Sacred Justice

02/10/2015 09:57 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

The year 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in which over a million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Turks. We are already seeing articles that commemorate the Genocide, but one story essential to understanding the Armenian response remains to be told--that of the leadership of Operation Nemesis, a clandestine effort to carry out the death sentences given to the Turkish architects of the Genocide who had escaped punishment.

I grew up in my maternal grandparents' small two-story frame house in Syracuse, New York where heated, weighty conversations about Armenian history and culture took place, but I knew nothing about Operation Nemesis. I heard my how grandmother Eliza loaded rifles to protect the town in the siege of Dortyol during the 1909 Adana massacres in which 30,000 Armenians were murdered; how her brother, Mihran stole past Turkish guns to destroy the dam the Turks built to cripple the town's water supply. After the foreign consuls intervened to end the siege Mihran was arrested and tortured for his efforts to save his people. His Turkish jailors brought his bloody underwear home for his mother to wash. My grandmother said she washed her son's underwear with her tears. When Eliza exhorted me to eat every last pea on my plate, saying, "remember the starving Armenians," it had more than rhetorical power. I was raised on my grandmother's stories of resistance, but my grandfather never spoke of those days, and I, unconsciously respecting his silence, never asked.

Aaron, my grandfather, spent most of his days in his red leather chair near the wooden radio he listened to every day, silently smoking his Camels with shaking fingers, perhaps from undiagnosed Parkinsons that would, years later, steal my mother's smile and cause her shuffling gait. But when I was three, four, five, my medz-hairig (grandfather), this quiet man who wore a three-piece suit nearly every day of his life, who had private sessions with visiting dignitaries and battle heroes like General Dro (Drastamat Kanayan), bounced me on his foreleg, carried me through the doorways on his shoulders like a coronated queen, and took me outside at dusk to survey the peach, pear, apple orchards and the grape arbor beyond our back door. When my grandmother and I made our weekly trip to Abajian Cleaners, I carried his wool coat, hugging it to my chest, saying, "I love my medz-hairig. I wish he would live forever." My grandfather lived to 84, the last few years in mental and visual darkness, his eyesight failing, his prodigious brain's neurons deadened from a series of strokes. No one in our family knew until close to 25 years after his death that my grandfather was the bursar and logistical leader of the covert operation to assassinate the Turks responsible for the Armenian Genocide. In 1990 tucked away in my grandfather's files in the upstairs study, the room I slept in as a small child, we found his correspondence, some written in code, with his Nemesis comrades, including Soghomon Tehlirian who shot Talaat Pasha, the primary architect of the Genocide. Between 1920 and 1922 at least eight perpetrators responsible for the genocide were killed. The men of Operation Nemesis saw this effort as "a sacred work of justice" as Shahan Natalie, one of the three leaders, described it.

When I was a small child our social life was organized around Armenian events. The "vakh" vakh," ladies, as we children called them, elderly women dressed in black, who did not dance or laugh, whose signature action was to wring their hands as they echoed the "vakh vahk" that so defined them, were part of our landscape. As a child, I shrank from these women. I knew they lived in an inner world that I did not want to know. As children, we absorbed the meaning of the words "vakh vakh" without being told: the phrase means "what a shame, what a pity." But I did not know then that "vakh" in Armenian means fear. We children feared these women because we knew instinctively that we could become them. The effects of genocide do not disappear by an act of will. Researchers have shown that three quarters of Armenian survivors interviewed asserted that they did not talk to anyone about their experiences of the Genocide for fear of persecution and to protect their children. But silence can exacerbate the effects of trauma, which children can sense. Experiences as well as epigenetics--genetic changes in response to traumatic life events--may affect our behavior and perhaps that of our children. Perpetrators as well as victims may also be affected by these problematic epigenetic changes. We are left with the unsettling premise that not only the sins of the fathers may be visited upon their children, but their responses from being sinned against as well. If so, this means that the Genocide is still happening--to both perpetrators and their victims.

At a lecture in Cambridge, MA on January 13, 2015 Turkish scholar Taner Akcam was asked why he does the difficult work of telling the story of the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath. He talked of his family's dedication to supporting human rights in Turkey and the prison terms that generated. He spoke of his brother's jailors sending home his bloody underwear. Turk or Armenian--bloody underwear is the same. His words remind me of those of Chief Seattle after the United States government stole his people's land, exiling them. With his hand on the short governor's head, the white conquerors around him, and his people before him he said, "Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation.... We may be brothers after all. We will see." Let us hope in this year of the centennial the door to truth and freedom begins to open--for both Armenians and Turks.