J. Michael Hagopian, a filmmaker who survived the Armenian genocide. Those testimonies can be seen alongside the 53,000 testimonies of witnesses to the Holocaust. Testimony is revenge. It puts the truth in the hands of the eyewitness and resists denial. Even when justice cannot be done, there is poetic justice in the freedom to speak, to have the final word, to leave truth in the hands of future generations. The first 60 testimonies of Armenian witnesses are online at USC Shoah Foundation to mark the anniversary. Their voice thereby takes its place in the collective conscience.

I am writing from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, the state Armenians call home, even though most Armenians trace their original homes to villages and towns in Turkey that have not had Armenian inhabitants for 100 years. I have with me a small, black disc drive, which contains a personal insight into the lives of 60 people. They no longer live, but as their testimony takes its place in the memorial museum in Yerevan, the point is clearly made. Hitler assumed memory would not prevail when he asked, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” We can answer that, and the rhetorical question implied: “So therefore who will speak of the annihilation of the Jews?” To which we can clearly answer, “We do!”

Stephen Smith is the executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education.

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