“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Adolf Hitler, to his generals, before the invasion of Poland in 1939
In the coming days, a people nearly annihilated during the last century will pause to remember its losses.
In commemorations here, in Jerusalem and in other cities around the world, relatives of survivors will discuss painful memories, members of the clergy will offer prayers for the victims and leaders of the dispersed community will call for justice. Historians will reflect on a legacy of hatred that led to mass killings. Stories of brutality and statistics about the murder of a third of a people will be cited.
And hardly a Jew will be present.
The people who died in what has come to be called “The Hidden Holocaust” are the Armenians, Indo-Europeans with roots in the area between the Caspian and Mediterranean seas. They lived for two millennia, until their national tragedy, as citizens in the Ottoman Empire, which fell when Turkey was on the losing side in World War I.
The country of Armenia — the first Christian nation, formerly a republic in the Soviet Union, independent since 1990 — now occupies only 10 percent of the Armenians’ historic homeland, the rest of which is part of neighboring Turkey.
April 24, this year the first day of Passover, is alternately known as Martyrs’ Day or Genocide Commemoration Day. It marks the start of the planned destruction of the Armenian community in Turkey 90 years ago during WWI.
Of the 2 to 2.5 million Armenians there on the eve of the war, an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million were killed by Turkish soldiers and sympathetic Kurds in a campaign that peaked in 1915-16. The carnage lasted sporadically until 1923 and the ascension of Kamil Ataturk, who did not share an animus toward Armenians.
The Armenian losses in those years represented at least a third of their total population in the world — the same percentage as the Holocaust took from the Jewish people.
Front-page news in the 1920s, largely forgotten in the West within a decade, as Hitler’s documented 1939 statement testified — his words are inscribed on a wall of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, despite Turkish pressure — the Armenian experience was overshadowed by the Six Million victims of the Shoah. Holocaust survivors’ efforts to remember the Six Million and obtain reparations served as a model for the Armenians’ belated campaign for recognition.
Historians call the slaughter of Armenia “the forgotten genocide.” Israeli historian Israel Charny called it “a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust.” Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-born Jewish lawyer who coined the term genocide in the 1940s, did so in part on the basis of what happened to the Armenians.
Each year the Jewish and Armenian communities commemorate their 20th century tragedies within a few weeks of each other, but few members of one group attends the other’s events.
“We finally came to the conclusion that we were not going to get participation of the establishment Jewish organizations,” says Samuel Azadian, a longtime leader of the local Knights of Vartan fraternal group that has organized the April 24 Times Square memorial ceremony for 19 years.
This year that’s 11 days before Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The parallels between the Armenian Genocide and the Nazis’ Final Solution are chilling, but the issue of the Armenian Genocide and Armenian efforts for international acknowledgement of their tragedy has received little support from the organized Jewish community.
The Armenian Genocide issue presents the Jewish community with a classic conflict: realpolitik (Turkey is a strategic ally of the United States and Israel) vs. ethics (sympathy for an oppressed minority).
Realpolitik has triumphed, and Armenians recognize this.
“Jews and Armenians are linked forever by Hitler,” Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said during the UN’s recent special assembly marking the 60th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation. “After Auschwitz, one would expect that no one any longer has a right to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear. As an Armenian, I know that a blind eye, a deaf ear, a muted tongue perpetuate the wounds.”
While Jews traditionally participated in disproportionate numbers in such causes as civil rights and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, “I have not seen any major involvement of the Jewish community in this issue,” says Haik Gugarats, assistant to the Armenian ambassador in Washington. “It’s surprising.”
Doug Geogerian, director of the Eastern Region of the Armenian National Committee, adds: “We don’t really understand; we’re a little surprised.”
Veteran Israeli politician Yossi Sarid, who as education minister declared at a Genocide commemoration ceremony in Jerusalem’s Old City in 2000 that “for many years, too many, you were alone on this, your memorial day,” will attend an international conference in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, on April 24 as a private citizen.
“As opposed to many other nations, Israel has never recognized the murder of the Armenian people, and in effect lent a hand to the deniers of that Genocide,” Sarid wrote in a recent essay in Haaretz. “The Israeli Foreign Ministry, and not only it, is always afraid of its own shadow and thus it casts a dark shadow over us all as accomplices to the ‘silence of the world.’ ”The Genocide — 20 years after an estimated 200,000 Armenians were killed during the reign of Turkey’s Sultan Abdul Hamid II — was carried out by the Ittihad government that took power in 1913. The Ittihad claimed it feared the “infidel” Armenians, the only remaining major Christian group in the Muslim Ottoman Empire, taking up arms for Russia, Turkey’s enemy in WWI.
Already the Armenians “were lobbying for basic guarantees, for civil rights,” says Peter Balakian, an English professor at Colgate University and author of two books with an Armenian theme.
Like the Jews in Nazi Europe, the often prosperous Armenians, pilloried as a Fifth Column, earned the enmity of the majority population, often former neighbors and co-workers. Like survivors after World War II, Armenians tried to put their recent past behind them.
Like the Jewish community today, the Armenians face a problem of keeping the memory of their tragedy alive after the last survivors die.
In 1915, under the cover of war, Armenian soldiers in the Turkish army were disarmed and conscripted into labor battalions. On April 24, 1915, Armenian political and intellectual leaders were arrested and killed. The remaining Armenians — mostly women, children and elderly men — were rounded up by army units composed of violent criminals released from prison.
The Armenians were marched to what they were told would be new homes in the desert hundreds of miles away; most of the captives were killed along the way, or they starved to death, or they were fatally beaten upon arrival. Some were herded into caves and burned alive, or placed on barges that were sunk on the Black Sea, or thrown into gorges.
Reports of rape and theft were common.
James Russell, professor of Armenian studies at Harvard University, calls the Turks’ treatment of the Armenians during WWI “the model that Hitler used.” Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, was among the German soldiers stationed in Turkey during the Genocide, Russell points out. “Germans assisted the Turks logistically,” he said.
Turkish denials of responsibility offer “a picture of what might have happened [after World War II] if Germany had not been held to account or if Germany had not been defeated,” Russell says.
Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador in Constantinople during World War I, said in his memoirs that Turkish leaders made no attempt to deny reports of the violence against the Armenians.
“One day I was discussing these proceedings with a responsible Turkish official, who was describing the tortures inflicted,” Morgenthau wrote. “He made no secret of the fact that the government had instigated them, and like all Turks of the official classes, he enthusiastically approved this treatment of the detested race.”
“The great powers did little to prevent the mass murder of the Armenians,” Israeli historian Yair Auron writes in “The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide.”
“Germany, an influential ally of Turkey, although able to do much to stop the murders, had no interest in doing so and was involved directly and indirectly in the Armenian Genocide,” Auron writes. “England and France remained on the sidelines. The United States, and Ambassador Morgenthau in particular, tried to help by diplomatic and monetary means, limited by the fact that the U.S. was neutral during most of the war.”
In Turkey, only Damad Ferit Pasha’s government immediately after the war was forthcoming about the massacres, holding war crimes trials that condemned to death the architects of the Genocide, who had fled the country.
While now-independent Armenia and activists in the Armenian community abroad seek Turkey’s recognition of the Genocide – Turkish governments since the 1920s have denied that genocide occurred, have claimed that the number of victims is exaggerated, have attributed the deaths to disease and famine, have claimed Turks were provoked by attacks by Armenians, have opposed artistic or political efforts to document the tragedy, and have refused to consider the type of reparation payments made by Germany after World War II to Israel and individual Holocaust survivors – the government of Israel and many prominent Jewish organizations in the United States have challenged Armenian claims about their early 20th-century history and have lobbied on behalf of Turkey.
“It’s a wrong-headed view,” says Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, visiting professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of “The Nazi Doctors.” “Often in official Jewish groups there can be insensitivity to others’ suffering,” says Dr. Lifton, who has written his support of the Armenian cause.
The Turkish Embassy in Washington, the Israeli Consulate here, and major Jewish organizations contacted by The Jewish Week did not respond to requests for comment on this issue.
Few Jewish schools in Israel or abroad teach about the Genocide, few rabbis preach about it, few Holocaust institutions pay more than passing attention to the subject.
“Yad Vashem’s mandate is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive,” a spokesman for the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem says. “As such we are dedicated to educating, researching, studying and memorializing the Shoah. However, in the course of our educational and research activities, other instances of genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass murder are raised, including the case of Armenia.”
“It is a Jewish issue and should be a Jewish issue,” says Yair Auron, the Israeli historian who has written two books about the Armenian Genocide. “The world committed genocide before the Holocaust. “We have to be with the Armenians on their memorial day,” says Auron, who attends the annual commemoration in Jerusalem. “We have to be at the front of the struggle for recognition of the Genocide.” Otherwise, he says, “We’re doing exactly what the deniers of the Holocaust do.”
Israel’s small Armenian community, based in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, sponsors a commemoration ceremony there each year on April 24. Few Israelis attend.
In this country, while most major Jewish organizations have distanced themselves from the Armenian Genocide issue, a few groups, notably the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and individual Jewish politicians and intellectuals have lobbied for recognition of the Genocide, Armenian and Jewish spokesmen agree.
“You can’t be silent when you see injustice,” says Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center.
“Armenian community leaders ask me about this,” says Rep. Adam Schiff, a three-term congressman from California who represents a district with a large Armenian population and serves each year as a sponsor of a non-binding resolution that urges Turkey to admit its past.
“There is a sense that the Jewish organizations lobby actively against the resolution,” Schiff says.
The apolitical Joint Distribution Committee, which assists Armenia’s small Jewish community, provided humanitarian aid when a devastating earthquake struck the country in 1988.
Besides Schiff, and Morgenthau, who alerted the American government to the Genocide, individual Jews associated with the Armenian cause include Franz Werfel, a Czech-Jewish novelist whose “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” about Armenian resistance to the Genocide, was passed from hand to hand as inspiration among Jewish resistance fighters in World War II ghettos; New York filmmaker Andrew Goldberg, who has produced three documentaries about aspects of Armenian life and is working on a major project about the Genocide that will appear on PBS within a year; and Harvey Weinstein, who, as president of Mirimax, agreed in 2002, despite reported threats from Turkey, to distribute “Ararat,” a film centered around the Genocide.
“Some of the strongest defenders of the Armenians are the Jews” – individual Jews, not heads of Jewish organizations, says Holocaust historian Michael Berenbuam, who has written and spoken extensively on the subject.
“This was a sense of tzedakah for me … a sense of justice,” Goldberg says.
Weinstein, who had not heard about the Genocide until he read the Ararat script, said he agreed to back the project because “the denial of the Armenian Holocaust reminds me of the denial of our own Jewish Holocaust.”
Weinstein “felt it was time to tell the story,” The Los Angeles Times reported. “Having lost eight relatives at Auschwitz, Weinstein related well to the subject.”
The Jewish community has been cautious about embracing the Armenian Genocide issue, observers say, for several reasons. The two primary ones are:
Pressure by Turkey. Turkey, a political, economic and military ally of Israel, was the first majority-Muslim nation in the Middle East to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. A refuge for endangered Jews from the Inquisition to the Holocaust, the country is hospitable to the 27,000 Jews who still live there.
Turkey consistently challenges any Armenian assertions of Turkish responsibility for a genocide. As far back as the 1930s, it pressured the State Department to block an MGM movie version of “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” In 1982 Turkey, according to many media reports, pressured Israel – with threats against the safety of Turkish Jews and indications that it might close its borders to Jews fleeing Iran—to cancel an academic conference on genocide that was to include references to the Armenian experience; a scaled-down gathering was eventually moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
The uniqueness of the Holocaust. Many protectors of the Holocaust’s legacy resist attempts to compare the scope of the Shoah to any other mass extermination of a people, feeling that references to such examples as Rwanda, Cambodia or Sudan would diminish the Jewish suffering’s unique status.
The Turkish Daily News in 2001 quoted Shimon Peres, then Israeli foreign minister, as saying, “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through but not a genocide.”
“We are teaching the Holocaust in too particularistic a way,” Auron says.
What do the Armenians want?
“We want Turkey to acknowledge the genocide,” Haik Gugarats of the Armenian Embassy says. “All we want from Turkey is the establishment of normal diplomatic relations and the opening of borders.” Armenia has no territorial or monetary demands, Gugarats says.
“The Turks feel they are unjustly accused,” says Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian and sociologist who is a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota. He is among a handful of Turkish scholars to challenge his homeland’s denial of responsibility for the Genocide.
Though Turkey’s leadership since the 1920s had no direct ties to the slaughter of the Armenians, “some of the founders of the state were members of the party who organized the Genocide,” Akcam says. “The Turks glorified these people as founding heroes.”
Admission of Turkey’s role in the genocide would “question the very foundation of the state,” he says.
Armenian- Americans tell of being raised on stories of the Genocide, like American Jews who heard about the Holocaust while growing up. But the Armenian Genocide did not become a public issue in the Armenian community for a few generations because émigrés here and in other countries lacked the numbers or political clout of Jewish Holocaust survivors who raised public consciousness of the Shoah, starting in the late 1970s.
“After any genocide, the victims don’t like to talk about it – it happened after the Holocaust,” Gugarats says.
Thousands of people, including politicians, are expected to attend Sunday’s memorial ceremony in Times Square. As Turkey seeks membership in the European Union, demands by EU countries, especially France, that Turkey admit responsibility for the deaths of Armenians during the Genocide will focus increased attention on the subject. And the recent $20 million settlement by the New York Life Insurance Company to descendants of Armenians who held insurance policies at the turn of the last century adds to the historical record.
In recent decades the European Parliament, the UN Committee on Human Rights, the Vatican and several European governments and scholarly organizations have acknowledged the Armenian Genocide. In June 1998 the Association of Genocide Scholars defined the Armenian tragedy as the 20th century’s first genocide.
Israel took a neutral position until 1994, when Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin declared in the Knesset that “it was not war. It was most certainly massacre and genocide … We will always reject any attempt to erase its record, even for some political advantage.” Apparent Jewish indifference to the issue has drawn Armenian criticism, and, three years ago, a protest rally outside the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.
The Armenian National Committee in 2002 criticized “nine major Jewish organizations” – including the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and Hadassah – for signing a letter that urged President Bush to provide Turkey with economic and military aid.
The letter, the committee said, “appears to represent a retreat from the Jewish American community’s proud tradition of standing up for human rights, universal values, and the cause of international justice.”
Next year, the Jewish and Armenian communities will be closer, symbolically – Yom haShoah and Genocide Commemoration Day occur on consecutive days in 2006.