We remember the Armenian Genocide on 24th April. I dedicate this article to my grandfather, Carl DerGarabedian, who passed in March 2022. I dedicate this to all those Armenians who died at the hands of Turkish militants and those lucky enough to escape. Not many know our story, but it deserves to be told.
Trigger warning: This article contains discussions of war, genocide, torture, rape and death.
One paragraph. In my entire American history textbook, only one paragraph, a few measly sentences were dedicated to what is dubbed as the second genocide of the 20th century. Most people do not know it happened and for it to be reserved to a single paragraph in a high school textbook helps no one at such an impressionable age learn.
The failure of the education system to educate students on the plight of the many while glorifying the victory of a few is not a new revelation. Yet, as the years pass and the words on the page don’t change it seems more calculated.
I am many things, and who I am falls under many categories. American expatriate. Gen Z. Young woman. Young professional. Journalist. Puerto Rican.
Yet, the identity that slips away from me most is Armenian.
I have tried for many years to discover what it means to be Armenian despite a disconnection from people who may have that answer. And in my search, I found myself consistently returning to the atrocities committed against my ancestors throughout and after the First World War. “Atrocities” is a word I use loosely. In reality, what Armenians faced for eight years was a systematic, ethnic cleansing – or genocide.
The Armenian Genocide (1915 – 1923)
As it was known at the time, the Ottoman Empire comprised a Muslim majority at sovereign and citizen levels. At the beginning of the 20th century, 2.5 million Christian Armenians resided in the Ottoman Empire along with other religious minorities who maintained limited autonomy. Viewed as “infidels”, Armenians were subject to unjust treatment. This included paying extortionate taxes, exclusion from the military and government and limited legal rights.
Despite this, Armenians had high education rates while their culture and wealth prospered under Ottoman rule. At the culmination of the 19th century, Armenians sought basic civil rights much to the displeasure of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1876 until 1909 – Abdul Hamid II. Abdul Hamid II, amid a crumbling Ottoman Empire, feared disloyalty and uprising among the minority group. He believed that Armenians would turn their loyalty toward Christian governments. In 1890, he declared that he would solve the “Armenian question” once and for all.
By the end of the 19th Century, over 200,000 Armenians were killed. In his book, Black Dog of Fate, Armenian-American poet and scholar Peter Balakian called Abdul Hamid II’s action a “prologue to what happened to Armenians.”
His rule ended in 1908 with the rise of a new government consisting of reformers called the “Young Turks.” The organisation within the Young Turks movement, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), promised to replace the monarchy with a constitutional government. This made Armenians hopeful for equality under the new regime. However, above all else, the Young Turks sought to enforce Pan-Turkism which required a racially pure state. Non-Turks – especially Christian non-Turks – threatened Turkish nationalism resulting in propaganda campaigns insinuating that Armenians threatened national security.
In 1914, at the advent of World War I, government leaders in the Ottoman Empire initiated a plot to expel and massacre Armenians. Military leaders feared invading enemy soldiers would persuade Armenians, specifically Imperial Russia, to join them. Military leaders argued that Armenians were traitors and sought to eliminate any potential for independence or autonomy.
And so, it began.
On 24th April 1915, the Turkish government arrested, executed and deported an estimated 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. This date is considered the beginning of the Armenian Genocide and is known as Red Sunday.
This culminated in the Temporary Law of Deportation, or “Tehcir Law,” on 27th May 1915. This granted the Ottoman government and military the ability to deport anyone “sensed” to threaten national security.
Without warning – an entire population began to disappear. Armenian civilians were removed from their homes without time to pack their belongings. Although throughout the Genocide, most Armenian property was seized regardless. Armenians were forced to march through the valleys and mountains of Eastern Anatolia toward desert concentration camps. On these death marches, they were starved, forced to strip naked in blistering heat and if an Armenian stopped walking toward death – they were shot without mercy. Additionally, disease was rampant and the dead were left unburied to rot in the sun.
Armenians faced corporal forms of torture. Some of these include “bastinado” or foot whipping, finger and toenail extraction and, in an account contained in Balakian’s book, officers “would nail hands and feet to pieces of wood – evidently in imitation of the Crucifixion.”
Armenians unfortunate enough to be met by killing squads were drowned in rivers, thrown off cliffs, burned alive and hanged. Additionally, in the campaign for Turkish nationalism, children were kidnapped, converted to Islam and given to Turkish families.
As the Genocide progressed, dead Armenians occupied more Turkish land than living Armenians.
The precise figure of Armenian deaths during the Genocide is debated. Historians and other academics place the death toll between 664,000 and 1.5 million in addition to those violently removed from the country.
The Genocide occurred over 100 years ago, so obtaining first-hand accounts of the atrocities committed is no longer possible. What does exist, aside from published academic and primary sources, are sparse stories passed down from generation to generation.
In January 2023, I arrived at my grandmother’s house for an interview. It is a familiar place that exemplifies the definition of home. Each piece of décor that adorns the shelves and walls has a story. Each piece of furniture has scuffs and is worn in a way that when you sit, you sink into someone else’s place.
Louise Araxie DerGarabedian, known to her friends and family as “Roxi”, is the quick-witted and beloved matriarch of my family. Although her family moved to the United States before the Genocide, my grandfather Carl DerGarabedian moved from Armenia to the US in the late 1940s with his uncle, Haig Ashbarian.
Although my grandmother does not have family stories, her late husband’s family does. In particular, she tells me the story of my grandfather’s mother – Agnes Mozian. Agnes Mozian was a young girl when the Genocide took place. My grandmother tells me she “did not have a job and likely grew up an orphan.” Without a job, Agnes was placed in a Turkish home to work as a servant. When I asked if she knew about Agnes’ experience as a servant, I could tell she was hesitant.
“One day we were having a coffee in her kitchen. She said to me, we didn’t talk deep[ly] much, but she told me that the boy in the house raped her.”
“[Agnes] never said how long she was there. In fact, she never spoke to me about that time. I understand most Genocide victims did not.”
She could not further elaborate, simply saying, “I thought that was so sad, and she never opened up again.” She also did not know how Agnes managed to leave the home she worked in.
As her words hit my ears, I sat across the table fighting against the lump in my throat to continue the interview. Similar experiences to Agnes Mozian’s litter books and articles on the Genocide but at that moment, one realises the weight of generational trauma.
Post-Genocide Impact: A Country with No Borders
As a result of the Genocide, thousands of years of Armenian culture was destroyed, and survivors were left homeless and without family and a community to rely on.
According to the Armenian Genocide Museum of America, in 1915, “the Armenian community maintained some 2,500 churches, 400 monasteries and 2,000 schools,” and, in 2015, “only 24 churches and 18 schools remained in Turkey… effectively indicating the total eradication of Armenian civilization in its homeland.”
Dr. Melanie Altanian is a research assistant and lecturer at the University College Dublin (UCD) School of Philosophy. Starting from the 1st of May, she will be research assistant and lecturer at the Chair of Epistemology and Philosophy of Science at University College Freiburg. She specialises in philosophically relevant issues related to the denial of imperial and colonial atrocities, including genocides.
Dr. Altanian conveys that the loss of heritage is “particularly relevant for questions of memory and identity [that] relates to the loss of heritage sites and homeland.”
She elaborates: “Genocide not only displaces and uproots victims from their homeland, either by deportation or forced migration, but can lead to long-term destruction and “reconstruction” of their inhabited places, ensuring they can no longer serve as loci of memory and identity of their former (or surviving) residents.”
She indicates this destruction can continue for decades “as it aims at [the] erasure of all traces of targeted groups’ existence in these lands. We see this happening in Turkey, but also… in the 2005 Azerbaijani destruction of the historic Armenian cemetery in Djufla, Nahichevan, which had contained thousands of Armenian cross-stones (khatchkars).”
Further, the effect of the Armenian Genocide can be seen in the number of people forming the diaspora. In 2021, an estimated three million Armenians resided in Armenia. Internationally, this number far exceeds the domestic estimation as more than five to seven million Armenians reside in countries across the globe. Prevented from returning to their homeland and the remnants of the motherland a shell of its former glory – Armenians sought sanctuary elsewhere.
Although Dr. Altanian mentions that finding a new home was not always easy. “Not all genocide survivors were able to find communities in which they could re-establish and continue their cultural practices.”
My paternal, Armenian family built their new home in New York. As time progressed, our ethnic roots became subservient to the American Dream. My grandmother describes growing up in a predominantly white American neighbourhood as “isolating.”
She recounts being bullied for her appearance and ethnicity growing up. She recalls the girls she went to school with commented on her nose, her name and her dark features.
She laments, “Ethnic was not in.” Despite residing in the US for her entire life, she acknowledges she “was never [a typical American]. I was never in that group, but we formed our own group… the misfits.”
She did find comfort in her relationship with my grandfather. They met in their mid-teens while on vacation in an Armenian area in the Catskill Mountains. She recalls being introduced by a mutual friend and expressing at 14, “I’m going to marry him.” My grandparents’ bond went deeper than a mutual love for each other. It was based on a mutually shared identity that few could understand.
Together they raised three sons: Michael, Dean and Carl Scott. All three were prominent wrestlers throughout high school and college – possibly normalising our “complex” surname to spectators across the US.
While raising them in an Armenian house, she, however, acknowledges the parts of her heritage she let go. “I was trying to get rid of the ethnic cliché and I don’t know why.”
“You have to understand when grandpa and I were raising kids… we had to assimilate and become an American suburban family.”
As their children got older, she recalls that my father and uncles started “bringing people over… and we had many parties [at the house]. Suddenly, I started cooking Armenian food… I thought it was funny because they weren’t even sure what they were eating. Just that they enjoyed it.”
What Armenian tradition and culture remained in my family impacted our friends. My grandmother recalls that one of my father’s friends, a history teacher, added the Armenian Genocide to his syllabus.
Growing up, I felt distinctly different from my peers. Mostly because my last name was the subject of constant mispronunciation and questions. As a child, I knew I was different, but I was unsure why. Although my cousins and I anxiously waited every Easter to eat lahmajun and kourabia and affectionately called our grandparents “Takavor” and “Takayuki” – I had little connection to my Armenian roots.
At 23, I know now that I lacked a community of individuals who share a similar identity.
In a life-changing moment for me, on 16th February 2023, I met two Armenian academics currently working at UCD. One of whom is Dr. Altanian. She was born and raised in a European country. The other is Professor Maria Baghramian.
Born to Armenian parents, Professor Baghramian hails from Tehran, Iran. She moved to Ireland in 1979. She is currently a full Professor of Philosophy at UCD, a member of the Royal Irish Academy and Academia Europea and a project leader with the European Commission Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Project “Policy, Expertise and Trust in Action” (PERITIA).
This was the first time I met and spoke with Armenians outside my family. And, whether by virtue of our similar surnames or simply being fellow Armenian women, I felt a certain kinship. Sitting across from them, I realised the true extent of the Armenian diaspora. At a glance, the three of us are separated by age, profession (at least for me), distinct physical features and birthplace. Yet, what connects us is the mutual understanding of what happened and how it led us to that moment.
Dr. Altanian speaks about how grateful she is to have found a community of Armenians. She notes the significance of forming bonds with people that “…share similar complex, diasporic identities and are similarly inclined to critically reflect on it.” This is a sentiment I am inclined to agree with as a product of the diaspora.
A Deafening Silence and the Beginning of Denialism
Various sources, including my grandmother and Professor Baghramian, note that there was a period when the Genocide was not spoken about.
“The first generation of survivors were largely unwilling to speak about the horrors they had experienced and witnessed, not even with their children,” says Professor Baghramian. As Armenians rebuilt their lives after the Genocide, she informs me that “a dark silence surrounded their efforts.”
Both my grandmother and Professor Baghramian recall that it wasn’t until the 1960s that people started to openly discuss the Genocide.
Professor Baghramian recalls: “My first memories of conversations around the Genocide go back to my childhood, but one particularly vivid moment was the commemorative events of the 50th anniversary in 1965 where the Armenian community in Iran was galvanised around the events organised in Armenian churches and cultural clubs.”
My grandmother distinctly remembers sitting in church a few years before the 50th anniversary. “All of a sudden, on April 24th, the church started speaking about it more.”
Professor Baghramian notes a shift in the discussions around the Genocide was borne out of “children of those survivors… recovering the disappearing voices of the direct witnesses…”
This could have been a positive shift. However, Professor Baghramian states that with the change, “there also came the Turkish government’s concerted attempts at genocide denial and their very effective international campaign to dissuade governments and even the press in Western countries from recognising… or even acknowledging [it].”
In his 1939 Obersalzberg Speech, German dictator Adolf Hitler cited the Armenian Genocide with approval. He stated, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
According to Margaret L. Anderson, a History Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Hitler used the Armenian Genocide to convince the German military that “committing genocide might provoke condemnation but would lead to no serious consequences for the perpetrator nation.” Even in 2023, the Turkish government has yet to face any consequences for the actions of its past regime.
The term genocide is defined as the premeditated and systematic killing of a particular nation or ethnic group. The term did not exist at the time of the Armenian Genocide. Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin later coined it at the UN Genocide Convention in 1948. He cited his exposure to news stories about the Ottoman Empire’s crimes against Armenians and the lack of international laws to prosecute Ottoman leaders as spurring his interest in the topic of genocide.
In its rawest form, the obscene acts committed against Armenians would fall under the definition’s parameters. Despite this, the Turkish government has never acknowledged the Genocide, admitted its role or offered an apology to Armenians. Turkey still blatantly denies the Genocide happened and, in 2017, the phrase “Armenian Genocide” was banned in the country.
Dr. Altanian explains, “there is a highly professionalised, international denial industry.” There are traditional methods of genocide denial that are particularly self-evident. She notes two examples: “political threats against other states whenever they attempt to officially recognise the Armenian genocide; or, whenever Armenian diaspora communities seek to erect memorials, the local Turkish community and diplomats will intervene.”
Historian Christine Philliou has called the Armenian Genocide “the central taboo at the heart of the modern Turkish nation-state.”
Commenting on this, Professor Baghramian says, “The standard way to deal with a taboo is to make it untouchable.”
She elaborates, “Turkey has achieved this by denying access to historic records, persecuting those among its citizens who break the code of silence, rewarding governments and academics who tow the anti-genocide line, and by systematically denigrating and even physically destroying work that attempts to demonstrate the truth of the [G]enocide survivors’ accounts.”
As of February 2023, only 34 countries recognise the events as genocide, and Ireland is not one of them.
Describing the nature of genocide, Dr. Altanian states that the heritage of genocide is that of “loss, trauma, grief and shame” but elaborates on a positive heritage of “survival, perseverance and resilience.”
On the impact of genocide denial, she mentions, “to deny the [G]enocide entails the denial of this heritage hence the very basis of a complex, heterogeneous, current day individual and collective Armenian identity.”
Regarding cultural loss, Dr. Altanian speaks personally about the loss of the Armenian language within her family. She identifies the impact of class privilege on cultural preservation and re-establishing cultural ties.
“This is surely owed to the Kemalist Turkification policies after the [G]enocide and alongside the creation of the Turkish Republic. However, I also want to highlight the class element here. Not all Armenians, especially those located in Eastern Turkey, could go to Armenian schools or colleges in Istanbul, where they might have had the chance to learn and speak Armenian. My father basically just had to work ever since he was a child.”
I struggle to think about what is worse than heartbreak. However, the feeling while learning about the grotesque treatment Armenians were subjected to is worse than any heartbreak I could imagine. It is an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach as I think about the people who carried out these acts and for generations after, deny it. I know Armenians did not suffer just to have that very suffering denied.
Professor Baghramian describes the continued denialism as a “trap for both nations” and “without finding a way to heal that wound, both sides will remain trapped in this dark moment of their histories.”
An Armenian Renaissance
Although much of Armenian history is shrouded in a dark past, Armenian culture is rich and dates back over three millennia. In the face of cultural destruction and systemic bias, various organisations and individuals continue to uplift Armenian voices and preserve its unique traditions.
One such organisation is the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), headquartered in New York City. Established in Cairo, Egypt in 1906, AGBU began its longstanding mission of service to the Armenian people and nation under Boghos Nubar and Yervant Aghaton leadership. Nubar and Aghaton united to form a new model of an Armenian organization that was free of the tyranny of totalitarian regimes and promoted sustainable socio-economic and educational development for Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire.
Now, AGBU is the world’s largest non-profit organisation which promotes the prosperity and well-being of all Armenians through a vast array of programmes, projects and initiatives.
AGBU recognises that Armenian communities are dispersed worldwide, meaning that the “realities and priorities [of Armenians] often vary.” To address Armenian issues and connect Armenian communities, AGBU works under four core pillars of activity: education, culture humanitarian services and social and economic development.
Natalie Gabrelian, Director of Chapters and Central Board Administration, notes that “education has been an intrinsic part of the AGBU mission since its founding.”
Gabrelian articulates that regardless of background, all Armenians “can look to the AGBU as a springboard for a more fulfilling and productive life through a wide offering of educational experiences. AGBU takes a 360° approach to education, including traditional and innovative learning platforms and programs, while partnering with reputable world-class learning institutions to elevate and expand the reach of Armenian studies. Moreover, AGBU strives to expose the world to unique attributes of the Armenian Nation – its place in the history of civilisation and its contributions from ancient times to the present.”
On their pillar of culture, she expresses that “AGBU [seeks] to perpetuate the treasures of our national heritage while also exposing audiences to new interpretations [of] classical Armenian themes.” AGBU provides tangible access for young people to “comfortably identify with their background and continue to explore their ancestral roots.” AGBU does this by offering youth trips to Armenia to experience the homeland.
Most notably, AGBU promotes talented artists in several ways. Examples include performing arts scholarships, organising tours and funding the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra – a cultural gem.
Since the Genocide, AGBU remains a prominent first responder to aid and comfort Armenians facing hardships. The catastrophe of 1915 tested the AGBU mission to the extreme, but the 1988 Armenian earthquake, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Artsakh, the Beirut Blast, and the Syrian Crisis have also galvanized the AGBU community to help save lives and rebuild futures.
“Even before the Armenian Genocide, in times of famine and regional unrest, AGBU’s leaders and members mobilised across borders to deliver sustenance and aid to those in need. In the decades to follow, Armenians facing hardships could count on our speedy response and long-term assistance as a lifeline and bridge to recovery,” states Gabrelian.
AGBU places importance on the socio-economic progress of the Republic of Armenia. Gabrelian says this ensures “a living manifestation of our collective identity within the boundaries of the land that is at once a sovereign nation-state and an ancestral homeland.” Under this pillar of socio-economic development, AGBU provides “infrastructures and resources to carve a path to upward mobility,” which are essential for long-term national viability.
The final interview I conducted is with Sevan Kabakian, the Country Director for Birthright Armenia. We held our meeting on a Zoom call, and due to the time difference, he kindly stayed awake until 11 PM to provide me with his sage words. He spoke about how Birthright Armenia provides Armenian young adults with the opportunity to come to Armenia and understand, connect and engage with the country long-term.
Birthright Armenia participants enjoy a broad range of volunteer opportunities from the “typical social volunteering to the more professional internships.” Kabakian adds that placements are tailored to volunteers’ interests, education, experiences and what is available in Armenia.
In the last 19 years, Kabakian mentions that of the 2,500 volunteers that participated, a total of 55 countries were represented.
When asked why people participate in Birthright Kabakian, notes that the “motivations… span the spectrum.” However, he states there are four main reasons why people participate: those seeking internship experience, those wanting to connect with their Armenian identity, those at a crossroads in life and looking for guidance and those seeking to connect with peers at an international level. These motivations do not exist in isolation as Kabakian denotes that the reasons volunteers participate “straddle[s] amongst… these motivations. It is not exclusively one or the other.”
For those who form part of the diaspora, Kabakian mentions that the importance of connecting with their Armenian heritage differs.
“Those who have grown up in Armenian communities and had Armenian circles of friends and classmates and [were] active in their communities and so on; Armenia adds another component to that.” Exercising Armenian identity or feeling Armenian identity “in the ethnic homeland – it completes the definition [of what it is to be Armenian].”
“Then there are those who are disconnected from Armenian identity. All they remember is their grandmother’s little stories or food that she made and things that she might have talked about… and there was nothing left to hang on to.” Although speaking generally about Birthright Armenia participants, he somehow spoke to my experience exactly. Reassuring me that this feeling of disconnection is not a burden I carry alone.
A critical element of the programme is immersing yourself in the language through classes and living with a host family.
Before discussing the language, I asked Mr. Kabakian why native Armenians would act as host families and accept strangers into their homes. He quickly corrected me.
“We can forget the word stranger. There’s no stranger here. Our volunteers are separated from their host families by three generations of events that were out of people’s control. As people were being killed and deported… who knows, maybe the host family, tracing back three generations, might have been from the same village. So, circumstances have pushed them to different parts of the world [but] they are being reconnected.”
His answer clearly illustrated the realisation that our shared identity instills a kinship when you meet another Armenian.
On the importance of language Mr. Kabakian expresses: “When we’re talking about Armenian culture, the aspects that you can really internalise are very few. I mean you can’t internalise a manuscript [or] a church… You can internalise language… There are traditional Armenian costumes [but] people don’t necessarily go and wear [them] walking in New York. But language, you can wear the language and it’s an important manifestation… of your connection with that heritage.”
He carefully articulates: “Language is a tool of personal expression which you can carry with you at all times.”
Although Birthright Armenia and AGBU maintain vastly different structures and differ in some of their stated aims, at their core, the two organisations seek to connect, educate and uplift Armenians worldwide.
Divulging my experience and my family’s experience with the Genocide’s impact was a cathartic exercise. By speaking with other Armenians and my grandmother, I understand that the disconnection I feel does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a systemic, century-old practice of denialism, racism and erasure.
I may only be half Armenian, but I feel the pain of the past with my entire being. This may be longer than one paragraph, but it is still not enough to convey the trauma, importance and impact the Genocide had on Armenia and its people. And although this article comes to an end, it is merely the beginning of a journey of rediscovery.
I would like to extend deep gratitude to everyone I interviewed for this article.
Dr. Melanie Altanian, Dr. Maria Baghramian, Natalie Gabrelian, Sevan Kabakian, and most importantly Louise Araxie “Roxi” DerGarabedian you all allowed me to reconnect with Armenia and write one of the most important pieces in my journalism career.
Danielle DerGarabedian – Editor