I am a second-generation genocide survivor, and an artist and filmmaker. I was born and raised the son of an Armenian father and a Greek mother in Istanbul, Turkey, the old city of Constantinople. Like most Armenia’s living in Turkey, my family had been almost wiped out by the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Entire towns and villages were forced from their homes into exile, where many died of starvation. Hundreds of thousands of others were killed in the most brutal ways imaginable ‘s women, children, and elderly included- by drowning, burning, firing squads, swords, and other cruel ways.
My father survived as a 5-year-old orphan in Aleppo, Syria, after being forced to march with the rest of the family almost 1,000 miles from their home in Edincik on the Marmarian coast. The rest of the family died along the way or upon reaching Aleppo and beyond in Syria. Sometimes I used to question my father about those events. He would not comment, all he would say is “There is no God. If there was a God, what happened would not have happened!” However, my father did not teach me hate. On the contrary, he taught me love and tolerance, which is the message I try to give today ‘s “Hope Not Hate”.
In 1968, I emigrated to the United States with my family. I became a U.S. citizen, established a visual design company, and since 1987 I have developed my art in this country. I did not go back to Turkey for 27 years. I finally returned to my homeland in 1995, and then again in 2000 and 2003.
I now believe I cannot go back home ever again, because the last time I was in Turkey I made a film “Discovering My Father’s Village”, and started speaking out about the Armenian Genocide in lectures and public presentations in the U.S. As an artist, by making movies I realized I could reach a larger audience, and share my story beyond the borders of my environment or an art exhibition space.
In the past several years, I have had the privilege of sharing my family story with many audiences, including several scholarly groups and those interested in history. In November of 2006, I had a first-time experience with an audience like the one at a public high school in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.
I had been approached by the organization “Facing History and Ourselves”, of Brookline, Massachusetts. They were the liaison putting this presentation together. The subject of my presentation was the history of the Armenian Genocide, and my experiences growing up in Turkey as a second-generation genocide survivor. The audience was the senior class of mostly minority students.
We had a late start, so I had 50 minutes to talk about my growing up in Turkey and my first recognition that I was different and was discriminated against. I also spoke about my witnessing at age 14 the 1955 pogrom against the Greek civilian population and the destruction of the city of Istanbul (the old Constantinople); the fear of oppression and discrimination; and finally growing up and realizing that I had been in denial in order to survive while living in Turkey. I told of trying to blend into the culture, and finding a few Turkish friends that would accept me as a non-Muslim.
Following that, I gave the historical perspective of the Turkish tribes of the past millennium, and the circumstances of Christians living under the discriminatory rules of the Ottoman Empire. Then I discussed the establishment of the Young Turks, the hypocrisy of their “liberating” views, and the gruesome facts of the Armenian Genocide. I told the students my family survival stories and bread stories, and explained the meaning of the term “genocide” as coined by Raphael Lempkin.
I was signaled that I had 15 minutes or less left for questions and answers. At first, I started getting a few reluctant hands raised in the crowd. The more questions I received, the more would follow. Some questions were even from the same students or teachers.
In the brief time of my lecture the students, mostly African-Americans, had understood my past history living in Turkey as a minority under discrimination, facing a politically paranoid Turkish government that has a fear of its borders being dissolved. I explained how I was not allowed freedom of speech, that I would face imprisonment if I ever went back, and yet I have nostalgia for my homeland at the same time. I gave the students my message of “Hope not Hate.”
The students understood how lucky they are to live in the United States where we have personal liberty, and not to take what they have for granted. They understood what it means to be deprived. The questions I had from the students were very impressive. One of them asked, “If you were allowed to go back to the land where you were born, what would you do?” They were asking me about my ultimate dream. Another one asked, “If you were given a choice to give your life back to one of your ancestors, would you exchange your life and if so for which one?”
The last 15 minutes went by very fast. A lot of risen hands did not get an answer, but I knew one thing. They knew that I knew how they felt, and I knew I had given them a key to open up hopeful doors in their future.
If I had had time to answer that first student’s question, this is what I would have said: My dream is to be able to go back to my father’s village, Edincik in Turkey, with a small film crew and a budget that would be provided for this project, which would take three to four months. I would film this project by attaching small portable camcorders to my body: one on my forehead, one on my chest, and one on each knee. My crew would have a few additional camcorders to record things happening around me.
The project would start with interviewing villagers in my father’s village, if I could do it without any fear of questioning them about the Armenia’s that once lived there. I would walk into those dilapidated, abandoned Armenian homes, visualizing a once happy life, and a people who had been erased from this land. I would listen and record their daily worries and needs as village residents. Then I would start walking on the deadly march and go through the same path that my ancestors did: from Edincik, a few hundred miles from Istanbul in the Northwestern part of Turkey to Syria, which is 800-1,000 miles away to the Southeast.
I would record all of that long walk, the scorching sun, the dry earth, from one village to another, from one town to the other, and ask the villagers in each place for stories about the Armenia’s which passed through or which were murdered or robbed by bandits on the way, or by soldiers or local people. I would ask about their ancestors, who had participated in the killings. I would record their faces and their bodies when they would remember the horror stories, or how their facial expressions would change when they would deny the atrocities. I would sit down and share food with the hospitable ones, and share painful memories.
I would film the wells and the rivers in which Armenian mothers and children were drowned or killed themselves, or from which they were forbidden to drink, causing them to die from thirst. I would record those dilapidated churches that are now used as barns for animals or have been converted to mosques. I would film those roads that had been lined with dead or dying bodies of elderly men or women, young boys or girls, or their mothers, being eaten by vultures.
I would record valleys where the Armenian men of the towns were gathered to dig their own graves before they were shot, or climb the tall mountains where those poor souls jumped or were pushed to their deaths. I would record everything on my way, even from the level of my knees.
The final destination would be Syria, where my aunt and grandmother picked stones from the fields to buy a loaf of bread. The old streets or the outskirts of Aleppo, with the scorching sun above. I would focus my camera on a close-up of cow or horse dung to look for barley, as my grandmother did when looking for a food source. I would witness a sandstorm like my father did when he was five years old, in which he injured his retinas permanently. I would look for mass burial yards, and my grandfather’s and my grandmother’s lost graves. Who knows, I would probably walk on their unknown burial grounds. I would visit the German hospital in Rakka where my grandmother died, if it is still there. I would visit the old orphanages.
And finally, I would walk to Der-el-Zor. With a shovel, I would dig the dry ground and find a skull to bring home.
Istanbul-born artist Apo Torosyan graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, B.F.A./M.F.A. in 1968, and emigrated to the U.S. in the same year. After establishing a very successful visual design company, he sold his business in 1986 to dedicate his time to his art. Since then, he has had many solo and group shows all over the U.S. and Europe, and his work has appeared in private and corporate collections in Turkey, Greece, Spain, France, Armenia, Canada, and the U.S. His art works are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art at Tonneins, Bordeaux, France; the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, MA; Ararat Eskijian Museum in Los Angeles, CA; Armenian Western Diocese in Burbank, CA; A.G.B.U. Manoogian Collection, Montreal, Canada; Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT; and Flaten Art Museum in Northfield, MN. Apo is an active member of the Boston Printmakers and the International Association of Genocide Scholars.