May 23, 2000
Dear Mr. Woollacott,
I was moved by the compassion and insight with which your essay "Armenia Remebered" treated the Armenian Genocide and the cloud of denial that has surrounded it.
Please accept my sincere appreciation for having written this timely and poetic piece of journalism; it really struck a chord in the Greek and Armenian communities here. The fair and constructive way with which you approached the perplexing issue of the enabling of this denial deserves great merit.
I've appended below a brief letter to the New York Times from one of our Associates regarding the extinction of Turkey's Hellenic past that touches upon a related issue for you to consider. Thank you again for your moving piece and please feel free to contact me regarding any future concerns or stories that may arise.
Phillip Spyropoulos, Esq.
American Hellenic Media Project
PO Box 1150
New York, NY 10028-0008
Friday, May 19, 2000
by Martin Woollacott
The Armenian-American writer William Saroyan has a character in one of his plays say: "The world is amok. . . Life is on fire; caught in hurricanes; submerged in deep and blind waters . . ." Armenians see themselves as a people who were almost destroyed but whose plight was never fully acknowledged. They thus look on the horrors of the 20th century in a way both tearful and ironic, for the worst of those horrors may be said to have begun with them - but sometimes it seems as if only they are aware of that fact.
On the 85th anniversary of the massacres, change may finally be in prospect. That change springs above all from an extraordinary effort among Armenians to rescue and deepen their own national memory of these events, in which the Armenian communities of eastern Turkey vanished, most of them killed, the rest expelled. The remnant which escaped to other lands or survived under Soviet rule was too insecure to campaign in a systematic way for justice, if such a thing had been available in a world on its way to new upheavals, or even to tell their own children in any detail about what had happened. A second generation, in Europe and especially the United States, was above all concerned to be accepted and to achieve some degree of prosperity. The third generation, growing up at a time when difference is no longer a problem but a matter to be celebrated, has rediscovered the Armenian past and wants other peoples to rediscover it as well. Such rediscovery is not new - the writer Michael Arlen described it 20 years ago - but it has a different quality as the new century opens. There is an urgency about the effort to record what the last survivors of the killings know, and to vindicate them, among men and women who may have lost their language and other elements of their Armenian heritage but have not lost, and may even feel more strongly, a duty to ensure that the truth of what happened is more widely recognised.
The shifting balance between the post-1915 generations is beautifully captured in Black Dog of Fate, a family memoir by the American poet Peter Balakian. The intense tenderness of his grandmother and the constrained discipline of his doctor father were in different ways both reactions to the near death of a nation. His own journey of self-discovery begins with him as a young American often irritated by family tradition and ends with his attempt to live through the horrors suffered by the generation of his grandparents and to "become" an Armenian in a way that he had not been before. He describes sneaking time off from his vacation job as a courier to read Henry Morgenthau's account of his service in Turkey as American ambassador. There is something about this picture of a 20-year-old in a dusty corner of a New York office, turning the pages of Morgenthau while distractedly sucking air out of an empty carton of Tropicana orange juice that very effectively evokes the project of moral archaeology that engages many young Armenians. When the young Balakian gets to the passage where Morgenthau describes how Talaat Pasha, perhaps the worst enemy the Armenians had, says to him: "You are a Jew; these people are Christians. Why can't you let us do with these Christians as we please?" he is so oblivious he forgets an important package he was supposed to collect and almost gets sacked.
There was a time, 20 years ago, when Armenian militants killed Turkish diplomats and bombed Turkish targets. The objective today is not to take revenge on Turks but rather to turn them toward a fundamental revision of their idea of their own past.
Scholars such as Professor Richard Hovannisian note that there were Turkish officials and clergy who opposed the killings, and others who felt remorse and regret. This better record has been suppressed along with the rest. The denial of the facts came somewhat later, at a moment when a resurgent Turkey was reaching settlements with western states and it was convenient for both sides to forget the Armenians, and continues to this day. It is not only a denial of a crime but also a denial of the multi-ethnic nature of the Anatolia which was modern Turkey's inheritance from the Ottoman Empire. That denial has been equally evident in Turkey's refusal to give the Kurds any serious form of autonomy, and even to deny them, for some years, their very name. A few courageous Turkish scholars are finally beginning to open up these issues, and even to meet with Armenian academics.
Whether what occurred was genocide is at the heart of these discussions. The evidence gathered by Armenian scholars strongly suggests there was such a plan, albeit one put together by men whose power was in part informal and who strove to keep it secret. The opposite argument - that this was a deportation which went wrong because of the pressures of war - is quite unconvincing. The end was, indisputably, extinction. In his film Voices from the Lake, about of what became of the Armenians of Kharpert in eastern Turkey, Michael Hagopian shows the mulberry trees that surround Lake Golcuk, now called Lake Hazar. In this beautiful place thousands of Armenians were butchered, men, women, and children, in just one example of what happened to Armenians all over a region in which they had lived for centuries before Turks arrived. "Within the lifetime of one mulberry leaf," Hagopian says, "a community had vanished."
If there is one people other than the Turks with whom Armenians are concerned it is the Jews, from whom they have expected, but not always received, sympathy and support. The emphasis on the uniqueness of the Holocaust was partly a response to the misleading argument that, terrible though the fate of the Jews was, it can somehow be subsumed into the general monstrousness of the 20th century. The more nuanced position is that all genocides are unique but there are certain hideous similarities. Now some senior figures have broken ranks with the policy of discretion which Israel has usually pursued because of its need for good relations with Turkey. The education minister, Yossi Sarid, marked the anniversary of the killings last month by pledging to include the Armenian genocide in the curriculum. He was immediately backed by Yossi Beilin, the justice minister, and by some Israeli newspapers. Signals of Turkish displeasure followed.
The Holocaust Exhibition which opens next month at the Imperial War Museum is just one example of the way in which awareness of the genocide of European Jewry has spread. It was the nadir of a dark century. Yet the Armenian genocide which prefigured it, as Hitler himself recognised, receives only intermittent attention. As the last survivors of the killings of 1915 reach the end of their lives, Hagopian's "Voices from the Lake" deserve to be heard.
* "Black Dog of Fate" by Peter Balakian, Harper Collins