Andranik Donpet Vartanian, Susan Vartanian Barba and Nvart Ordookhanian Vartanian. This photo was taken in 1945 before the family moved from Tehran, Iran to the United States.

Future Generations Carry Memories of the Past

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NEW YORK — As the world commemorated the Armenian Genocide throughout the month of April, families reflected on the struggles and survival of their parents and grandparents, keeping the memory of their ancestors alive, while also seeking further meaning in their testimonies and exploring how their memory and trauma passed on to succeeding generations.

In this vein, Christina Barba, Esq., a cohort in the Oral History Master of Arts program at Columbia University, unveiled her multimedia interactive history exhibit, “Living in the Shadow of the Armenian Genocide,” during Inter/views: An Interactive Oral History Exhibit on Friday, April 26 and Saturday, April 27, at Columbia University’s Faculty House.

The aptly-titled project is a seven-minute video Barba created that brought to life the concept of post-memory through video footage, photos and narration, weaving together three generations of voices: her grandfather Andranik Donpet Vartanian, who was born in Mush in 1900 and at the age of 15 became an Armenian Genocide survivor; his only child, Susan Vartanian Barba, born in Tehran in 1939 and later immigrated to the United States; and Susan’s daughter, Christina Barba, born in New Jersey in 1979.

“A goal I had in creating the video was to make explicit the legacy that my mother carries as the child of a genocide survivor and implicit in the work is the legacy that I carry,” said Barba, an attorney who works in the public sector. “My legacy as a granddaughter of a genocide survivor has been a deeply-rooted motivator throughout my adult life.”

It was this impetus that enabled Barba to have a deep interest in conveying the oral histories of second-generation Armenian Genocide survivors, like her mother, and it was a subject she was sure of pursuing when enrolling at Columbia. As a participant of the Oral History program, Barba liked the idea of a “dialogic encounter about the past where the interviewee is given authority.”

“I always knew that I wanted to do something with my mother’s story, who worked with my grandfather in taking his testimony” said Barba. “It was kismet when I came across my grandfather’s video footage and I was positive I wanted to include it in my exhibit.”

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While Barba’s grandfather remained tight-lipped about his suffering in the Armenian Genocide, he slowly began to share his account with his family as he grew older. In 1983, he agreed to have some of his testimony filmed as part of a project spearheaded by J. Michael Hagopian, founder of the Armenian Film Foundation, that sought to preserve the visual and personal histories of the witnesses to the Armenian Genocide. The testimonies of hundreds of survivors can now be found at the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles.

The focal point of the video is footage of Barba’s grandfather, Andranik, describing his experiences in the Armenian Genocide in the presence of his daughter, Susan, as she hears her father recount his first-hand memories that are filled with sorrow and survival. One moment in particular causes Susan’s eyes to well with tears, as her father remembers being forced by Turkish soldiers to play Russian Roulette, a tragic instance that resulted in the death of his childhood friend.

“That memory, like a nightmare, weighs on my mind night and day,” Andranik says in the video, reflecting on that dreadful day 68 years ago. “It has become a nightmare on my soul and I will only escape when I am six feet deep under the ground because I cannot forget as long as I am alive.”

Although Christina was only 4 at the time of filming, when she watched the footage, she, too, became a witness to her grandfather’s story and the transmission of memory and inherited trauma.

“Oral historians are always interested in how memories are passed from one generation to another,” said Amy Starecheski, PhD, Director of Columbia’s Oral History MA Program. “By documenting that process with one family’s story of the Armenian Genocide, Christina shows us, in beautiful detail and in real time, how an experience becomes a story, and a story is continually brought to life as it is retold.”

Barba’s project traced the theoretical concept of post-memory that was coined by Marianne Hirsch, the William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, back in 1992. Originally used to describe the relationship between the children of Holocaust survivors and the memories of their parents, it now refers to relationships of later generations who know about the trauma only through stories, images and behaviors.

Through her exhibit, Barba highlights how the following generations were affected by the Armenian Genocide and their reaction towards it, particularly in terms of the emotions felt in response to Turkey’s denial of the massacres. While selecting what clips to include in her multimedia project, she aimed to convey the duality of life — both the horror and beauty her grandfather had experienced and that her mother carries with her.

“I wanted to particularize my grandfather’s life so as to portray him as more than a victim since his life was far more complicated and beautiful than that,” said Barba.

Christina Barba at Columbia University

In contrast to her mother’s upbringing in a home where her genocide survivor father remained quiet on the topic, Barba remembers her grandfather speaking about his escape from the Armenian Genocide “freely.”

“He had a way of speaking metaphorically, almost like a poet,” she said. “Even when I was young, he was able to tell me about what he lived through without it being terrifying.”

Barba’s childhood experiences and the time she spent with her grandfather helped shape her Armenian identity, so much so that her friends who weren’t Armenian learned about the history and culture when visiting her home.

In addition to learning about the significance of her Armenian heritage, her family also encouraged education and the value of living a life that positively contributed to society, a lesson she has carried with her throughout her professional career.

“When I was growing up, both my parents and grandparents constantly emphasized the importance of education and encouraged me and my sister to do something meaningful with our lives,” said Barba. As a law student, she coordinated The Genocide Teaching Project, which educated high school students about genocide. After she graduated, she spent a chunk of her career as an Assistant District Attorney at the Bronx County District Attorney Office, where she prosecuted public corruption, a move she says was “strongly inspired by a desire to utilize the court system to ferret out the truth and to seek justice for victims of crime.”

Although over a century has passed since the Armenian Genocide, Barba feels that exhibits such as hers make it “very apparent that the Armenian Genocide is still affecting us,” noting that the impact of the genocide transcends into the present day.

“Its legacy continues today,” said Barba. “Not only through the children and grandchildren of survivors, but how we carry on as a civilization, and how various works of art or academic works are seeking to transmit knowledge and memory to a wider audience, not just to commemorate and memorialize.”

To view Barba’s video, visit  http://oralhistory.columbia.edu/living-in-the-shadow-of-the-armenian-genocide?rq=living%20in%20the

 

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