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The Norwegian Who Helped the Armenians Come to America

04/21/2015 04:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

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Earlier this year, I journeyed from Vermont to Oslo to introduce myself to Marit Greve, an 86-year-old Norwegian who still swims in the fjord outside her home on the outskirts of the city. I wanted to meet her because it's possible some of my Armenian ancestors would not have wound up in America were it not for her grandfather, Fridtjof Nansen. My Norwegian publisher, Pantagruel Forlag, engineered the visit.

Nansen is a treasure in Norway, a Nobel Laureate and arctic explorer who lived from 1861 to 1930. He is less known outside of Scandinavia -- unless you are of Armenian descent. His memoir of his 1925 visit to the Anatolian Plains and the Caucasus Mountains on behalf of the League of Nations, Armenia and the Near East, is both a beautifully written travelogue and a concise history of the Armenian people. (The fact there are few topographies as disparate as Norway and Turkey is a testimony to Nansen's eye for detail.) It is also a wrenching chronicle of the Armenian Genocide: the Ottoman Empire's systematic annihilation of 1.5 million of its Armenian citizens during and immediately after the First World War. Three out of every four Armenians would be slaughtered, including some of my own ancestors in Ankara and Kayseri. The majority of Armenians alive today are descendants of those few that survived.

I was interested in meeting Marit because this year marks the centennial of the start of the Armenian Genocide -- the coming week, as a matter of fact. Many of you know that thanks to Pope Francis and his courageous mass last Sunday. Many of you know thanks to all of the newspaper editorial boards and columnists who have urged Turkey to acknowledge the cataclysmic crimes of the Ottoman Regime and end a despicable, century-long policy of lies and denial about the genocide. Armenian-Americans like me are urging President Obama to finally make good on his 2008 campaign promise, and use the word "genocide" in his annual message about the slaughter.

It was April 24, 1915, when the Armenian intellectuals, professionals, editors, and religious leaders in Constantinople were rounded up by the Ottoman authorities -- and almost all of them executed. But it was thanks to Nansen that so many survivors of the Genocide were able to build new lives in new countries. Nansen, working with the League of Nations, created a document that has come to be called the Nansen Passport.

Here, after all, was the reality: Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were scattered across the Middle East who could never return to Turkey. The final borders of the Armenian nation were a fraction of what many Westerners, including President Woodrow Wilson, had originally envisioned. (And soon enough, that fledgling nation would be swallowed by the Soviet Union.) Many of these Armenians were living in refugee camps and were, essentially, a stateless people. Thanks, however, to Nansen's efforts on behalf of Russian refugees immediately after the First World War, the Armenians had a legal status and an internationally recognizable travel document that would allow them to transcend victimhood and move to nations where they were welcome.

Marit knows well the affection we Armenians have for her grandfather. She has ventured to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and seen the statue of Nansen. She showed me the plaques she has been given. But at one point she said something that has left me haunted: she was curious why we have such respect for her grandfather when he "failed." She was referring to a dream he had (and wrote about in Armenia and the Near East) of creating an irrigation project that would have helped turn an arid patch of Armenia into an agrarian mecca, and allow tens of thousands of refugees to resettle there. But the League of Nations -- which the Soviet Union had not joined -- wouldn't fund it, and the effort never commenced.

Still, I reassured Marit that in my people's eyes, her grandfather had most assuredly not failed. I reminded her of the way his book educated so many Westerners to the Genocide. "These were atrocities which far exceed any we know in history, both in their extent and their appalling cruelty," he wrote at one point in his account. There was also his faith in the indomitable spirit of the Armenian character: "All misfortunes and all maltreatment notwithstanding, the soul of Armenia's people could not be crushed." But most importantly, there was the Nansen Passport.

What I did not do when I was thanking her, and it is my principal regret from my visit, was to quote William Saroyan. We Armenians quote our Fresno born Pulitzer Prize winner a lot, and it surprises me I was so off my game that I didn't. I attribute my failure to the fact I was so moved to meet Marit. But it was Saroyan who said, "Go ahead... destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send [the Armenians] into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again."

Indeed, it is thanks in part to Fridtjof Nansen that today we live again and we laugh again -- and that there are new Armenias all across the world and all across America. As April 24 nears, I want to be sure that Marit Greve knows.

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Chris Bohjalian's novels include "The Sandcastle Girls," "Midwives," and "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands." This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on April 19, 2015.