Opinion – www.haaretz.com
When our Yad Vashem guide asked, rhetorically, if we’d ever heard of ‘any other Holocausts,’ I immediately replied: The Armenian genocide. It took me years to unpack why she dismissed my answer so brusquely.
Library of Congress, Bain Collection
Some years ago, as an IDF soldier participating in a Jewish identity-building course, I was taken on a customary visit to Yad Vashem. The memorial site had been newly refurbished, and was packed with mostly elderly visitors. Our guide for the day, a Swiss-born Israeli, started by smugly asking the group, “Have you heard of any other Sho’ot (Holocausts)?”
Fulfilling my birthright as an Armenian-born Israeli, I immediately raised my hand and earnestly answered, “The Armenian Shoah.” The guide shot back with a piercing gaze, “And you think that’s the same thing?” She didn’t expect an answer, and carried on with the tour.
Barely out of my teenage years, being publicly rebuffed in front of my peers by a figure of authority was humiliating. Needless to say, following that inauspicious start to the visit, I didn’t pay any more attention to the guide, and trudged through the museum, alone with my thoughts.
It took me years to fully comprehend that episode at Yad Vashem. The guide’s insistence that nothing could be comparable to our Shoah concealed a deeper, and ironic truth: for those who survive traumas, patterns of memory are far more similar than she – or I – understood.
We know that no credible academic or political figure denies the Holocaust. On the other hand, most countries shy away from taking a firm stand on the Armenian genocide, and only a handful have classified it as a genocide. This discrepancy between Europe’s first genocide of the twentieth century and its deadliest is far from coincidental.
Friday 24 April marks the annual memorial day for victims of the Armenian genocide, and this year falls in the same week as Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah.
The Armenian genocide is commemorated on the day that marks the start of the genocide. On 24 April 1915, the Ottoman authorities arrested more than 200 of Constantinople’s leading Armenian intellectuals, who were later deported, and most of them killed.
By contrast, the international community chooses to remember the Holocaust on 27 January, a date which signifies the end: the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army in 1945. In Israel, Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place on 27 Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the embodiment of Jewish heroism and resilience in the face of destruction.
24 April comes with no accompanying message of hope or resistance. The choice of date is about victimhood alone, the cornerstone upon which Armenian genocide memorialization has been built ever since.
Armenians have clung to victimhood because they have lacked the means for memorialization available to world Jewry. Jewish communal organizations, individual philanthropists and Western governments have invested huge sums to build Holocaust memorials and museums, manage archives, publish books and collate research.
Through the State of Israel, established just over three years after the last of the Nazi concentration camps were liberated, Holocaust remembrance had an official advocate in diplomatic circles. While the world powers who backed Israel’s creation did so primarily to advance their own interests in the Middle East, their public rhetoric spoke movingly of the need to right the historic wrongs inflicted upon the Jewish people. Generations of Israeli leaders have reminded their counterparts of the obligation to remember and then to remember some more.
The Armenian people has lacked these tools. Primary evidence of the genocide is scarcer and less accessible. Unlike Nazi Germany, which methodically and rigorously recorded information, the withering Ottoman Empire was a barely functioning state which did not concentrate documents in centralized archives. There was no Ottoman Wannsee conference at which the Armenian genocide was meticulously planned.
Turkish authorities have largely concealed remaining archival material from public view, and the Turkish state has never accepted responsibility for the genocide – in contrast to Germany, for which assuming responsibility for the Holocaust was an essential precondition for its acceptance into the family of nations.
Survivors held on to extensive evidence of the genocide, including photographs, videos and written and oral testimonies. But for Armenian emigrants to the Western world, it took time to amass sufficient social and financial capital to promote public remembrance. Armenians who remained in the Soviet Union faced a decades-long Russification campaign designed to blur national minorities’ particular identities and histories.
Only after the Republic of Armenia declared independence in 1991, more than 75 years after the genocide, could an Armenian government act as custodian to the memory of the genocide. But post-Soviet Armenia was a poor country focused on the bumpy transition to a free-market economy and preoccupied by the prolonged Nagorno-Karabakh War with neighboring Azerbaijan. Only from the 2000s did the Armenian state stabilize and begin to devote significant resources to public relations campaigns around genocide memorialization.
In the Diaspora, Armenian-American media personality Kim Kardashian West has publicized visits to the Armenian Genocide Museumin Yerevan and applauded the U.S. Congress’ recognition of the genocide to her millions of followers. Kardashian West’s mobilization on the issue is particularly notable in the context of the Holocaust, which has had no shortage of celebrity affirmations over the years.
The Armenian genocide and the Holocaust were not perpetrated independently of one another. Hitler reportedly told Wehrmacht commanders on the eve of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 not to worry about the consequences of killing innocent civilians, for “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Among those who did speak out, through actions as well as words, were the eleven Armenian individuals and families recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations – mostly genocide survivors who made their homes anew across Europe and recognized their obligation to help the helpless.
I am a descendent of Holocaust survivors on my father’s side and Armenian genocide survivors on my mother’s side. The trans-generational trauma and deep sense of uprooting is equally powerful in both cases. When somebody is affected by trauma, it can often help them to hear from people with similar experiences, and claiming exclusivity over trauma helps nobody.
Yet while Holocaust education is considered the benchmark for responsible historical education throughout the developed world, descendants of Armenian genocide survivors still have to fight for the genocide to be recognized as such. As I discovered at Yad Vashem, even Holocaust educators, who do outstanding work in explaining one trauma, also need training in understanding and empathizing with other traumas.
Given the amount of readily accessible information about the genocide that exists in the smartphone age, it should no longer be the exclusive responsibility of survivors and their descendants, constrained as they are by a range of geopolitical, economic and circumstantial factors, to commemorate its victims.
Whether by visiting the Gulbenkian Library in the Old City of Jerusalem, home to one of the world’s largest repositories of materials about the genocide, or by encouraging local school boards to teach the subject in history curriculums, individuals have plenty of power to change the narrative through bottom-up initiatives.
24 April need not only tell a story of victimhood, but can also testify to survival and cultural regeneration, and be one part of a universal story which, for Israelis, should be particularly resonant.
Sivan Gaides was born in Armenia to a Jewish father and an Armenian mother, and made aliyah with her family in 1990. She holds a BA and MA in Political Science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and has been involved in Jewish education for two decades, including working as a Jewish Agency emissary in Germany and India. She lives in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @sivanella2015