Family’s History of Genocide Highlights Nora Hovsepian’s Commemoration Speech

ENCINO–The San Fernando Valley Armenian Revolutionary Federation Rosdom Gomideh and area sister organizations held an Armenian Genocide commemoration event, during which Nora Hovsepian delivered the keynote speech. Below is the text of the speech.

Let me tell you about a little Armenian girl named Vergine who lived with her parents and eight brothers and sisters in the City of Erzinga.
One day in the summer of 1915, Vergine witnessed her father and her uncle being beaten and axed to death in front of her eyes by Turkish gendarmes. Her mother and her aunt frantically gathered up all of their children, took them to the river nearby, said the “Hayr Mer” together; and while they all held hands at the river’s edge, they threw themselves into the raging waters. All of them drowned, except little 9-year-old Vergine, who clung to the branch of a weeping willow tree overhanging the river, instinctively wanting to survive. Vergine was too young to understand why her family was dying around her. She was too young to understand the fear of being raped or enslaved by Turkish soldiers, but she was old enough to know that if she could just hold on a little longer to that hanging branch, then maybe she could be saved. She hung on for what seemed an eternity, until a friendly Kurdish family came to the river’s edge, saw her desperation, and rescued her.
They kept Vergine as a maid in their house for a few years until they finally handed her off to American missionaries who had come to the region trying to rescue lost souls. Vergine was taken to an American orphanage, and at the age of 14, was reunited with her two older brothers who had been in America for several years and who were frantically trying to find any surviving members of their large family. Vergine came to New York on a ship in 1920 and built her life there. She met and married another survivor of the Armenian Genocide, and she never told her only son or anyone else about the unspeakable horrors she had witnessed.
But then, in 1973, when Vergine heard the news that a 78-year-old Genocide survivor named Gourgen Yanikian had shot and killed two Turkish diplomats as revenge for the murders of his entire family, Vergine decided to tell her story to her oldest grandchild.
Vergine Djihanian Kalebdjian was my grandmother, and her oldest grandchild was me. At the age of 10, as I sat and listened to my grandmother’s tragic story, I could not even fathom what she had gone through at the same age, and until now, and for the rest of my life, I will never forget her story. I will tell her story to anyone who will listen, and I will use her story as a call to action to every Armenian who has a similar story to tell.
So when people ask, “Why can’t you just let old wounds heal? Why dwell on the past and not look to the future?”, here is my response.
American author William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even passed.” In our case, it isn’t even passed because as long as the injustice continues, the wound will not heal. The reason we are still talking about the Armenian Genocide 93 years after April 24, 1915, when virtually all of the perpetrators are dead and gone and nearly all of our precious survivors are no longer with us, is because everything that has happened to the Armenian People since 1915 and until today can find its roots in the Genocide. The horrific pain it caused is renewed with each day of denial, when the truth is distorted, the lies are perpetuated, and their consequences shape the very nature of our individual and collective lives.
Just look around you. If it weren’t for the Genocide, there would be no large Armenian Diaspora created by Armenia’s being displaced and forced to relocate to foreign lands all over the world. It is certainly ironic that while the Turks tried to exterminate our nation, they inadvertently caused a dispersion of Armenia’s which, as if through some divine intervention, resulted in a Diasporan’structure whose mission it became to seek justice for the crime against its People.
In fact, if you ask almost any Diasporan Armenian about his story, you will hear it ‘s the Armenian Story of the last four generations, each generation using the capabilities and means of its time to promote the Armenian Cause.
Starting with my grandparents’ generation, which had no choice but to leave behind all they had known to emigrate to foreign shores just to survive, the Armenian Diaspora developed out of a desire to maintain the heritage that would otherwise have been lost to the world forever with a history that no one ‘s least of all the Young Turks ‘s had the right, or for that matter, the ability, to extinguish.
And through it all, for the first 50 years, that generation of survivors did not dwell on the past. They did not talk to their children about their unspeakable trauma because it was too painful to remember and relive. But they did raise their children as good and patriotic Armenia’s while teaching them to be good citizens; they taught them to speak Armenian in the home, they kept the traditions alive, they took them to church, and they urged them to marry other Armenia’s to avoid assimilating and losing their “Armenian-ness.” How many times have we all heard from our grandparents, “Hayeren khosetsek.” This was the way they found to survive and to pass on their heritage to all of us who came after them.
Then, in 1965, fifty years after the Genocide, when the Diasporan communities of survivors and their families had established themselves and there was no longer a struggle simply to stay alive, there was a reawakening of sorts in the second generation, the generation of my parents, the children of Genocide survivors, who felt more secure and more empowered to seek justice for the crime against their People.
A decade later in the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, the third generation, the grandchildren of Genocide survivors and my generation, felt that not enough had been done to promote the Cause they had inherited, and many of them resorted to whatever ways they felt effective to express their frustration and to seek justice for our nation, sometimes sacrificing their lives or their freedom along the way. Others, with the power of their education and the fact that they no longer felt like foreigners in the countries to which their grandparents had immigrated, lobbied their adopted governmen’s to hold Turkey responsible and organized protests and media drives to convey their message.
And finally, the fourth generation, that of our children, the youth, the students, has now inherited the obligations placed upon each of us by our martyrs. Though most of them have never had the privilege of sitting down with a Genocide survivor, they feel the pain as we have always felt it, because as so wisely stated by French philosopher Ernest Renan in 1882, “Suffering in common unifies more than joy does. Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.”
Will the generation of our children feel its own sense of duty to continue the fight for justice while preserving Armenian history, language, tradition and culture? Time will tell. It is true that many of them do feel the magnetic pull of our young independent Republic of Armenia and are eager to participate in any way they can. They tend to be more optimistic toward the future, as they know that they can continue the path upon which their parents and grandparents embarked, while using more modern and effective tools to convey our message and to achieve the ultimate goal for which we all continue to strive.
I don’t know how many of you were here in this hall last night, when members of the Armenian Youth Federation so eloquently said in their presentation, that their generation is both the bridge to the past and the gateway to the future. Isn’t this in fact true with any new generation? Even though they struggle with the temptation to assimilate into the easier life, many of them still instinctively feel their duty toward their People and are prepared to fulfill it.
But at the same time, while we are on the campus of this Armenian-American school far, far away from our homeland, and we are proud of the fact that it has shaped the Armenian character of so many of its students, we cannot help but lament the fact that so many others in the Diaspora have been lost and assimilated along the way. Tragically, this is just another chapter in the process of Genocide and in many ways can be slowed but not avoided entirely, especially as our history becomes more remote and less urgent for our youth.
It is true that in the 93 years since 1915 and through four generations in the Diaspora, we have succeeded in keeping the issue alive. We have evolved from survival to activism. We have achieved a free and independent Armenia which, in partnership with the organized Diaspora whose existence is the direct result of the Genocide, can now act as the legitimate and legal representative of the Armenian Nation in resolving the issue of the Genocide. But we have not yet been entirely successful in formulating the issue in such a way as to achieve a just conclusion. And we are not the only ones struggling with this dilemma.
Ironically, just as we face our dilemma of how to keep our issue alive in the face of inevitable time and assimilation, so too must Turkey face its own dilemma of how to reconcile with its past in the face of mounting pressure in order to maintain respect within the international community and to become a good neighbor in the region.
Turkey deals with this dilemma by desecrating any remaining proof of a historical Armenian presence in its eastern regions and distracting the world by creating an artificial debate as to whether the Genocide is a historical truth, but we must go beyond that by focusing attention on the real debate:
How can Turkey atone for its crimes against the Armenian People and humanity in a manner which promotes justice without hindering the process before it begins?
Of course, Turkey has fought consistently against framing the debate in this manner because it knows that the consequences of doing so could potentially be severe. Yet it must do so if it truly wants to be accepted as a secular democratic nation. It must face its truth and all its consequences; it must normalize relations with its Armenian neighbors; and it must stop trying to intimidate its allies.
To start, Turkey must repeal its law criminalizing the mere mention of Genocide. It must not tolerate the silencing of such outspoken critics as Hrant Dink. It must cease to imprison its own Turkish scholars who call for recognition. And on an international scale, it must cease to make threats against its allies such as France for taking the bold step of legislating the truth or against the United States for considering passage of the Genocide Resolution.
Next, though no amount of regret or apology can ultimately right the wrong, it can at least pave the way for Turkey to settle its debts in a more civil manner. Even in my own work as an attorney, I frequently tell clients who sue those responsible for the death of a loved one that nothing can bring that person back or reverse what has happened, but that holding a person responsible for his wrongdoing is the only way the law has to compensate the victim and to try to dispense justice. It is never enough, but it is often all that can be done.
Instead of taking these conciliatory first steps, however, Turkey chooses to spend millions of dollars each year, hires lobbyists against us, bribes our former friends like Dick Gephardt to join its side, and engages in a massive ad campaign to decry its innocence. Even on an official visit when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan recently came to Washington with the specific mission to intimidate Congress into killing the Genocide Resolution, he arrogantly proclaimed, “There is no such thing as a genocide,” despite long-standing and universally accepted conclusions to the contrary.
Turkey knows, of course, that the world’s condemnation of its crime against humanity in the post-World War I era resulted in international treaties requiring it to surrender land to Armenia, treaties which were unenforced but for which there is a clear precedent even today.
Turkey knows that the newly-independent Republic of Armenia along its eastern border will be significantly strengthened if these penalties are enforced, and that a strong Armenian state will hinder its dream of an uninterrupted Turkic society over vast territories from Turkey to Azerbaijan and beyond. Just look at any world map, and you will see. The same pan-Turkic general plan that drove the Young Turks to try to exterminate the Christian Armenian nation which stood in its way still exists today. The same pan-Turkic plan is behind the current blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan of Armenia and Artsakh, still trying today to choke our nation out of existence with impunity.
These are the reasons why Turkey goes to such lengths to deny the truth despite its argument that the issue is no longer important and should be forgotten after 93 years.
Unfortunately, despite the undisputed U.S. role as the world’s sole remaining superpower, our own U.S. Government in many ways has failed to exert pressure on its Turkish ally in this quest for what is right. It has surrendered its moral authority and historical precedent to Turkish threats.
Did you know, for example, that the United States officially established the truth of Turkey’s genocidal plan in 1920, reaffirmed this conclusion through a United Nations resolution in 1946, adopted a joint Congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide in 1975, issued a presidential proclamation in 1981 acknowledging it again, reaffirmed the fact in 1984, and penalized Turkey by reducing U.S. aid in 1996 until it acknowledged the Genocide?
And yet, despite all of these historical precedents, recent U.S. Administrations have adopted a contradictory policy not grounded in truth, but influenced by politics. For this reason, President George W. Bush, on the one hand, publicly calls on Congress to stop “wasting time” sorting out Ottoman history when it has more pressing matters to address, but on the other hand, orders his State Department to fire a decorated career diplomat in the person of John Evans from his post as U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, to erase a lengthy career of service to this nation, simply for uttering the word “genocide.”
There is a level of hypocrisy there that is too deep to describe. The U.S. Government has been so afraid of offending its ally that it sinks to denying its own affirmations of the truth and offending its loyal citizens of Armenian descent. It falls victim to Turkey’s threats to deny access to its military bases or air space, to Turkey’s lack of assistance in the war on terror, and it closes its blind eye to Turkey’s continued blockade of Armenia and its assistance to Azerbaijan against Artsakh.
As American citizens, we can and should use our rights to influence change in this flawed U.S. policy. We can get involved at every level in elections to support those who support us, we can lobby our legislative bodies to take action, and we can participate in formulating public opinion through the media. We must show them that we can be a reliable ally in a volatile region both to the United States and the West, and that we are committed to democratic principles in the newly-independent Armenian Republic and in the region. This is the strength of our position, and we in the Diaspora must use it to our advantage.
Fortunately, we do have strong allies in our elected representatives from Adam Schiff to Brad Sherman, the late Tom Lantos, Radanovich to Ensign, Menendez to Pallone, Knollenberg to Durbin, and yes, to Barack Obama and others who we dare to hope will not succumb to these arrogant and empty threats, because they know, as we all know, that Turkey needs the U.S. much, much more than the U.S. needs Turkey, and they know, as reaffirmed in House Resolution 106, that the crime against humanity in eliminating more than 1.5 million inhabitants from their homeland of over 2,500 years was nothing less than Genocide.
We should work with our supporters to make sure that our government does not become an accomplice to Turkey’s denial, because as renowned genocide scholar Israel Charny has written, “Denial is the final stage of genocide, as it seeks to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators.” In this case, the perpetrators can only be rehabilitated by acknowledging the truth and accepting the consequences.
So you see, this is why we can’t let old wounds heal. This is why even now, even those of us who were born and raised in the Diaspora, when visiting our Armenian homeland, we somehow feel at home, we somehow feel the weight on our shoulders of our martyrs’ call for justice, we feel the duty to support our Nation.
Many of you may ask what you can possibly do to help this effort. Many of you may think that our goals are improbable if not impossible. I ask you: Who among us would have ever thought we would see a free and independent Armenia during our lifetime? Who among us would ever have thought we would witness the fall of the mighty Soviet Union? And who among us, having witnessed these momentous events in our history, cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel with a free, independent, and above all, united Armenia?
So if you continue to believe in the probability of our success, here is my suggestion: think of it as your debt to your People. Think of it as your obligation, the dues you have to pay. Just as we account each year to the Internal Revenue Service for our taxes, so should we each account to ourselves as to what we have done or will do to help in any small way to promote our cause, the Armenian Cause. So continue to attend community events such as this one where we mourn our martyrs, pray for their souls, and pay our respects with monumen’s and gatherings and speeches. But in doing so, recognize that our obligations to them do not stop there. Our obligations to them do not stop because we finally have a free and independent Armenia. Our obligations to them do not stop because it has been 93 years since the Genocide. No, our obligations began the day the Genocide ended with those who survived and when the Turkish plan to exterminate our Nation failed. Our obligations have continued for the last 93 years and will continue until justice is achieved.
So pay your debt with your time, your commitment, your money, your dedication, your sacrifice, anything you can. Join an organization, whether it is political, cultural, educational, athletic, religious, or social. Spread the word of our Cause to anyone who will listen. Guide the youth to carry the banner of our struggle. Lobby your elected representatives to support recognition of the Armenian Genocide by lifting the gag rule placed on the U.S. Government by its supposed Turkish ally. Express your gratitude and support to those who help us. Fight for justice, fight for recognition and reparation, fight for our homeland, and above all, do whatever you can, whenever you can, to fight for our noble Cause.


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