Unique Armenian Oral History Conference at UCLA

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LOS ANGELES — Oral historians of the Armenian Genocide gathered in Los Angeles on April 1-2, to share information about their collections and consider issues of utilization, digitization, preservation and archiving. The conference was organized by AEF Chair in Modern Armenian History, Richard Hovannisian, and the UCLA Oral History Research Center, with support from the Near Eastern Center, Bob and Nora Movel Fund and the Souren and Verkin Papazian Fund.

Participants from Canada, Mexico and various universities and centers in the United States began their weekend with a private tour of the Shoah Foundation Institute’s enormous collection of Holocaust survivor testimony housed at the University of Southern California.

The methods of preservation, digitization, indexing and utilization of the more than 50,000 interviews were explained by Karen Jungblut, director of research and documentation; Sam Gustman, assistant dean of USC Libraries; Kim Simon, managing director of the Shoah Foundation and Stephen Smith, the foundation’s executive director. Demonstrations were given of the Institute’s preservation and access systems as well as the digital access platforms. It is of great interest and encouragement that the Foundation is now prepared to expand its focus to the Armenian, Rwandan and other genocides. The large archive of Dr. J. Michael Hagopian’s Armenian Film Foundation (AFF) is now being prepared for transfer to the Shoah Foundation Institute, according to Smith and AFF president, Gerald Papazian, who participated in all of the weekend activities. Sara Chitjian, daughter of Armenian Genocide survivors, hosted a luncheon at USC for the attendees.

 

At the UCLA Young Research Library

The afternoon session on April 1 convened in the UCLA Young Research Library, where a team of specialists coordinated by Teresa Barnett, head of the Oral History Center, discussed matters of digitization and preservation and legal and technical issues relating to the use of the survivor testimonies. In exchanges among the participants, it became obvious that the state of the various collections varies widely. Some are primarily audiocassette interviews, while others are largely videotaped sessions of survivors, who are seen as they speak. It is estimated that there are collectively some 5,000 existing interviews of survivors, when the collections that are known to exist in Europe, the Middle East and Armenia are taken into account. One or two of the collections remain in their original condition and are therefore at risk, whereas most have backup copies or else have been digitized. Most of the 800 interviews in the UCLA collection, for example, have not only been digitized but have also been transcribed into Armenian and then, with students in a course in Armenian oral history, have passed through a preliminary translation into English. At the end of the session, it was suggested that as a first step, a grand index of all interviews worldwide be created which would include the name, place and date of birth of the interviewee, and, if possible, the language and length of the interview.

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The Public Conference: The First Session

Some 300 members of the community attended the public conference on the UCLA campus on April 2. The theme of the conference was “Armenian Genocide Oral History Collections in North America: Development, Utilization, Potential.” Hovannisian opened the conference by emphasizing the value of oral history testimony and the critical importance of proper preservation and archiving. The day’s proceedings were divided into four panels. The first panel, titled “The Collections: Their Origins, Scope, and Evidence,” was chaired by Marc Mamigonian, director of academic research of the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). Varoujan Froundjian of New York described the collection initiated by the late Dr. V.L. Parsegian and now housed at Columbia University. He noted that the collection, like the others, offers much more than descriptions of the horrific events of the Genocide. There are also subtle and multidimensional portrayals of life before the calamity and the experiences encountered en route to and after settlement in the United States. They include a great array of subject matter to be explored, including the special role of women, the challenges of living and raising children in a new country and the psychological aspects that frequently forced the survivors into silence or reluctance to discuss their tribulations.

Bethel Bilezikian Charkoudian, head of the Oral History Program of the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown, Mass., explained that in 1973 ALMA made it a primary goal to interview and record Armenian Genocide survivors. This project culminated in the late 1970s with more than 200 interviews and 800 hours of recordings. The audiotapes have been digitized pro bono by Techfusion and have since been used as original source material by historians, sociologists, videographers and most recently by dramatists Bianca Bagatourian (Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance) and Joyce Van Dyke (in her play “Deported”) and videographer Bared Maronian (“Orphans of the Genocide”). Haig Der Manuelian, an ALMA founder and longtime guiding force, also participated in the two-day conference.

Hovannisian outlined the evolution of the Armenian oral history project at UCLA and how it was facilitated by introducing a course for credit on the subject. He projected charts and graphs relating to the composition of 800 interviews and described their strengths and weaknesses. The audio tapes have now been digitized, transcribed and translated, and the time has arrived to consider the options regarding permanent repositories and access to the collection by students and scholars.

Greg Sarkissian and George Shirinian completed the first session by describing the nearly 800 interviews held by the Zoryan Institute in Toronto, Canada, this being the largest collection of video testimonies worldwide. The interviews were conducted according to a carefullyprepared questionnaire in order to obtain as much detail as possible about Armenian life before the Genocide as well as experiences during and after the deportations and massacres. The interviews were conducted in many cities in the United States and Canada and some were done in Europe and Armenia as well. Efforts were made to have multiple interviews from as many Armenian towns and villages as possible in order to allow for cross-referencing.

 

The Second Session

The second panel, titled “Publications, Performances, and the Visual Arts,” was chaired by Gerald Papazian of the AFF. Donald and Lorna Touryan-Miller spoke on “Time, Trauma, and Place in Survivor Narratives.” As the authors of Survivors, the widely-used volume based on Armenian Genocide survivor testimony, they reflected on the more than 100 interviews they conducted in the process and the similarities and differences in Armenian accounts recorded more than a half century after the Genocide in comparison with the fresh memories of witnesses and survivors in Rwanda where the Millers are now focusing their work. Carla Garapedian of the AFF presented a video showing J. Michael Hagopian’s film archive of Genocide survivors, gathered over a period of 40 years. She focused on the AFF’s project to digitize this rare collection for the Shoah Foundation, whose extensive holdings are made available to universities and institutions around the world. After the conference, she wrote: “We are continuing to get e-mails and messages regarding the symposium — it really created a new dialogue.”

Ara Oshagan of Los Angeles emphasized the effectiveness of combining photography, art and testimony. He explained: “Experiencing and witnessing extreme atrocity will leave survivors never feeling completely a part of the world again. The artist can play a role in symbolically restoring their connection to the world by incorporating their testimony with art to bring their story out into the world. The artist acts as a conduit in transforming testimony from merely being an ‘archive’ to one that ‘lives’ again.” He highlighted three projects that combine testimony with art: Furnee’s “Prisoner of War” installation in an English town directly affected by World War II, Heyman’s drawing of victims of Abu Ghraib prison, and his own and Levon Parian’s photographs of Armenian Genocide survivors.

Bianca Bagatourian of the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance demonstrated ways in which survivor testimony may be used in the theater by showing excerpts of her dramatic productions based on such narratives. After the conference, she attested: “The UCLA conference was a very important moment in the history of Armenian Genocide Oral History. It brought together the various collections in order to contemplate how best to keep alive our ancestral stories. In visiting the Shoah Foundation as part of the conference, I understood from the point of view of a writer the importance of creating a searchable database and texts in order to make the stories much more accessible to artists and scholars alike.”

As documentary filmmaker Zareh Tjeknavorian from New York was in the audience, he was called upon to describe his own experiences in oral history and interviewing surviving Armenian victims of the Stalin purges, captured in his outstanding film, titled “Enemy of the People.” He also described his most recent project, a documentary relating to the US response to the Armenian Genocide and the important role of the Near East Relief (NER), which rescued and assisted thousands of survivors, especially women and children, after World War I.

 

The Third Session

The first of the two afternoon panels was titled “Preserving, Indexing, Archiving, Accessing” and included experienced practitioners in the field.

Teresa Barnett, head of the UCLA Oral History Research Center, introduced the panel by identifying the challenges and possibilities relating to the Armenian Genocide oral history collections. Stephen Smith, Shoah Foundation executive director, related his own involvement with memorializing the Armenian Genocide and offered a highly informative visual piece from the Internet regarding the work of the Shoah Foundation Institute in preserving, archiving and making available its enormous corpus of interviews. Mark Greenberg, director of Special and Digital Collections and head of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., shared how the oral history program at USF has developed several source solutions that are intended to link up with Armenian oral history archives.

The OHPi (Oral History Player Interface) offers full-text search capacity and synchronizes audio/video streams with verbatim transcripts. He added that details can be found at the website http://ohp.lib.usf.edu.

Stephen Davison, head of UCLA’s Digital Library Program, explained the process of digitization and how it facilitates preservation and access, but he cautioned that one should not think that digitization is a permanent solution and that the UCLA library, like the Shoah Foundation, is continuously copying its collections.

Hayk Demoyan, director of the Genocide Museum-Institute of Armenia, completed the first panel with a description of the institute’s small but growing collection of oral history testimony and the importance of cooperation and sharing among all the existing programs.

 

The Fourth Session

The fourth and final panel of the day, chaired by Armen Marsoobian of Southern Connecticut State University, was titled “Potentials for Upcoming Scholars, Writers and Creative Artists.” Ara Sanjian, director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan- Dearborn, reflected on “Experiences in the Classroom with Third- and Fourth- Generation College Students.” He argued that first-hand accounts by Armenian Genocide survivors can broaden our factual and interpretive understanding of the calamity by helping researchers to write academic works on regional histories of the genocidal process, including the few cases of armed resistance. Such micro or local histories can pave the way for scholars to trace the similarities in the deportation process across the Ottoman Empire, but also the local particularities, and then look for explanations to these differences. In education, the first-hand accounts constitute a large reservoir of primary information to equip the youth with the analytical tools to share their knowledge. Guidelines need to be developed relating to teaching about the Armenian Genocide to children, teenagers and college students at various stages of their intellectual growth.

Carlos Antaramian of El Colegio de Michoacan introduced his Mexican-Armenian oral history project, which documents the settlement of Armenians in the La Merced neighborhood of Mexico City. After digitizing more than 1,000 photographs from 1900 to 1950, he interviewed a number of elderly Armenians who are the children of survivors and who are able to provide valuable information on the arrival and socioeconomic ascent of the immigrant Armenians and to relate important memories and stories of their parents’ experiences during and after the Armenian Genocide. He showed excerpts from the hour-long documentary he is preparing on the subject.

Arda Melkonian and Doris Melkonian have utilized the UCLA collection to explore the experiences based on gender during the Genocide. Their presentation focused on the unique suffering of women and their strategies for survival. The two graduate students at UCLA are among the first to use its large oral history collection for scholarly research, following earlier studies by Hovannisian on childhood memories and acts of rescue and altruism by non-Armenians which run through many of the oral history narratives.

Reuben Zaramian, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, offered a rather novel perspective with his “Tropes, Memes, and Other Theoretical Stuff: Oral Genocide Studies in a New Way.” He incorporated mnemonic (memory) and semantic (meaning in sentences) theory to identify a clear, replicable pattern of tropes and memes in the oral narratives. His presentation is part of a larger study on the efficacy and structural value of memory-based storytelling and oral transmission. He explained: “My theory is that there exists a minimum set of characteristics to oral information-sharing across cultures and types of literature (history, fiction, epic, etc.), which have been largely overlooked.”

Taner Akçam, Kaloosdian-Mugar Chair Holder at Clark University, was the final speaker of the day. He used a comparative approach in describing a recent undertaking relating to the 1938 Dersim massacres (Charsanjak region). An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people were massacred by the Turkish army that year, yet there are no available official documents on the operation. Thus, the Dersim oral history project will be one of the most significant sources relating to this crime against humanity.

 

After the Conference

The participants joined with members and friends of the Armenian Educational Foundation in a post-conference dinner reception hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Hacop and Hilda Baghdassarian (AEF) in their Glendale home. Hovannisian introduced each of the guests and noted their important contributions and expressed his thanks to the AEF and the Baghdassarian family for the special birthday cake on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the founding of AEF Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA.

In reflecting on the significance of the two-day Armenian Genocide Oral History conference, Smith stated: “It was heartening to see that we are all struggling with the same issues, but share a common resolve to bring together archives of extreme historical importance for the common good. There was no one better to convene this than Richard Hovannisian. Working with the Armenian community and seeing the care that is being taken to preserve archives in perpetuity is heartening. This conference set the ground work for us all to work together much more closely.”

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