Knights of Vartan Continue Tradition of Times Square Armenian Genocide Commemoration



By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — It was 1985. The 75th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide was approaching. Usually commemorative events were held in the halls of Armenian churches on April 24, with the exception of demonstrations in front of the Turkish embassy in New York every five years or so on “major” anniversaries. The Knights and Daughters of Vartan up until then would support existing commemorations. Sam Azadian suggested that Armenians needed to get out of their own halls and hold events in public places so that non-Armenians could learn about the Armenian Genocide. Hirant Gulian, who closely worked with Azadian, said, “Sam was involved in city government. He worked for four different mayors and served as a commissioner, and so was very well connected. As a result, he was able to reserve the location of Times Square in the heart of New York City in 1985. That’s how we started.” The Knights and Daughters of Vartan for the next 25 years organized commemorations in the same place, creating a tradition which continues this year. It will take place one week later than usual, on May 1, in order not to conflict with Easter.

Gulian, a successful jeweler in New York, was one of the initial organizers together with Sam Azadian, and today and for the last five years has served as the chairman of the commemorative committee for the Knights. He explained that the event for the first few years was solely under the banner of the Knights and Daughters of Vartan. The goal was to obtain recognition for the Armenian Genocide. Many individuals were financially and morally supportive, and volunteered personally. For example, at midnight before the event, Hratch Kaprielian and his 30 employees were busy putting up signs throughout New York to announce the forthcoming commemoration.

Beginning in 1989, all the Armenian church denominations became involved (including both the Eastern Diocese and Prelacy), and in the last five years, all the traditional Armenian political parties began participating along with the Armenian Assembly of America, which was supportive from the early years. In the past few years, various Armenian youth organizations, such as university Armenian clubs, the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America and the Armenian Youth Federation have become involved. Gulian said, “No one disagrees that we Armenians should be all working together at least in this area. Especially over the past five years, the Knights of Vartan has finally succeeded in bringing together all our organizations and groups. The Knights and Daughters of Vartan have no political agenda beyond Genocide recognition from the Turkish government, and our organizations understand this.”

The event garnered great attention. The street would be closed from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On the average from 80,000 to 100,000 people would pass by the important central location of Times Square on that day, according to the reports of the New York City police. Two to three thousand people on average have attended each year’s event, making for a total of as many as 75,000 attendees over the last quarter century.

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Speakers over the years have included various governors, senators and congressmen from the tri-state area, as well as mayors of New York like Edward Koch, who never missed a commemoration while in office. Harut Sassounian of the California Courier and the United Armenian Fund remarked last year that even though the Los Angeles area has a much larger Armenian population, commemorations there never have as many high-ranking politicians as Times Square. Obtaining their support and recognition of the Genocide is a crucial function of the commemoration. Many important educators, journalists and academics have also given talks.

During the past quarter century, major American television stations gave the event coverage for somewhere between 12 and 15 of the anniversaries. Even several Turkish television stations came to record the event in the past few years. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post and other American newspapers often covered the commemoration and wrote about the Armenian Genocide.

The preparatory process is an involved one. Gulian said, “It is very challenging and hard work. We have different teams working on different aspects. We begin each summer to plan for the next year. Forty to 50 people are involved getting the event organized.” The Knights have cultivated good relationships with elected officials, both individually and collectively, and support them whenever possible in a variety of ways. This therefore makes it easier to obtain their participation. Gulian stressed that “Sam Azadian’s personal connections with these elected officials made a real difference. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York is one example. Except for the administrative work of the past five years, everything has been [Sam] Azadian’s creation. We owe him a lot.” The Knights provide updated basic background information to all speakers ahead of time.

Gulian pointed out that “all other American organizations have left the Times Square location. This means that they have lost the right to use the site, and the city no longer is inclined to give permits for its use. Consequently, we are the only organization, which has been grandfathered in. If we do not hold our event even once, we automatically will lose this right.”

This year is a unique challenge, because not only has the date been changed to avoid conflicting with Easter, but the new date of May 1 happens to be Holocaust Day. This makes it more difficult for Jewish officials because there are other commemorative events on that day that they must attend. Nonetheless, there are still many prominent politicians who are planning to participate, including Senators Robert Menendez (NJ) and Schumer; local congressmen, such as Anthony Weiner, Carolyn Maloney and Frank Pallone; and Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. and Comptroller John Liu of New York City. The politicians usually speak for about five minutes, while representatives of the various Armenian sponsors and organizations are given about three minutes each. The keynote speaker, Prof. Richard Hovannisian of the University of California, Los Angeles, will have around 10 to 15 minutes.

The Internet and Facebook are being actively used to motivate university and college Armenian students and youth organizations to participate. Over 360 young people have responded that they will attend this year. Gulian said, “we are going to set up table sand have invited all Armenian national and international organizations to send representatives. They can promote their organizations and collect addresses and other information from the general public. We want to start preparing for 2015, the 100th anniversary, so that we can have a very large and united commemoration then.”

Gulian spoke of his own motivation: “I’m just an average person, like any other Armenian, who has lost family members in the Genocide. We have the responsibility to do all that we can for their sake. I think that the time has come for us to go beyond recognition of the Genocide and work for restitution and reparations.” He modestly concluded, “I learned everything I know from Sam Azadian. Everything I do right I learned from him. Any mistakes I make are my own doing.” He plans to retire from his leadership role in the Times Square commemoration after the major anniversary of 2015. He said, “After all, at a certain point you have to know when to walk away, and it will have been 30 years that I have been involved in this event.”

Gulian, a deacon in the Armenian Church, volunteers to help coordinate special projects for the Diocese and a few other organizations occasionally. He also is a founding member who served 10 years as the president of the Armenian American Support and Educational Center of Palisades Park, NJ — familiarly known as Hai Doun. It was created in 1976, and is the only Armenian organization in New Jersey with its own building as well as stable finances.

Gulian periodically is asked why the same program is repeated from year to year. Once it was a clergyman who asked him this. He responded, “We go to church every Sunday where there is the same Divine Liturgy. Are we doing something wrong? Once a year, you can give people additional strength not to forget what happened in 1915. I think it is important to repeat some of this information every year. We have the responsibility to carry on until the Turkish government accepts its responsibility. There is some change there recently, especially among the new generation, which gives us renewed hope.”

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