April 24th is the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. It was 102 years ago that the Ottoman Turks began a lengthy and methodological plan to eradicate Armenians. The result left over 1.5 million Armenians dead. Survivors were left without a homeland and in a state of trauma. They were refugees fleeing for survival.
I am the descendant of Armenian refugees.
It’s important to remember what has happened.
Details of my family’s history are sparse. We’ve uncovered more in the past few years after discovering copies of old Egyptian passports in which my great grandparents and great, great grandparents used to flee the massacres and come to America. My grandfather attempted to piece together the events of 100 years ago. Ultimately we don’t know many of the details. What we know is that we survived, largely due to the grace of Armenian sponsors in America.
Memory does not only look to the past; It is part of how we understand our identity. When I started to become more interested in my Armenian heritage back in college, I couldn’t quite understand why a historical event brought me to tears. While the Armenian genocide was a horrific, brutal period in human history, there was something deeper that left me unsettled. At one point it dawned on me that the past-tense language was inaccurate. What happened wasn’t horrific; what happened is horrific. This is a part of our identity, our family.
I grew up hearing about “the genocide,” as my grandfather called it. Genocide invokes memories of the Jewish holocaust, as it should. It’s the greatest atrocity committed by humans against other humans in our relatively short time of existence. Yet Hitler was motivated not only by a violent and evil ideology. He was inspired by history – the Armenian Genocide. In a document attributed to Hitler himself on August 22, 1939, he allegedly said:
“I have placed my death-head formations in readiness for the present only in the East with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
These words were written only mere decades after the Armenian genocide. Hitler was correct. No one spoke of it. What happened to the Armenians was already forgotten. And so it is today. The United States does not formally recognize the Armenian genocide (although 45 out of the 50 states do ― Wyoming recently became the 45th state to recognize). Likewise, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge their genocidal actions 100 years ago. In 2008, the I Apologize petition launched by Turkish intellectuals to apologize and formally recognize the violence of the past was received with significant rejection and denial from Turkey’s leaders.
The denial of the Armenian genocide matters. It matters that we do not formally recognize it. Many other countries do, and there have been calls for both the United States to formally recognize the genocide, and to hold our ally, Turkey, accountable to their history. In recent years politicians have pandered to the Armenian community, promising to formally recognize the massacres against the Armenians as a genocide.
Remembrance is more than a dutiful act of commemoration. It’s the intentional entrance into events that are not isolated to a specific time or place. It’s a narrative carried with people that transcends generations. And when the oppressor remains steadfast in their denial of intentional, violent wrongdoing, the violence continues to perpetuate – even 102 years later. The Armenian genocide is not just an event. It’s not merely history. It is a part of our active memory. It’s part of our identity.
“The Armenian genocide is not just an event. It’s not merely history. It is a part of our active memory. It’s part of our identity.”
One of my favorite thinkers, theologian Miroslav Volf, writes on the importance of memory to our theology. In The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, Volf grounds the text largely in a claim by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel where he says that salvation lies in memory. How this unfolds is multifaceted, however. In regards to our identity Volf states that salvation in memory “prevents us from distorting our essential selves and living a lie.”
One of the manners in which salvation in memory leads to a healthy understanding of self is through acknowledgement. This is not to say that one’s healthiness is entirely dependent on the wrongdoer acknowledging wrongdoing. Health is more holistic than that. However, when acknowledgement does not occur, the offense continues. Here, Volf rightly recognizes a significant point:
If no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible. To the outside observer, its victim is not a victim and its perpetrator is not a perpetrator; both are misperceived because the suffering of the one and the violence of the other go unseen. A double injustice occurs – the first when the original deed is done and the second when it disappears.
102 years later, Turkey still does not recognize the genocidal period of their history. The offense that occurred a century ago has not ended. The genocide was only the first evil deed. The second one lingers. It continues as a fight between visibility and invisibility as Armenians around the world speak about what has happened. And every denial that occurs, whether implicit or explicit, not only leaves wounds unhealed, but new one’s cutting deeper into our narrative.
We Armenians are not just survivors. We are fighters. Our culture lives on. The memories of our family, no matter how sparse and incomplete, will not be invisible.
It’s a humbling thought to know that my existence, my mother’s existence, that of my sister and my niece, is dependent on the generosity and kindness of sponsors in New York 100 years ago. Had this not occurred, we simply would not be here. Our family line could have easily ended with the massacres, the death marches, the brutal torture that so many Armenians suffered.
This reality reminds me of just how fragile life is, and how we are so interconnected. We hear so much about refugees in our news. We seem afraid of them. We ponder what they might do to us. What if they want to hurt us? How can we trust them? The questions themselves make me tense, haunt me. I’m the descendent of refugees fleeing a similar part of the world and under similar circumstances as today’s Syrian refugees. I wonder if the Armenian genocide was taking place today, would Americans welcome us?
Violence is not just at the hands of the oppressor. Violence lies in our fear when fear overtakes our ability to be welcoming and loving of those fighting for their lives. If we have the means to help others in their suffering of violence and we do nothing, violence takes the form of betrayal. We will be remembered about how we do or do not help today’s refugees.
We likewise need to face the continued past of our allies. By not holding our friend Turkey accountable for their past, we allow the violence against Armenians to continue. The injustice continues onward. And history will judge us equally.
The recognition of wrongdoing is only but one aspect in the way that memory shapes our theology. Volf says that we must not just remember, but remember rightly. Like all things, the past must be and can be redeemed. The confession of wrongdoing is not the culmination of justice. It’s just the beginning of the process of redemption. Yet the recognition of wrongdoing places the wrongdoer and the one who was wronged on the same path, together for the first time, pursuing justice by remembering rightly the suffering endured and aiming at a community redeemed in love.
“I wonder if the Armenian genocide was taking place today, would Americans welcome us?”
Injustice is doubled by keeping silent the violence of one over another; Salvation is likewise doubled when we understand that both the oppressed and the oppressor need liberated from violence. The oppressed must be freed from the confines by which they are oppressed and have their narratives told presently and in history. And the oppressor must be freed of the guilt and shame through which they remain silent about their wrongdoing. Together, liberation occurs and a beautiful community can take hold. The recognized memories of oppressed and oppressor can be remembered rightly to pursue a community that is united.
Salvation lies in memory. Our narrative is one that remembers. Remember with us and be liberated with us.