In line with its mission to explore and document the contemporary Armenian experience, the USC Institute of Armenian Studies has been engaged in both creating and gathering documents on the unique history of the Armenian Displaced Persons (DP) community formed during and after World War II.
“Just as it was important to record and preserve the memories of Genocide survivors, it is also important to assemble and retain the memories of the Armenian experience throughout the post-Genocide period, in many places around the world. We are grateful that with the support of the DP community of Los Angeles, the Institute is able to focus on the history of this very interesting period. It is not just part of Armenian history, but it’s also part of World War II history, Soviet history, US and German history, as well as a window into understanding immigration, nationalism, identity and entrepreneurship,” said Salpi Ghazarian, director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies.
As scholars think about how to study the contemporary Armenian experience, it is important that appropriate and adequate documentation efforts are made to actually gather the information that serves as a record, as well as to continuously engage in a process of gathering, classifying and annotating texts, photographs, published and unpublished writings.
The Institute of Armenian Studies is committed to making DP community history available for research. With these documentation efforts, scholars will have access to primary source material and future generations will have access to an underrepresented chapter in history. “For years, they lived and loved together, sang and danced, created music and theatre, while others toiled in labor camps; all of them suffering the uncertainties of war and imprisonment. These testimonies and documents are invaluable in studying this chapter in history,” says Ghazarian.
In addition to the massive battles and warfare, World War II was an episode of immense human migration, which included the Armenian communities of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, among them prisoners of war, those relocated as slave labor under German occupation, and those who moved with the retreating Germany Army to escape from Stalin’s rule.
The displaced Armenians remained in Germany during the war and the German capitulation. By 1952, most of these 4,000 Armenians were allowed to land in the US as a result of the US Displaced Persons Act of 1948. The massive relocation program was organized by the American National Committee to Aid Homeless Armenians (ANCHA), led by George Mardigian and Souren Saroyan. Some settled in Detroit, Michigan or Niagara Falls, New York to begin their new lives as factory workers. Many eventually made Montebello, California, their home and sustained the close bonds of friendship based on the relations and interdependence of their years in Germany.
Over the last several months, Institute staff Gegham Mughnetsyan and Lilit Keshishyan have interviewed nearly two dozen individuals who remember life in the German POW camps, or in the German countryside, during and immediately after the war years. These interviews, often conducted in a mix of several languages, with individuals who currently live in California’s Los Angeles and Orange Counties, as well as Massachusetts and New Jersey, are professionally recorded on videotape for future use.
Silva Sevlian, Associate Director of the Institute, explains the process: “We have been identifying and reaching out to members of the DP community, who are eager to share their stories with our team. They speak freely in a mix of Armenian, Russian and English. During the interviews, we film their testimonies of life before, during, and after their time in Germany, and ask for relevant documents and photos that depict their experiences. The interviews, together with photos, personal writings, government documents, and other related materials are then digitized and indexed to be housed in USC Digital Libraries, where they will be part of world collections and accessible to all interested in this important time in history.”
The DP project will be inclusive, bringing together the various efforts of filmmakers, family members and others who, over the years, have already documented the DP stories. The Institute’s collection on USC Digital Libraries will offer a home for all such testimonies. They will be appropriately marked with the names of the collection developer or donor, so that researchers can access all DP-experience related documentation created or preserved.
“Although the DP community was formed as a result of trauma and displacement, the stories we hear can be life-affirming. Their stories of hardship and survival remind us that the shared experiences of strangers can create familial bonds that last for generations,” says Lilit Keshishyan, Ph.D. “We are also preparing to talk with the next generation—those who grew up with their parents’ memories, within a very tight-knit community.”
This growing collection is meant to serve as a primary source for researchers who are interested in World War II, post-Genocide Armenian history, and Diaspora Studies.
“World War II was one of the largest instances of movement of populations displaced by the war’s devastation. The story of the Armenians who found themselves in this current of displacement has largely gone underreported. This project and these interviews have allowed us to listen to and document the stories of people who have shared the hardship of displacement. These stories, every single one of them, needs to be properly documented and archived to become part of the general historical narrative,” says Gegham Mughnetsyan, research associate and lead interviewer with the DP project, who is also harvesting information available in the US National Archives in order to complete the stories as they are told.
For more information about the Diaspora Documentation & Digitization Project and its work with the DP community, contact USC Institute of Armenian Studies at (213) 821-3943; [email protected]
Established in 2005, the USC Institute of Armenian Studies supports multidisciplinary scholarship to re-define, explore and study the complex issues that make up the contemporary Armenian experience—from post-genocide to the developing Republic of Armenia to the evolving diaspora. The institute encourages research, publications and public service, and promotes links among the global academic and Armenian communities.