BY SYLVIE TERTZAKIAN
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.