The Haunting Genocide

BY SYLVIE TERTZAKIAN
Guest Columnist

Last week, while undergoing a routine check up at a doctor’s office, it hit home that one of the routine questions that doctors’ offices ask is: family history. For many years, I had not paid attention to the family history section. However, this time around, when the doctor asked the questions, I realized that I had a very limited knowledge about my family medical history. I told my doctor, that my family’s past medical history stops with my maternal grandparents. The rest doesn’t exist, since everyone else had perished in the Armenian Genocide. He was aware of the Genocide, and that established a special rapport between us. Since it was Genocide, and not a murder, where would one find my family’s bones, and how could one proceed with DNA testing, to research the family medical history? A visit to the vast Der Zor desert, with the Prelacy many years back, had already overwhelmed me with the ghosts of those who perished in the desert. I vividly remember the horrible sand storm that hit our bus, and we were stuck in the desert for a while. How did the survivors survive the extreme desert weather? How did the young menstruating girls and women march the death march? How long were the mothers able to carry their babies??? How mentally and physically feeble and yet proud Armenian men felt facing their inability to save their families?

The Genocide has taken a major toll on our people. Why should we wait a whole year to commemorate the Genocide on April 24? Why should we stress out waiting for the House of Representatives to pass the Genocide Resolution? The Genocide is part of each one of us; it affects us in our daily lives: It affects our marriages, parenting and careers. Our fathers or grandparents, who survived the Genocide, were too busy to put bread on the family table. They were too busy learning the languages and customs of their adopted countries. How could they teach us about marriage or parenting and life. For them, life stopped when the Turkish government ordered the Genocide. They were busy in their daily routines, when they had to drop everything and follow the orders of the Turkish government, and march to their starvation, dehumanization, loss of identity, loss of culture, loss of family and loss of property and possessions. They became roaming dysfunctional entities.

Last October, at an exhibition of the Genocide at the National Gallery in Yerevan, I remembered stories about my grandfather’s survival in the desert. He was rescued by German missionaries and put on a camel and “shipped” to Palestine. One of the paintings by Sarkis Khachateryan, called “Orphans in the Desert” depicted one such scene, and I wondered if my grandfather was in that painting… My mother, one of his offspring, was born in Jerusalem. She was brought up with the survival stories of my grandfather, who had the courage to start a pottery business. Was pottery in his family business? He died before I was born. However, as far as parenting was concerned, he was not an expert at it, nor did he have the support system, to learn how to. How could my mother, who was thrust in an arranged marriage at the tender age of 14 to my father, a genocide survivor 15 years her senior, know anything about marriage or parenting? I learned about marriage, parenting and traditions along the way.

As these thoughts churned in my head, my memory took me to Yerevan two years ago, to the banquet of the Armenian Association of Urology at the Yerevan cognac factory. It was the grand finale of the Urology Conference that lasted a few days. More than 100 urologists, their wives and other medical professionals were seated in a u form arrangement in the banquet hall. Toasts were made to the visiting urologists from abroad and to the success of the conference. According to the protocol of the evening, the president of the Association and the Master of Ceremonies, made the first toast. He was followed by other urologists according to rank and importance. Finally, a German urologist who practices in Holland, and has provided fellowship opportunities to urologists from Armenia, asked to speak. After the usual toast to the conference and its success, he brought up the subject of Armenian Turkish relations. According to him, his good friend from Turkey, who was on the Board of European Association of Urology, had faced a “big wall” when he could not fly directly to Yerevan to attend the Armenian Urology Conference the year before.

According to him, that wall was “erected” by the Armenians, and his colleague had to fly to Vienna, to catch a flight to Yerevan. He was not allowed to chair the Conference however he was welcomed to participate. The German went on urging the audience that they should put the Genocide behind them, and have good relations with their Turkish neighbors. As he took his seat, a good number of those present, applauded him and continued indulging in their elaborate dinner. Life went on… I was shocked! I asked my husband, Garo if he would kindly ask the MC permission for me to speak. Permission was granted to the pleasant surprise of everyone, since a woman was to speak next… I had a glass of Armenian brandy in my hand, and I toasted the German urologist for his role in helping elevate the standard of urology in Armenia. However, I added that as an engaged Armenian, I was appalled at his use of the banquet as a political forum. He had no right to lecture the audience on Armenian/Turkish relations. I went on telling him that neither I,nor my children and grandchildren will forget the Genocide, and I explained the reasons for my position. As I spoke, I felt a complete silence in the hall. People were all ears. As I finished my speech, there was an enthusiastic applause from the audience. I was confused: The German doctor was advocating that Armenians forget the Genocide and move on, and I was rebuffing him for his prejudiced “advice”. A well renowned Kremlin urologist from Moscow in his late 70s, proudly carrying the Lenin medal on his chest, asked the doctors next to him about my speech. I thought to myself, “if the German urologist didn’t reply to my speech, for sure I would get a comment from the Russian.” I started slipping down my seat, hoping I would disappear. What did I start? An international scandal in Yerevan? A young multilingual urologist translated my speech to the Russian urologist. The next moment was the moment of my life: The Russian had his thumbs up, stood up and started applauding. Since his presence was highly valued by the Armenian doctors, the audience followed suit. It was like a communist gathering. I was trying to make sense of the drama. As people got seated again, some, in proximity to where I was seated, congratulated me for my courage. It was an oxymoron: The audience applauded both the German’s speech and mine. More thoughts crossed my mind: had this German urologist attended a banquet in Israel, and had he suggested to the Israeli doctors to forget the holocaust, what would have happened? Probably, he would have been escorted out of the hall by police, and put on the next flight out of Israel. They have the chutzpah!!!

At the end of the banquet, the German came to me and explained apologetically, the reasons for his belief in good relations between Turkey and Armenia: his father was a Nazi. Many years ago, he had come to the States to do his urology residency at UCLA. His wife had applied to teach at a school in Beverly Hills, where the board had refused her application, based on her being a German. Out of many of the Jews on the board, one Jewish lady, out of good will and in the spirit of reconciliation, had stood up for her. His wife got the job and they are still in constant contact with that lady. His point was that enemies can be friends. I stood my ground, and told him that unlike the Germans, the Turks have neither recognized the Genocide, nor have they paid reparations to the survivors’ families. I stressed the fact that only recognition of the Genocide can lead to healing and reconciliation.

No matter where we are and what we do, even if for a moment, we forget about the Genocide, the Genocide haunts us. Many Armenians who have immigrated to the U.S., before Sultan Hamid’s massacres of the Armenians in the late 1890s, do not understand our insistence that the Genocide be recognized. They were not affected by the Genocide. They live in a different world, where annual picnics, “Shourdj Bars”, attending an Armenian church and the use of a few Armenian words, make them feel Armenian. As we are part of the larger Christian family, we are not identified as   Armenians by our religion. It is the Genocide that gives us the Armenian identity, more than anything else. Nor looking at the past will make us regress as a nation. Acknowledging our past will make us better and stronger Armenians. The first Republic of Armenia in 1918 was built on the ashes of the Genocide. And as the current Republic of Armenia progresses in every field, we should look both back and forward. The Jews remind the world of the Holocaust everyday through the media, and in the meantime, they use the motto “Next Year In Jerusalem”. Every day, we should tell our own stories in the media and in film. There are many of us with different stories to share with the world. The Jews and the State of Israel, which was built on the ashes of the Holocaust, will serve as the best model for our survival.

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18 Comments

  1. jda said:

    The sudden destruction, death and exile of most Armenians’ ancestors and homeland unifies all Armenians, Greeks, Pontics and A

    • Marie Papazian said:

      Thank you Sylvie

      You spoke on behalf of millions of Armenians including myself, How can we forget about it, the genocide has effected each Armenian family almost in identical effect.
      Just two days ago I heard on national TV the word genocide used for the Albanians , It is used everywhere, like Kosovo , Darfu, but it is forbidden to be used for the Armenians, who gives them the right to forbid using the word after the horribe act being committed even if it was almost 100 years ago, the pain is still in the deep cavity of our chest, it will never go away till Turkey today acknowledgethe fact and face it with an apology,only then the pain will ease.

      about 3 years ago when I went to eastern Armenian lost lands, Anteb, Kilis, Marash, Van, Akhtamar, we all were filled with emotions we could not help ourselves but sing the hayr mer with tearful eyes, when we witnessed the vank of Gomidas vartabed and sang Hayr mer with candellights in daytime, one of the turkish residents came and very rudely manner cussed us and tried to kick us out of the area.
      For sure we demand recongnition, till then those bones not only in Der Zor also the piles of them[ till now under little hill in Mush have been seen]. will not rest .
      Good for you Sylvie, Im glad you opened your mouth and expressed your thaughts nd frustrations, I hope the whole world will hear it .

  2. john said:

    Bravo, Mrs Tertzakian for standing up to ignorance and banality of this odar.

  3. Seda said:

    This is a great article – beautifully written and very personal and engaging. It really hits the core of our issues. These days, many Armenians are struggling with the juxtaposition of dealing with the “NOW” factor and the unresolved wounds and claims. How to reconcile? Should we let it go? Are we too weak and small to battle with major powers and connections? What about the question of what’s best for Armenia and Armenians today? And yet, somehow Sylvie has succeeded to wrap her arms around it and to put it in a nutshell. Remarkable!

    It’s the right time to gain back our chutzpah!

  4. Varant Kasparian said:

    Well done. If every Armenian thought this way and took advantage of opportunities to inform and defend the cause, we would’ve progressed further than where we are today as far as recognition is concerned.

  5. Sara said:

    Thank you Sylvie for this beautiful personal account. Not only is denial the final stage of genocide—it murders the dignity of the survivors and destroys the remembrance of the crime. Our world leaders say “Never Again” – yet genocides continue to happen around the world until today. Thank you for your courage and wisdom.

  6. Raffi Hamparian said:

    Sylvie Tertzakian offers a potent commentary on the genocide and its pervasive impact on the Armenian reality. Her thoughtful reflection on her family history and her interaction with fellow Armenians in Yerevan is a parable of our plight, our national cause, and our destiny. The genocide was not an event, that began and ended. It was and is, as Sylvie effectively conveys, a moment in history that haunts all Armenians and, in reality, all people, whether they know it or not.

  7. Azad Toronto said:

    Sylvie.s article is excellent, it rteminded me of a trip that my husband and I took to urfa a few years ago,

    that is where my both parents were born and raised and then they were marched to the desert.

    that was a very imotional moment for me .

  8. Alice said:

    Thanks to you for taking the time to channel your frustrations and write this peiece. Thanks to Taleen for sharing this with me. You are right about family histories haunting us. They are always a part of today, even in routine checkups as you point out. Beautifully said. You point about recognition as the first step towards peace and reconciliation is well taken.

  9. Eleeza said:

    I couldn’t think of a better way to say it. We must stand up for ourselves every chance we get and you clearly did that — and more — by standing up at a time and place when most Armenians (indeed, those sitting in the room!) would have looked the other way.

  10. Zeina said:

    This is an excellent piece and relevant to other cultures that have experienced and are experiencing similar atrocities. Thank you for memorializing and sharing this story.

  11. boghos vranian said:

    this is a very insightful essay and expands our daily dialogue into greater issues that are significant in our growth as a people. this is an example of how our media needs to go beyond the headlines and explore the implication of said headlines. bravo, mrs. tertzakian. please add more of these essays to the asbarez as opposed to only political hearsay and fortune-telling. write more of these real people implications about genocide and its aftermath, our identity and where we take ourselves and our nation from the 21st century kardashian-worshiping materialism and soullessness.

  12. Seta Mergeanian said:

    This is an illuminating article in that it brings up the individualistic obligation of our people to stand up in situations such as Mrs. Tertzakian when she stood up to the German urologist. And, yes, why wait for April 24th to commemorate such an atrocious rapture of our past, whereas the Armenian Genocide is the fabric of our lives, the essence of our being; the Armenian Genocide is the legacy that binds us Armenians all over the world from one generation to the next and the Armenian Genocide is the purpose of our lives, and Turkey must admit to its past crimes of trying to annihilate our nation by slaughtering almost 2 million of our people in 1915, and the Armenian people all over the world must receive recognition and retribution on a global level. We must never stop our efforts to this end, our persistence, perseverance must endure and, again, standing up on any and every occasion and not backing down. Never.

  13. Arthur from Yerevan said:

    Thank you Sylvie, for this perfect piece. With your journalistic talent, you are able to express the unspeakable pain that the whole Armenian nation has gone and is still going through. This article makes us understand and visualize how one family’s tragic history reflects the pain of our people. Eventually, the Genocide will be recognized. However it will take generations of Armenians to heal from this act of inhumanity to man.In the meantime, the loss of the records of our genes will never be recovered, which is a total loss for the future generations. Only Armenians as a nation, should decide the future relations between Armenia and Turkey, a country that still hides behind the veil of its shameful history.
    Thank you again for an article that speaks so much of our collective pain.

    • Khajag D said:

      Your article took me back to the activism of the A.U.B. years. You have a talent for writing and you are a gutsy lady. A lot of pent up emotion could be felt in your article. Keep on writing!

  14. sebouh from australia said:

    WoWWWW…the best article I have ever read on my emotions regarding Genocide…if I wore a hat I would take it off to you!!!

  15. manooshag said:

    Hye, the Nazis committed their genocide of the Jews, repented, reparations are being paid… the Turk, incapable of any memory of their own history (rather, ashamed of their own history) are in denials… Who, having committed all the inhumane and vile tortures and cruelties, such as slaughters, rapes, slitting pregnant women to gain the embryo to toss upon their swords, hammering horse shoes to the victims feet, and more, and worse. Of course the Turk leaderships do not want to remember… for not only shall they have to make due and owing reparations, return of lands, return of all the wealths stolen from those whom they ‘eliminated’ (Turks will say ‘they didn’t come back’…) and
    to this day the Turk uses PLOY after PLOY to delay, distract and destroy any means to
    admit the guilt of the Ottomans and as well, all the Turk leaderships since the 19th, 20th and now, the 21st centuries ongoing, unending. But all the bones that lie, unburied, await and watch for the day the Turks are gone from the Armenian lands…
    and only then, shall these bones release their curse that bodes against the Turks for all their crimes against all humanity… Manooshag

    • john papazian said:

      The Nazies never repented,the Germans that realized what they had done repented. To the Turk such acknowledgment of the genocide would be a sign of weakness besides with the “reforms” to their constitution they all just voted on the Turks biggest hurdle for EU membership will be Article 301. In other words the Turk is not haunted by the genocide,they would need to have a conscious first. And a precious few of them do have enough humanity to have a conscious.

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