Friday, April 24, 2015
IN MY OPINION (Column)
100 Years Ago Today, There Began the Armenian Genocide
By ARMEN K. HOVANNISIAN
(The writer is a Sherman Oaks attorney. He writes in his capacity as chairman of the Armenian Bar Association, a national organization.)
Is the destruction of an entire nation quantifiable? Is the decimation of nearly all its people measurable? Is what was lost and what was taken recoverable by any stretch of efforts or imagination? Can the declaration of a president or the decision of a court of law ever make us whole? These would be welcome developments, of course, but they could not completely fix the problem. What would help heal the open wound is for the Republic of Turkey, once and for all, to get off the dime of denial and to own up to the truth of the great crime and its consequences.
As we honor our fallen on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, we should also remember those who remained standing. We should give thanks to the early generations of Armenian-Americans who made sacrifices for all of us as they gave foundation to family and country alike. Ordinary men and women who worked in the wire factories of Worcester, in the rubber plants of Watertown, in the iron and steel mills of Granite City and Waukegan, on the assembly lines in Detroit, in the tanneries of Chicago, in the cement works of Riverside, and in the orchards and vineyards of Fresno, Fowler, and Tulare.
It’s that wounded, never-say-die generation that fortified our backbone, our confidence and our success today. And while many today see success as equivalent to power and prestige, success back then—real success—was measured not so much by the position reached in life but by the obstacles overcome while trying to keep the dream alive and available to their children.
Speaking of children, two girls who were to loom large in my life, were born just three months and three hundred miles apart in 1909 in a world far away from California, one in historic Armenia’s Kessrik village and the other in the cosmopolitan seaside city of Ordu. Soon enough, my grandmothers as little girls were to have almost nothing in common and were to become, by circumstance, strangers—and then friends—in fate and future.
On Saturday morning, April 24, 1915, Siroon, who had come to be known as Sarah and whose family had immigrated to the San Joaquin Valley just a few years earlier, was busy skipping rope, jumping hop-scotch and picking up jacks with friends from her first grade class at Cherry Avenue Elementary School.
She was to graduate from Tulare Union High School, marry the giant-among-men Kaspar, and name her four sons John, Ralph, Richard, and Vernon into whom she cemented security, confidence, America and the English language. She took the lead as naturally in the PTA and at the Emblem Club as she did in the Armenian Relief Society and in the Ladies Guild kitchen at Holy Trinity Church.
Her sprawling ranch house on Butler Avenue with the thick wood-shingle roof overlooked the Sunnyside Country Club, a place which excluded Armenians from its membership. She drove a white Cadillac sedan with a soft and smooth velvet interior, country club be damned!
The other little girl, Khnguhi, despite her wry smile in the black-and-white photograph showing her with pigtails in her hair and a tennis racket in her hands, bid goodbye to most of her family beginning on this day 100 years ago. Although she “survived” the Genocide, Khnguhi’s smile was turned down that day, at once and forever. In the years and decades to come, in picture after picture, it was one visual dirge, one unmitigated lament after another, a funeral procession that lasted for nearly all of my grandmother’s 91 years.
Fifty years in this country and she still spoke English in choppy sentences, with misconjugated verbs and mixed-up tenses. She spoke fluently, however, with her expressive and often tearful eyes. She went to no schools in America, made no friends, played no games. She bent her back, swallowed her pride, and went to work in Fresno’s fields. She married the quiet strength of Hovakim and named her daughters Vartiter and Nazik. The son she lost was to be named Vrej. Vrej in Armenian means Revenge. Maybe the boy died so that his name would live in us.
As we mark the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, I struggle to fully understand what was lost, what was taken. Was it only the childhood of Khnguhi and the roots of Siroon? Were their sorrows and anguish really that much different from each other in the end? Were they not both disinherited and dispossessed of their destinies, displaced even from themselves?
My grandmothers and many of yours shared a common fundamental characteristic: they faced the darkness and insisted on a future for their families, took silent oaths to not give up, to say yes to life, to believe in the possibility of justice.
With the stories of these girls embedded in my life and the stories of your families engraved in yours, we must see to it that the chronic pain and continuing effects of the Genocide are not dehumanized, that they are not examined only numerically, analytically and scientifically, that their significance is never lost or forgotten. Only when it is personalized will it be real enough to play a role in the decisions we make.
These memories of hardship—and of our presidents’ broken promises—may test our hopes and try our conscience, but memory is our sacred duty, not simply to remember, however, but to act. Let us tell the world not only how our people died, but also how they lived, how they loved, how they hoped, and how they dreamed.
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company