SKOKIE, Ill.—Peter Balakian spoke Sunday, April 20 to an audience of more than 250 people at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, and a town that is still remembered for the controversial march of neo-Nazi groups there in 1979. The Museum is the second largest of its kind after the US Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Washington, DC.
Balakian lectured for the occasion of the 98th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, traditionally commemorated on April 24th. He also commenced his work with the Museum as Senior Scholar for the Armenian genocide exhibit it will mount in 2015 for the genocide’s 100th anniversary.
In his opening remarks, Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut said: “Our young people – our future – must be a bridge to the future, and ensure that we realize the lessons that were set forth by us, by the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and all such terrible atrocities. We must speak for those whose voices were silenced and for those who survived so we may remember and pledge never to forget. Today,” Hirschhaut continued, “at this gathering, we are reminded of a history that must be recognized, and remembered, and calls to the importance of lighting the torch of truth for the world community.”
Nairee Hagopian of the ANCA then introduced Balakian and expressed her gratitude to the Museum for initiating such an important and timely project.
Balakian thanked Hirschhaut and the Illinois Holocaust Museum for their leadership in partnering with the ANCA to build an Armenian genocide exhibit for the 2015 anniversary, “a project,” he said, “that will serve as a model for others to come.”
Balakian also noted how crucial the ongoing support and intellectual work of the Jewish community has been, and continues to be, “from Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Franz Werfel, and Raphael Lemkin to the work and support of so many superb scholars in our time including Elie Wiesel, Deborah Lipstadt, Robert Melson, Robert Jay Lifton, Andrew Goldberg, and many others, Jews who have made a decisive difference in clarifying our understanding of what happened to the Armenians in 1915.”
For the April 24th commemoration of the Armenian genocide, Balakian then gave a lecture, “Raphael Lemkin, Cultural Destruction, and the Armenian genocide.” He discussed Lemkin’s deep thinking about what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as a seminal case of genocide, noting how Lemkin’s intellectual commitment to what he came to call genocide was heavily influenced by his study of the Turkish mass killing of Armenians. It was Lemkin, he said, who first coined the term Armenian genocide in the 1940s, and explained the concept on a special CBS Television broadcast about the UN Genocide Convention, in February 1949. Balakian also explored how the destruction of Armenian culture (intellectuals and artists, churches, schools, libraries, forced conversions to Islam, etc.) constituted a key component of genocide.
In an extensive PowerPoint presentation, Balakian showed arresting images of magnificent, thriving Armenian churches before 1915, and those same churches, in Turkey, that are in ruins today. He concluded by observing that this kind of cultural destruction still has complex reverberations, and impacts on Armenians in Armenia, in the diaspora, and in Turkey.
A reception and book signing followed.