It is said that when Eisenhower toured his first Holocaust death camp at the end of World War II, he told an aide to make certain the horror he was looking at was filmed.
When asked why, Ike was quoted, “Someday, some (SOB) is going to say this never happened.”
There was an earlier holocaust in Armenia, but no movie camera to record it. Thus, an entire government has said it never happened.
April 24 is the centennial observance of the Armenian genocide, in which Ottoman Turks killed or starved to death defenseless Armenians wholesale.
That particular date marks the killing of 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders, but the killing started years before and continued for years after. There was no head count of the dead, but 1.5 million is the number most often used. Turkey has always said it never happened, or that perhaps it was in some way part of WWI.
The Rev. Datev and Araxy Tatoulian of Scripps Ranch are among many Armenian-Americans who can give family testimony to the massacres that happened in Armenia, the Syrian desert and Anatolia (eastern Turkey).
Datev, 75, received a heart transplant 16 years ago. He still goes to work every day as priest of the St. John Garabed Armenian Church of San Diego.
Araxy, 72, is a semi-retired college teacher of Armenian language and culture, including at UC San Diego. She is a Ph.D. candidate at a university in Armenia.
Datev and Araxy were raised in Beirut as expatriates. They eventually immigrated separately to Chicago in the 1960s, where they married and started a family of three children.
These highly educated immigrants live with two languages because much of their work is in Armenian. Sometimes their English syntax bumps up against that first language. Araxy says she’s more comfortable in Armenian.
Armenia today is the size of Massachusetts, with 3 million citizens nestled in the Caucasus. That is not a good place to be a Christian nation. The bordering Ottoman Empire and its successor, Turkey, were not happy back-fence neighbors.
Despite diplomatic pressure from Turkey, more than 20 nations have recognized the historical fact of the genocide. Interestingly, Germany has not. (If you have an appetite for irony, take a bite of that.) Bowing to the same pressure, the U.S. also has not, although Obama has often said he believes it happened.
Pope Francis days ago called the slaughter of Armenians by Turks “the first genocide of the 20th century” and urged other states to give the same recognition. That, of course, displeased Turkey to no end.
Armenian-Americans are among our lesser-known ethnic groups. Family names usually end with the suffix “ian.” I have read that Armenians are the most educated of all U.S. ethnic groups. I can’t confirm it, but even to have that said about you is flattering.
To the chagrin of conservative Armenian-Americans, the best known of them at the moment is Kim Kardashian, who, it is reported, has undergone a genocide “pilgrimage” to Armenia. (Cynicism, don’t abandon me in my moment of need.)
Armenians had been persecuted for centuries, and most intensely from the 1890s. In the years before and after 1915, mass murder was common, finally slacking off about 1923, mainly because the Turks were successful. There were few Armenians left in the lands they coveted. Many thousands of Armenians had departed for other countries.
Datev’s mother, Aguline, was born in 1901 in Hadjin, an Armenian town that the Turks wanted. Her father was murdered by the Turks, so Aguline was sent to an orphanage in Constantinople (now Istanbul) to become educated. Her mother, sister and brother remained in Hadjin.
In 1915, the 30,000 Armenians in Hadjin were driven out and force-marched into the Syrian desert. There, they gravitated into groups and were left to live or die. Some survived, but most starved, died of disease or were massacred by the Turks.
In 1919, about 6,000 survivors made their way back to Hadjin under the protection of the French army. Among them was Aguline’s family. She also returned from Constantinople, intent on becoming a teacher.
Shortly thereafter, the French departed due to some sort of diplomatic manipulations, Aroxy says, and the Armenians of Hadjin were left unprotected. They tried to defend themselves but were overrun.
Aguline said to Datev years later, “I saw (Turks) kill my mother, sister and brother.” Many Armenians took refuge in the church, but it was set afire and burned with them in it.
Datev’s mother was one of the few able to flee the town and join a group hiding in the hills. She managed to leave the country and eventually made her way to Beirut, Lebanon, where she met Datev’s father.
The two were career teachers. The widowed Aguline immigrated to the U.S. in 1969. She died in Pasadena in 1986 at age 85.
Araxy sits at a sunlit dining room table 7,200 miles from Armenia. Scripps Ranch is an unlikely place to speak of death and darkness of a distant time, but black memories follow us wherever we go. She is telling the story of her father and his family, most of them long dead without decent burial.
The survival journey of Araxy’s father was worthy of Odysseus. But Homer’s hero didn’t have to escape this kind of family carnage.
This is what happened to Araxy’s father, Emmanuel Kopoushian.
In 1915, Emmanuel was 8 years old and in a place where no child should ever be. He was being marched out of Hadjin at sword point into the wilderness with his family. They were part of the mass of refugees that included Aguline’s family.
The Muslim net missed Emmanuel’s older sister, Flora, who had married and moved away. The captives marched for many weeks, stopping for a while, then moving on. They staved off starvation by buying or begging for food, often in vain. Thousands died along the road.
Finally, they were driven into the Syrian desert.
It was a death march, not much different from the Bataan Death March of World War II, except this march included women and children.
One day, the Turks separated the men, including Emmanuel’s father, saying they were being sent away to build homes for their people. No one was fooled. The men were taken some distance, shot and thrown into a pit.
The women were alone. At night, the tent flaps would be pulled back, and they all knew what that meant.
Araxy says, “Middle of the night, they will kidnap the pretty girls and you will never see them again. They kidnapped my father’s sister. We never heard what happened to her. They would rape the women, lots of them. Sometimes, the pregnant woman, they will put sword on their abdomen and they killed the babies and then they will kill the women. When they saw a river, some women jumped in and killed themselves that they will not be the wives of the Turks.”
Then the day came when the swords were unsheathed.
Araxy repeats the story her father told her. “Then it came turn that my father and grandma were next and my grandma said to my father, to her son, she said: ‘My son, I want you to come behind me. I can’t bear to see that they’re killing you. Let me go front of you.’ My father saw with his own eyes, they beheaded his mother and throw her into a pit.”
When his turn came, the small boy reflexively lifted his arm defensively and received a deep gash. But the killers then only pushed him into the pit and moved on, busy with their day’s work.
“My father was under the dead bodies, and they set them on fire (to reduce the smell). He didn’t get burnt. I don’t know how. We call that miracle. Slowly, he start climbing on dead bodies to get out. Later, he got up. It was middle of the night, and he sat there next to the bodies.”
Facing him were two Bedouins who had come to scavenge. The desert sheepherders were nomadic Arabs who were ruled by but hated Turks. Araxy says Bedouins knew that Armenians often concealed gold coins by swallowing them, so the Bedouins would slit open the bellies of the dead in a search for that money.
Araxy recalls what her father told her: “Then one (Bedouin) said, ‘Oh, let’s kill him. Let’s finish.’ The other says, ‘No, Allah has given me this son. I have six daughters. I’m not going to kill him. I’m going to take to my tents.’ ”
The Bedouin dressed Emmanuel’s arm with a poultice of eggs and onions and treated him for weeks until the wound healed.
Araxy continues, “Then he said to my father, ‘Now my son, you know with your own eyes, everybody is killed. There is nobody. You’re alone. Now, you’re my son.’ He said, ‘I’m going to change your name, and I’m going to circumcise you that you become like me, that I will adopt you.’
“He changed my father’s name from Emmanuel to Shukri. In Arabic it means, ‘Thank you, God.’ ”
For 16 years, Emmanuel-cum-Shukri lived with the Bedouins, learned about Islam, worked as a shepherd, married and became father to two infants, a boy and girl, Ali and Khadije.
There was in Beirut a prosperous Armenian who made it his mission to go among the Bedouins to seek out and reclaim kidnapped Armenian children. In 1931, he visited a Bedouin encampment and encountered 24-year-old Emmanuel (Shukri), who at first resisted repatriation because of his Arab family. He was coaxed to visit Beirut but still wasn’t persuaded until his surviving sister, Flora, found him and convinced him to rejoin her and his people.
The rest is family history. Emmanuel quickly regained his native tongue and ways, even more quickly renounced Islam, married Araxy’s mother and became a prosperous bakery owner. He was reunited with Araxy and Datev in 1976 in the U.S. and died a very old man in Pasadena.
(Over the years, the family tried to find Emmanuel’s Bedouin children – Ali and Khadije – but without success.)
The Armenian church on 30th Street will observe the centennial occasion with a public program and reception on the evening of April 28.
The Armenian experience in history inevitably reminds of the similar journey of the Jews: religious persecution eventually leading to genocide, scattering to less-threatening lands, taking refuge in education that results in professional and business success, and a stubbornness in refusing to surrender their identity.
Why is it important, this retelling of misery from far away and long ago?
Since the Armenian victims are muted by death, we must listen to those who guard the memory. Their words prove you can’t conquer a people if you can’t silence them.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org