Collective Amnesia in Wake of Genocide Topic of New Book

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Bobelian-Children of Armenia cover

By Taleen Babayan and Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Author Michael Bobelian’s first book, Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice, which focuses on the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, was recently published by Simon & Schuster.

Bobelian spoke this week about his book, the thrust of which, he said, is finding out why the world forgot about the Armenian Genocide very soon after the events.

“Most of my book focuses on the aftermath of the Genocide. That is an era no one has written about, neither in historical nor journalistic circles, so it made it very challenging because I had no books to rely upon to act as a guidepost. But it also made it fascinating because no one had written about it. I got to see original material and look at it in a way no one has before. I covered comprehensively the legislative battles, the [Kourken] Yanikian trial and its impact, and the 1965 demonstrations that began the modern Armenian campaign for justice.”

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The Genocide was widely acknowledged while it was taking place. There was huge international relief sent to help,” he said. “There was wide press coverage.”

“By the 1940s, 1950s, much of the world had forgotten. The world had moved on.. How does that happen?”

After 1923, he said, and the Treaty of Lausanne, the chapter became closed, as far as the world was concerned.

Bobelian also looked at Hitler’s famous quote, often quoted by Armenians or those seeking affirmation of the Genocide, in which he justifies going through with the Jewish Holocaust, suggesting it would be forgotten, since “who today remembers the Armenians?”

He explained, “Armenians look at the quote of Hitler, and they look at that as a symbol of the costs of impunity in regard to punishing the perpetrators of the Genocide. But it can be looked at in another way: how this event, which was so well-known, and inspired this huge international aid movement, disappeared from the world’s consciousness so quickly. By the mid 1960s, outside of the Armenian world, it became ‘the forgotten genocide.’ How did the Armenians allow it to happen? There was a long era of public silence during which Armenians allowed the Genocide to disappear from the public’s consciousness.”

It was only in 1965, he said, where there was a collective wake-up call, with massive demonstration in New York, Los Angeles, Beirut, Paris, Athens, Moscow and Yerevan, which with 100,000 participants, had the bragging rights to be the largest.

And why that year? “It is a big mystery. It was the 50th anniversary, a round number. By 1965, in the diaspora, the survivors’ children who were leading those demonstrations, had economic and personal security. They made their political voices heard,” he explained.

“In Soviet Armenia, it was the first steps of a nationalist movement,” he noted, adding that there, the Armenians had the freedom to express their nationalism in art and culture.

“In America and Europe, the student movement and the anti-Vietnam movement was starting,” he said. “It was just a perfect storm in 1965.”
The first book to talk about the Genocide, Bobelian said, was British-Armenian journalist Michael Arlen’s A Passage to Ararat. He added, the first Genocide museum in the world was only erected in Yerevan in 1995. “The survivors were severely traumatized and they were rebuilding their lives. Many of them were orphans. At 18, they would leave orphanages and start families. If you took the time to do things about the Genocide, it would cost you a lot,” he added.

“Armenians lacked political power and a political voice,” he said. Adding that we should not forget that the perpetrators of the Genocide had purposely killed off the community leaders. “It is difficult in that context to have a political voice.”

“In the 1950s, Armenians in the US started to participate in American politics. They were treating it as a Cold War issue, with Tashnags versus non-Tashnags. The question was ‘are you for or against Soviet Armenia?’”
The Armenian newspapers, he said, debated only that issue; they seldom wrote about the Genocide.

For research, Bobelian said that he looked to established historians such as Vahakn Dadrian, Richard Hovannisian, Taner Akçam, and other historians who have covered the genocide era. But most of those books really come to an end by the mid to late 1920s. He said, “Much of my research was mostly primary research since I had no books to rely upon. Some of the things I read were lots of Armenian-American papers. I interviewed many Armenian advocates, both from this era and leading advocates in the 1960s and 1970s. I also did a lot of research at the National Archives, which allowed me to get an understanding of the US position on the Genocide issue, not just in the 1920s and President Woodrow Wilson’s era, but all the way through the present day. I also did a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests again from the US government and retrieved files not available in the archives, so they needed to go through a security clearance. The last place I looked was the presidential libraries, which had a great deal of information about legislative efforts in dealing with Armenian Genocide resolutions that were proposed in Congress since the 1970s.”

He continued, “The hardest part actually was in writing about the Genocide itself. I spent three or four months reading personal accounts of survivors. When you read stories about parents choosing which child lives, which child dies, mothers taking their children’s lives out of mercy, and you wonder about the predicament these people were in. Looking at my daughter, who was just a few months old at the time, it was hard to absorb. After that, I was able to maintain a detached outlook needed for research.”

The lack of a homeland, he said, only compounded this paralysis by the Armenians to get the Genocide issue front and center. The Jews, he said, through having a homeland, were able to put up the Yad Vashem memorial, as well as to have the Adolf Eichmann trial, both of which were able to put the Holocaust on the map. He noted that around the 1960s, the Holocaust was seldom spoken of.

He added, “I touch upon the political parties, especially in the early sections of the book where I feel like they had much greater impact on Armenian history and world events. But mostly I try to write through individuals and not through the parties. For instance, I write about Simon Vratsian, the last prime minister of the first Armenian republic that came to an end in 1920. He’s a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, so I try to write about him and not the party that he was a member of.”

Bobelian said he wants Armenian readers to learn about their recent history, especially the beginnings of the recognition movement. “We have inherited not only the scars of the Genocide but a campaign for justice from previous generations. We deserve to know the origins and evolution of this campaign.”

For non-Armenians, he added, “I want them to appreciate why this still matters. A lot of people I ran into while writing this book would ask me why Armenians still persist since it’s been almost a 100 years since the Genocide took place. I want them to understand and appreciate that it still matters. Even today, these issues of denial and impunity resonate not only for Armenians but for genocides across the world. Finally, there are very few moments of social justice that have lasted this long and span the world.”

For more information about Children of Armenia, please visit www.childrenarmenia.com.

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