Sheriff Koutoujian testifying with a photo of his grandparents next to him.

Public Hearing Held for Genocide Education

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BOSTON — Scholars, politicians, historians and concerned citizens testified on October 7 at the State House at a public hearing before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education for a bill that if passed by the state legislature, would mandate the teaching of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide and several other genocides in the state’s public schools.

Among those testifying and answering questions were Dikran Kaligian, a member of the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts, and Peter Koutoujian, sheriff of Middlesex County.

Kaligian said the hearing went quite well. Many of those testifying were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust as well as several Ukrainians, whose holocaust, the Holodomor, killed millions through an intentional infliction of famine.

Kaligian said that some Turkish opponents of the bill were present but that they had taken a new tack; instead of angry outbursts, several complained that the teaching of the Armenian Genocide would have a traumatic effect on their children.

H.566 and S. 327, titled “An Act concerning genocide education,” was filed by State Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, and state Rep. Jeffrey Roy, D-Franklin. The bill has 94 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

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The bill mandates the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education include the instruction of the Holocaust and the genocide “to address the notion that national, ethnic, racial or religious hatred can overtake any nation or society, leading to calamitous consequences.”

The language of the bill continues, “To reinforce that lesson, such curriculum unit shall include the Nazi atrocities of 1933 to 1945 known as the Holocaust, and other genocides including, but not limited to, the Armenian Genocide, the Famine-Genocide in Ukraine known as Holodomor, the Pontian Greek Genocide, and more recent atrocities in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan.”

On October 7 there were three sets of panels which provided testimonies. One consisted of survivors and academics. Prof. Taner Akçam, Professor of History and the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University, was among those that testified. In his comments, Kaligian said, Akçam suggested that it was necessary to expand the knowledge base of the general population, many of whom have heard about the Holocaust but not many of the other mass killings. Akçam also suggested that the help that arrived from the US for the Armenian Genocide was a formative part of modern American history.

Also testifying on that panel were Prof. Ronald Weisberger of Bristol Community College, Eric Cohen of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur andMike Ross, a former Boston City Council member whose father survived several concentration camps during World War II before being rescued by American soldiers from Dachau.

A second panel included educators, including from the Essex North Shore Agriculture School and Kraig Gustafson, the social studies coordinator for grades 6-12 in Watertown. Another speaker was Seda Aghamianz, who is a member of the Genocide Education Project. The organization instructs teachers about the Armenian Genocide so that they can teach students.

Finally, a group of advocates formed the third panel, including Robert Trestan of the Anti-Defamation League, Aaron Agulnek of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Kaligian.

Kaligian said that a mandate is necessary because the teachers, forced to teach the subject, need to learn about it themselves. “The sheer number of teachers that say they know nothing about the genocide” is not reassuring, he said.

Kaligian characterized the hearing as showing “overwhelming support for the bill.” He noted the effect of the “very powerful” testimony by Holocaust survivors and their children.

He cautioned, however, that it is too early to tell what will happen. “That doesn’t guarantee the bill going through.” He noted  not many bills get reported out of committee during a calendar year and suggested that voters call their represenatives in support of the bill as they often take calls into consideration.

Wedding in Marash

Koutoujian, in an interview after the session, said, “Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it. We have to teach our children so perhaps we can avoid” similar tragedies again.

Koutoujian said he went to Germany with the Vera Institute of Justice and helped create a young adult offender program in Massachusetts based on the German model. While in the country, they visited the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. “As a human, it was very powerful. As an Armenian it was very personal,” he said.

As he had done at the hearing, he recalled the story of his grandparents from Marash who had been married in the early 1900s, part of a traditional Armenian culture. “A few short years after this, their lives were torn apart,” he said. His grandmother was stranded in Syria and his grandfather in France. Eventually, through sheer luck, they found each other again and started their new lives in the US. “They didn’t speak of the horrors that the experienced. They were the greatest of patriots. They came as refugees and found opportunities for their children.”

Now, it is his turn, Koutoujian said, to put his children front and center, this time to make sure they know what happened not only to their family but to the families of so many others.

Their wedding photo, which took its place next to him during the testimony, came courtesy of Project Save.

Koutoujian was happy with the public hearing. “They were very warm. They were getting it. A lot of different cultures that had suffered a genocide and didn’t ant any other people to suffer that grim fate.”

Already, Rhode Island, California and Michigan mandate the teaching of genocides.

The ANC of Eastern Mass., the Anti-Defamation League of New England and the Jewish Community Relations Council are leading a coalition of 25 organizations and religious institutions that are advocating for passage of the Genocide Education Act.

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