My Responses to a College Student Researching the Armenian Genocide

I received an e-mail from Shana, a student researching the Armenian Genocide. This is my response:

Dear Shana,

I’ve attempted to answer your questions (in bold letters within the context of your letter) and hope my answers will help you with your paper.

Please feel free to connect me again. I’m delighted with your dedication, the depth of your questions and your promotion of Armenian-ness.

Dear Ms. Kouyoumjian,

I’m presently studying the Armenian Genocide with Dr. Mary Johnson at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. I’m in the process of a final project focusing on the experiences of Armenian women and children and the legacies they have passed down to future generations.  Dr. Johnson suggested that I read your book to help me in my research.

I’m absolutely delighted that your professor has introduced the subject of the Armenian Genocide—a subject little known in the U.S.

I could not put your book down. I was consumed by your rich, detailed descriptions of your mother’s experiences. I was instantly pulled into a world of anguish, despair, perseverance, resourcefulness, devotion, hope and pride. It touched me and, in many ways, changed my life forever. I first wanted to thank you for sharing her story, your story and the Armenian story. I will never forget her story.

Thank you so very much for your kind words—so does my mother, from heaven. It was she who instilled in me the value of memory and thus history.

Dr. Johnson has informed me that you were kind enough to answer some questions I had pertaining to the Armenian Genocide and the impact it had on you, your sister and your mother.  I realize that you must be extremely busy, so I appreciate your time.

Question 1: I felt a real pivotal point in the book is when the orphans gathered around the brazier and began their lamentations about their horrific experiences during the genocide. And Manning thought “it never occurred to her the orphanage had evolved to gather survivors in one place to commemorate the massacred.”  Until this point Manning tried to cover up these images with happy thoughts … her yellow dress or her time in kindergarten. However, it was then that Manning realized the importance of remembering and the importance of family. Was this always true for your family? While I realize because of the details of the book, that you must have spoken with your mother on many occasions about the genocide, at what age do you remember understanding what your mother had endured and the effects of the genocide? (Sorry, I guess there was more than one question)

Many readers have commented on that chapter, Weeping Meeting (my mom’s words.) Your question is penetrating. I think my mom’s story began with the lullabies she sing-songed to us as infants in early childhood. We didn’t have children’s books to be read at bedtime, as you do in the U.S.; so she and my dad alternated telling  us bedtime stories; they almost always involved stories about their own families and their childhoods. That my mom’s was so horrific left an impression on me and my siblings forever. Every Armenian has similar experiences and histories. So If I hadn’t hear about the details at home, I would have heard them in the homes of other Armenians—that is true in the old country or in the Diaspora.

I can’t tell you how or when the importance of my mom’s experiences occurred to me, because it was a given that family and sibling relationships held a prominent place in our lives, and I suspect in most Armenian families. Ethnically, we’re bound to uphold each other in all aspects of life, lest we completely perish. We are a very small population, and it’s because of our devotion to our ethnicity that we have survived as a people since Noah landed on Mt. Ararat. Mt. Ararat is the Armenian nation’s symbolic heart, although currently it is located in Turkey, but visible from Yerevan—the capital of Armenia since 1991, when Armenia claimed independence from the Soviet Union.

Question 2:  Did your mother ever talk about why she thought she (and her sister) had survived the genocide when so many Armenians perished?

She often questioned why God didn’t protect the rest of her family from the massacre. She used to say, “I’m not necessarily a good person, nor my perished family wicked; why were my sister and me spared? My mother professed to be Christian—she was a member of the Mercer Island Covenant Church and believed in the ever after—but even during her last days, she questioned why she was spared.

Question 3: If someone asks you why Armenians continue to talk about an event that happened so many years ago, what is your answer?

The Armenian Genocide is considered by historians as the first genocide of the 20th century. Both my mom and I (and every surviving Armenian, too, I suspect) believe that had the Armenians, the International literati and world intelligentsia written , talked , advertised, made movies about the tragedy that annihilated 1.5-2 million Armenians during WWI, perhaps Hitler might not have proceeded with his plans to annihilate the Jewish people. (I have quoted Hitler at the beginning of my book.)

Question 4: Do you think the lack of recognition and justice for the Armenian genocide continues to haunt the Armenian people?

Yes, definitely. We need closure to this tragedy. No Armenian, alive or gone, will rest until the perpetrators of such a heinous act apologize. All we need is a simple apology that during the latter days of the Ottoman Empire and its leaders did perpetrate the killing of ethnic Armenians who lived on the lands that historically were part of the Armenian Kingdoms. There’s a lot of history, which I can’t go into here. But Armenians were Ottoman subjects/citizens (just like I am an Armenian, and a U.S. citizen). They lived on those lands after losing their kingdom, under the Persian Empires, the Greeks, Romans, and Islam and finally under the Ottoman Empire. They contributed—as civilians or part of the government—to the occupying empire, and many excelled as citizens, such as my Grandfather on my dad’s side. The Ottoman Sultan had dubbed him a Bey/Pasha (title) for his philanthropic as well as civic contribution to the Sultanate.

Question 5: In your Epilogue, you wrote how your mother stated that she lived under many banners, but didn’t belong to any of them, only saying that she was an Armenian and in 1982 an American.  Having a very diverse background yourself, how do you identify yourself?

I often introduce myself as a Triple A person; first, A is for Armenian, my ethnic heritage; second A is for Arabic, due to my formative education; and third A is for American, a citizenship by choice.

Question 6:  How do you and your family now commemorate the genocide?

My children are only 50% Armenian; their dad’s family has been in America for many generations. So they lack much of the pride that we Armenians feel. My kids love Armenian food, and perhaps that’s the extent of it, unfortunately. Oh, they know about the Genocide …

By the way, please use a capital G for genocide when you write/talk about the Armenian Genocide. The word genocide was coined by Rafael Lemkin, a Polish scholar in his description of the atrocities perpetrated by the Turks on the Armenian. He wrote something to the effect … “what happened to the Armenians during WWI was no less than a Geno-cide …” Check the UN definition for Genocide which was adopted in 1948.

… However, I and the world’s Armenian population commemorate April 24 every year as the day the onslaught of the Genocide, in Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1915. The Diaspora Armenians gather publicly—usually it is a church gathering—on that day and remember our ancestors who perished during WWI. This is a world-wide commemoration—in the U.S., Europe, Asia, South America and anywhere there is an Armenian community.

Question 7: Lastly, what kinds of traditions, rituals, customs or legacies have been passed down to you about the Armenian culture and have you passed them on to future generations?

All the above to the 100% Armenians; otherwise it is predominantly the food. In the U.S., Armenian cuisine is very popular.

We try to maintain our language. Whenever two Armenians get together, we begin speaking in Armenian. We may not continue during the whole meeting, though; we teach the language to our children (except in the U.S.—somehow, we can’t really impose fluency on them here—and I don’t know why; maybe because English is so much more fun!!!!). Whenever we learn about an Armenian celebrity, we can’t stop talking/writing about them. For instance: William Saroyan; Anastas Mikoyan; Michael Arlen; Cher; Mike Connors; Rouben Mamoulian; Andre Agassi; etc.

Comments are closed.