UCLA Conference on the Eve of 90th Anniversary: ‘The Enduring Legacy of the Armenian Genocide’

By Vartan Matiossian

The conference sponsored by the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA)–on April 1-3 became an insightful prologue into the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

Organized by UCLA AEF Chair in Modern Armenian History Professor Richard Hovannisian–it served as an interlude to the ongoing series of UCLA conferences devoted to Historic Armenian Cities and Provinces; fifteen been held since 1997. This conference was cosponsored by the UCLA Von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies–the Center for European and Eurasian Studies–and the International Institute.

Appropriately titled "After Nine Decades: The Enduring Legacy of the Armenian Genocide," this was the fourth conference organized by Professor Hovannisian on the Genocide–during his tenure at UCLA.

In his opening remarks–Hovannisian stressed that the focus is "no longer to describe–rather to understand" what happened nine decades ago.

Hovannisian brought together a broad array of subjects and scholars–with a very important inclusion of fresh–young names. The popular response–with an average of more than 300 people during sessions.

Opening Session

Twenty six scholars from Argentina–Armenia–France–Lebanon–Syria–and the United States partook in the program that began on Friday–April 1 with an evening session in Armenian held at AGBU Manoogian Center in Pasadena. After introductory remarks by Dr. Hovannisian and a brief memorial service by Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian and the Very Reverend Dajad Yardoumian–the great granddaughters of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau–Pamela Steiner and Lucy Tuchman Eisenberg were introduced–along with Consul General Gagik Kirakossian.

Delivered by Nora Arissian (University of Damascus–Syria)–the first paper addressed a little-known subject–the repercussion of the Armenian genocide in the Syrian press of the time–both inside and outside Syria. Hundred of articles were written on the massacres–which were first termed "killing of a nation" in 1916 to warn the Arab public about the danger posed by pan-Turkism.

Marc Nichanian–currently teaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut–made an engaging presentation on "Art and Testimony," analyzing cases and causes of failure to turn testimony into art. He insisted on the need to liberate testimonies from their documentary state–so as not to stifle effectiveness and usage.

Raffi K. Hovannisian (Armenian Center for National and International Studies–Yerevan)–made the final presentation of the evening. His speech posed the immediate and deep question of whether there would there ever be a post-Genocide era. While providing no definite answer–the speaker considered an opportunity perhaps linked with the Turkey’s desire to integrate into Europe–and a more focused Armenian approach to the issue.

Rethinking the Genocide

The Saturday sessions convened on the UCLA campus. In his introductory remarks Dr. Hovannisian–underscored the importance of questions such as "Why are we here after nine decades?"; "how long will we commemorate?"; and "why commemorate?" as new generations succeed. He emphasized the importance of integrating the Genocide into the collective human memory–which is the current challenge scholars face–as well as political and human rights activists.

The first morning session–"Rethinking Aspects of the Armenian Genocide," did justice to its title. Henry Theriault (Worcester State College) pointed out that Armenian integration into Ottoman’society–especially after the 1908 Young Turk coup d’etat and the restoration of the Constitution–was unacceptable to Turkish ultra-nationalism–which had already demonstrated during the 1894-1896 massacres how "to put Armenia’s back into their place." The levels of violence and dehumanization in 1915 was a response to the "humanization" that Armenia’s had achieved in the past decades. Viewing the Armenia’s as human–actually gave more purpose and pleasure to the killers.

Suzanne Moranian (Armenian International Women’s Association–Boston) discussed American foreign policy and its reaction to the Armenian genocide. She persuasively argued that the Genocide became a blueprint for US policy that still continues. American self-interest in trying to help Armenia’s was the same reason that made America abandon those same Armenia’s and turn toward Turkey–especially after the treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

Michael Papazian (Berry College–Georgia) spoke on "Genocide and the Philosophy of History," broaching a subject scarcely touched on in the Armenian case–but widely examined in Holocaust studies. In a comparative approach–he used the main points raised in philosophical inquiries about the Holocaust. In his view–the lack of attempts to make sense of the Genocide is dangerous. The danger of fixation on the past is especially worth noting–since the catastrophe of 1915 distorted Armenian identity–replacing the idea of redemption for one of suffering–a concept that Armenian theologians have yet to recognize.

The Genocide in Comparative Perspective

The second morning session was devoted to comparative perspectives. Katia Peltekian (American University of Beirut) presented her findings about the English-speaking media in different countries–and their coverage of the Genocide. Ways and modes of coverage varied significantly from England to Canada and to the United States. She used charts–graphs–and articles to demonstrate her theses.

Anahit Khosroyeva (Institute of History–Yerevan) spoke in Armenian about the persecutions of the Assyrians from the latter part of the nineteenth century until well into the twentieth century. She gave informative insights into this little-known history–even for Armenia’s–maintaining that the annihilation of Assyrians by the Ottoman Turkish government paralleled that of the Armenia’s–and left a quarter of a million victims by the end of World War I.

Speros Vryonis–Jr. (UCLA and NYU–Emeritus) told of a lesser-known episode of the Greek calamity in Asia Minor after World War I. The defeat of Greece at the hands of Kemalist Turkey gave rise to labor camps of Greek military and civilian prisoners who were kept in inhuman conditions. One of them was the 18-year-old Ilias Benizis–who spent 14 months in 1922-1924 at forced labor and later wrote of his harsh experiences in a volume published in 1931.

Tigran Matossian (Museum-Institute of the Armenian Genocide–Yerevan) compared the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust–revealing the many similarities–preconditions–perpetrators–and victims–which go far beyond the obvious differences.

During lunch hour–architect Sarkis Balmanoukian (Los Angeles) gave an illustrated talk on the memorial complex at Der-Zor (Deir-ez-Zor–Syria)–which he designed. He also showed the changes that were made in his original plans and how the complex looks in its final form.

Education and Art

During the first session on Sunday afternoon–Nicole Vartanian (Fulbright scholar–Washington–DC) addressed the complex issues stemming from the 2001 "No Child Left Behind Act," which sanctioned the need for stronger accountability in educational progress through annual progress reports (tests) through the end of middle school. Because emphasis on math and reading leaves less space for other subjects–particularly social studies–attempts to expand the Act to affect high school–are under way. This makes all the more important the need to increase efforts to ensure that the study of genocide–including the Armenian genocide (mandatory in 6 states)–remains in curriculums.

Sara Cohen (Washington–DC) spoke about teaching the Armenian Genocide to a non-Armenian audience. She stressed the importance of allocating resources for education–and teacher training–to make the subject a part of a multidisciplinary approach–not confined to social studies.

Adam Strom (Facing History and Ourselves–Brookline) talked about the importance of teaching the Armenian genocide as a means to avoid impunity and to promote responsibility. As a principal author of the Facing History resource book on the Armenian genocide–he discussed ways in which the Armenian experience can be used to teach tolerance and provide lessons relating to prevention.

Hagop Gulludjian (formerly from Argentina–now teaching in UCLA) in a novel approach–provided a quantitative and qualitative analysis of resources available on the internet on the Armenian genocide. His presentation displayed that the Armenian genocide was a distant second to the Holocaust on the internet–but clearly ranked ahead of other instances of mass killing in the twentieth century. A spirited question and answer period followed the session on education.

Artistic Responses to Genocide The final Saturday session was devoted to artistic responses individuals have had to the genocide. Two Ph.D. candidates from UCLA–Jean Murachanian and Ramela Grigorian Abbamontian–presented a talk about responses through the visual arts. Murachanian analyzed the work of a French-Armenian painter–Leon Tutundjian (1905-1977)–and the impact of the Catastrophe on his identity as reflected in hundreds of his paintings from both the abstract and surrealist periods. Abbamontian–on the other hand–dealt with several contemporary artists from Los Angeles (Sophie Gasparian–Ara Oshagan–Zareh–Alina Mnatsakanian–and Levon Parian)–showing a wide spectrum of dynamic–sometimes rather shocking–responses to the past and present.

Hrag Varjabedian–a doctoral candidate from the University of Madison-Wisconsin–studied the works of two filmmakers–Atom Egoyan and Tina Bastajian–and two writers–Peter Najarian and Micheline Aharonian-Marcom.

Jack Der Sarkissian (Kaiser Permanente Medical Group–Los Angeles) presented different aspects of the Armenian response to the genocide through music produced during the last thirty years. Playing audio excerpts–he began with Charles Aznavour’s famous "Ils sont tombs" (1975) and continued with Alan Hovannes’s "Mystery of the Holy Martyrs" symphony–jazz composer Gregg Bendian’s "After Chomaklou Was a Desert," concluding with System of a Down’s "P.L.U.C.K."

During the evening–the conference participants were the dinner guests of the Armenian Educational Foundation in Glendale.

History and Memory The conference continued during the afternoon of Sunday–April 2–with two sessions. The first–titled "History and Memory," was opened by Barlow Der Mugrdechian (California State University–Fresno) with a paper devoted to three narrative works by Armenian-American writers: Michael Arlen’s "Passage to Ararat," Michael Krekorian’s "Avedis," and David Kherdian’s "Ask the River." Despite their different approaches–all three of the works demonstrate that the authors aimed at gaining a better understanding of themselves.

Marc Mamigonian (NAASR–Boston) spoke on the little-known presence of Armenian references in James Joyce’s novel–Finnegan’s Wake. Within the book–Joyce refers to the genocide–and discusses symbols associated with the Armenian culture.

Rubina Peroomian (UCLA) gave an overview of reactions to the Armenian genocide in the literature of Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia. The Stalinist period impacted the link between history and memory–but a gradual rediscovery took place in the post-Stalinist period. Attempts at filling the voids in historical memory have continued into the period of renewed Armenian independence.

Philippe Videlier (CNRS–Lyons) ended the session with an informative paper about the response of French society to the Armenian genocide during the last century. He spoke of post-genocide Armenian immigration to France and the role of historical memory. He also pointed out that the Genocide was known to a large majority of the French citizenry. The subject’s obvious resonance with current affairs–namely France’s recognition of the Genocide and the question of Turkey candidacy in the European Union–gave way to a lively period of discussion.

Prospects for Dialogue and Reconciliation

Elazar Barkan (Claremont Graduate University) stressed that the political shift resulting from the end of the Cold War–and the growing emphasis on human rights–currently facilitates the recognition of past events as an important component of shaping current identity. The presenter spoke of the need to create a body–similar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission–which will focus on the history of the genocide. Barkan stated that he believes the body’s analysis will only affirm the historical validity of the genocide–but incited some members of the audience by noting that such the judgment rendered by such a body should not be linked to any preconditions.

Bedross Der Matossian (PhD candidate–Columbia University) presented a comparative study of Turkish liberal historiography–historical assessmen’s which challenge the "official," "state narrative" of the genocide. He discussed the works of Taner Akcam–Fatma Mge Goek–Fikret Adanir–Halil Berktay–and other Turkish scholars.

Addressing subjects that are at the center of the historical controversy in Turkey–Fatma Mge Goek (University of Michigan-Ann Arbor)–said–"We have to educate Turkish society. I certainly do hope that Turks will come to the recognition of their past. But they have to be educated–to have that knowledge be accessible to them. The only thing they have now is state propaganda."

Simon Payaslian (Clark University)–in his talk on Anatomy of Post-Genocide Reconciliation–criticized various attempts at applying reconciliation models used in other parts of the world–(e.g. Peru and South Africa) and focused on the work of the now-defunct Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission–which–Payaslian said–was flawed due to its lack of transparency and legitimacy. Any future attempts at reconciliation both sides–Payaslian noted–should be based around international human rights law.

After a lively discussion–Professor Hovannisian summarized the proceedings and made the closing remarks. The conference was enhanced by an exhibition of photographs of Armenian genocide memorial monumen’s worldwide–taken by Hrair "Hawk" Khatcherian of Quebec and mounted by Richard and Anne Elizabeth Elbrecht.


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