By Rev. Bassam M. Madany
On Thursday morning, October 27, 2005, I picked up my copy of the Wall Street Journal and noticed on its front page this eye-catching headline: Turk-Armenian Fight Over WWI History Goes to a U.S. Court. Massachusetts Law Sparks a Free-Speech Debate about Teaching ‘Genocide.’
The article brought back childhood memories that go back to the 1930s. My father moved the family from Seleucia, near Antioch, to Alexandretta in 1934, to assume his new position as pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian church in that city. Unlike Seleucia, known by its Arabic name as Souedia, Alexandretta was a cosmopolitan city with various ethnic groups and missionary organizations. The R. P. Mission from Northern Ireland operated a mission school there, and this is where I began my education. There were also two Roman Catholic mission schools: one run by the French order known as Brothers of Christian Schools, and the other by an Italian order whose name now escapes me.
Being built near the Gulf of Alexandretta in northwest Syria, the city by that name had attracted Europeans from many lands. Its port was busy, as it was linked by railroad to the famous Berlin-Baghdad line.
One of the features of Alexandretta was that anyone growing up there would hear several languages being spoken. Of course the major language was Arabic, but Turkish and Armenian were also spoken, due to the presence of a sizeable refugee population that had escaped the massacres of WWI. This fact would be the occasion for my father to speak of his war experiences, including that terrible event that befell the Armenians living within the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
When WWI broke out between the Allies and Germany, Turkey joined the war against the Allies. Many young men living within the Ottoman lands were drafted into the Turkish army, including my father. Most of his fellow Syrians were sent to the front near Egypt as Turkey was trying to wrest that land from the British presence. Thousands perished in the Sinai; and even those who came back were in such weakened condition, like Uncle John Nicholas Madany, who died soon after reaching home. My father upon his conscription passed a language test in Turkish and was posted to serve at an army HQ in Mersine, Cilicia (Asia Minor.) Mersine was not far from the Biblical Tarsus, the birthplace of Saint Paul. Dad used to regale us with many stories about the Turkish and German officers he had to deal with. Such anecdotes were amusing; but there were some very disturbing accounts that he shared with us. Those had to do with the plight of the Armenians who lived in and around the province of Cilicia. Most of them were deported to the eastern part of the Empire, and reports were reaching Mersine that the vast majority of those Armenians perished.
It was after the end of WWI that the full story of the fate of the Armenians became known to the world. Thousands upon thousands of them driven from their homes were massacred, their churches destroyed, and those who managed to escape death, became refugees and scattered into many parts of the Middle East after the war.
Alexandretta, being not far from the Turkish mainland took in many Armenian refugees. Even a decade or more after the war, several of these people lived in what was known as the “camps.” The city was almost below sea level, and surrounded by several marshlands. They became the breeding grounds of swarms of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Early in June, schools closed and most of the people would move to the near-by villages that dotted the mountains around the city. My father, the Irish Missionaries, and the majority of the congregation would move to an Armenian populated village for the three summer months. We rented rooms from the local people, and heard from them more eye-witness accounts of what they called, “Sefer Berlik,” (Turkish for Wanderings in the Wilderness.) Actually, these words were a strange euphemism for the Genocide of the Armenians.
Back to Alexandretta in September, and the school year brought me in daily contacts with my fellow Armenian students. We had to study in three languages at school: the primary ones were Arabic and English, and French was required as well. What often intrigued me was the fact that when Armenians students conversed with one another, they spoke in Turkish or in Armenian. This became the occasion for my learning a few Turkish words, even though I must add that both my father and mother quite often would speak Turkish. They would also quote certain Turkish proverbs.
So why do I write an article about the Armenian Genocide ninety years later? Specifically, because that horrible episode has never, ever been acknowledged for what it was by Turkey. You must have noticed the title of the WSJ article in my first paragraph, and realized that the subject is not a dead issue. I will quote a few lines from the article and then add some comments:
“Nearly a century ago, perhaps a million or more Christian Armenians were slaughtered by Muslim Turks. It ranks among history’s major instances of genocide.
Or is “genocide” the wrong word?
For generations, Turks and Armenians have argued the point. Armenians say it was genocide, pure and simple. Some Turks respond that the deaths were a tragic byproduct of World War I and that both Turks and Armenians died.
Now, a Turkish group wants to settle the issue, American style: in court.
Yesterday in U.S. District Court in Boston, two public high-school teachers, one student and the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations filed suit challenging a Massachusetts statute that uses the word “genocide” to describe the Armenian deaths. The law sets guidelines for teaching about human rights in the state. The lawsuit argues that the state violates the plaintiffs’ free-speech rights by excluding from the curriculum a view of events more favorable to the Turks.”
For nine decades, Turkey has played down the real story of “sefer berlik” claiming that for military reasons, large numbers of Armenians living near the Russian border in Eastern Turkey had to be removed from their homes. So it was “inevitable” that some, or may be even many, perished during the harsh winter of 1915! So goes the Turkish account.
However, this is not an honest and objective account of what happened during WWI to the large Armenian population that had lived in that part of the world for centuries. The heartland of the Ottoman Turkish Empire was the home of Turks, Armenians, Assyrians, Syrians, and Greeks. The non-Muslim population enjoyed a degree of freedom and autonomy. However, during the nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire began to lose its grip over several areas in the Balkans, a nationalistic movement came into being known as the Young Turks. It spread especially among the Ottoman officer corps. This led to the abridgement of the freedoms that Christian ethnic groups had enjoyed. WWI gave the Young Turks within the Ottoman Government the chance to eliminate a sizable ethnic group such as the Armenians. The mass deportations that began in 1915, escalated into a veritable Genocide. Around one million Armenians perished due to hunger, disease, attacks and murderous acts by brigands, and soldiers of the Ottoman Army.
Now what pains me most is not only the persistence of the Turkish Governments over the years in their denial of the Genocide, but to note that this denial has been exported to the USA. And here at the end of October in the year of our Lord 2005, we read about the attempt of Turkish American Associations in Massachusetts to involve a U.S. federal court in this denial! This is shocking indeed.
Another troubling issue that this WSJ report reveals is that Turks who have immigrated to the United States, and I presume, have become naturalized American citizens, have carried with them a baggage that should have been left behind in the old country. In America, it is not part of our culture to hide terrible aspects of the past. We do not shy from confessing our national sins.
At this point, I would like to refer to the example of Germany and its involvement, during the Nazi era, in the persecution and eventual elimination of six million Jewish people. This crime against humanity is indescribable and utterly horrific. After the war, not only many Nazi officials were properly judged at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, but West Germany assumed responsibility for the Holocaust of the Jews, and paid millions of German Marks to Israel and to individual Jews who had suffered from the Nazi persecution. (By the way, East Germany, under Soviet control, did not participate in any restitution plan.)
I don’t imply at all that money can ever atone for the sins of the Holocaust. The Nazi crimes will always be remembered as a manifestation of human depravity. But one aspect of the reparations that Germany paid to the victims of the Holocaust is very important: it exhibits a confession of the guilt and of the reality and authenticity of the Holocaust event. This is extremely important, not only for the Germans, but for the entire world.
Thus, it is shocking that Turkey persists after almost one century in denying the Genocide of the Armenians, and even more shocking to learn that Turkish immigrants who have established their home in America, have joined in this denial. What a pity! I certainly hope that the U.S. District Court in Boston will throw out the case, as an attempt to further falsify history, thus denying students in Massachusetts an opportunity to learn about a horrible event that took place during WWI in far away Turkey.