The Armenian Genocide and the Burden of Shame

04/24/2015 10:43 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015


A part of me cringed each time I uttered my last name in grade school. For just as soon as I said it, I was asked: "What kind of name is that?" Blank stares and silence usually followed when I said Armenian. I felt embarrassed by who I was because I couldn't explain it to my classmates. All I knew was that something unspeakable, something secret, had happened to the Armenian people. The only public reference I had was friends' parents cautioning fussy eaters to "remember the starving Armenians."

Every week I overheard my father speaking Armenian on the phone with his sister Hasmig and mother Baidzar, the sounds of hard Ks, Vs and Zs, punctuating their incomprehensible conversation. Over time some of the words became familiar to me but the fact that I couldn't understand their language underscored how little I knew of my family history. Kept in the dark, how could I embrace my heritage?

In the 1970s my father would proudly point out the occasional famous Armenian in popular culture--the actor Mike Connors (born Krekor Ohanian) of the television show Mannix, or Cher (born Cherilyn Sarkisian). He told me that there weren't many Armenians left in the world, alluding vaguely to the 1915 massacre of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.

It was my mother, who was Irish, who explained--when we were alone--that as a teenager my grandmother had seen her family slaughtered on the steps of a church. She was taken as a slave into a Turkish household where for she served the woman of the household by day, then was forced to service the male by night. After three years, my grandmother and another Armenian girl from a few doors down were able to escape in the middle of the night. They ultimately made their way to an orphanage in Corinth. My grandfather Mesrop, who had fled to the United States during the genocide, paid for her passage from Greece. They married and moved to New Britain, Connecticut to work in the hardware factories.

I was slow to learn about Armenian culture, one of the oldest settled societies in the world. Nonetheless, living with an Armenian father, I grew to understand key elements of that culture: tradition, modesty, personal reserve and propriety about the way certain things are done. Those traits help inform the reluctance of some Armenians to talk about the genocide, especially the details of how girls like my grandmother were abused.

Armenians lived in the Caucasus region of Eurasia for approximately 3,000 years. Theirs was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD. In the 15th century, part of Armenia was absorbed into the Ottoman Turkish Empire, ruled by Muslims. There, Armenians were viewed as Christian "infidels," and treated unequally and unjustly.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the late 1800s, Turkish leaders were angered by Armenian efforts to secure civil rights. A state sanctioned program to suppress Armenian civil rights brought protests by Armenians and then massacres by Turkish officials. When the post-Ottoman Young Turks assumed power, their "Turkification" campaign deemed Christian non-Turks a threat to the new state. Turkish leaders sought to create a Pan-Turkic and Pan-Islamic empire consisting of Turkish-speaking Muslim regions in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

On April 24, 1915, the Armenian genocide began with the Turkish government's arrest and execution of several hundred Armenian intellectuals, clergy, artists, poets, and others. Armenians were sent on death marches, often stripped naked, through the Mesopotamian desert without food or water, until they dropped dead. "Butcher battalions"--violent criminals released from prison specifically for this purpose--carried out drownings, crucifixions, bayoneting, live burnings, and throwing off cliffs. By 1923, fewer than 100,000 Armenians remained in the Ottoman Empire.

Many Armenian women genocide survivors were raped or forced into harems. Later, they were ashamed to talk about what they had experienced. The Turkish nationalist party's multi-pronged plan to render Armenians extinct included taking attractive Armenian brides and virgins into Turkish harems where many gave birth to children fathered by their masters. In Armenian Golgotha, Grigoris Balakian--an intellectual who was arrested in the earliest phase of the genocide--wrote: "The young brides and virgins were yanked from the embrace of their crying mothers and taken to Turkish harems; even ten-year-old girls were subjected to all manner of savage, unbearable Turkish debauchery."

These practices, and other unconscionable acts, help explain why parents often spoke in Turkish or Assyrian instead of English or Armenian when discussing the crimes they experienced. They did not want their children to understand. Children of survivors describe the topic as secret or forbidden.

Such absence of talk, and mystery about the genocide, contributed to perpetuating a sense of shame. Observers to the worst crimes of humanity--some burned alive, others poisoned by Turkish physicians and pharmacists or drowned, starved to death, or left to perish from disease--how could surviving witnesses not be haunted for the rest of their lives?

On the centennial of the genocide, to help dispel the shame that some Armenians feel, it is time to talk openly about the genocide. This chapter in history--secreted away for a century--does not belong just to Turks and Armenians. It belongs in the moral consciences of all citizens of the world.

The talking so necessary to help dispel the shame has started. On April 12, 2015 Pope Francis reaffirmed the Vatican's past position that Turkey committed the first genocide of the 20th century. In words that angered Turkey enough to recall its ambassador to the Holy See, the Pope said: "It seems that the human family has refused to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today, too, there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few, and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand by."

While many around the world hoped that President Obama would acknowledge the Armenian genocide by its 100th anniversary, it will be still be a victory if global awareness increases. Formal acknowledgement should follow after the shame is shared.