Very Rev. Fr. Yeghishe Avetisyan at the service

FRANKFURT — Every year Armenians in Germany gather on April 24 to commemorate the victims of the genocide. Many cities host events, Berlin and Frankfurt in particular. This year, with the war in Ukraine and renewed aggression in Artsakh, they were shrouded in a mood both somber and political. The central official gathering with participation of Armenian Ambassador Viktor Yengibaryan, guest speaker historian Dr. Hans-Lukas Kieser, leading regional and local elected officials, and Bishop Serovpé Isakhanyan, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church, took place in Frankfurt.

In Berlin, two events marked the anniversary. On April 23, the Working Group for Recognition – Against Genocide, for Understanding among Peoples (AGA), held a vigil in front of the Turkish Embassy in Berlin. In a gathering that the AGA says has “unfortunately become traditional,” the 40 or so participants reiterated their demand for Turkish recognition of the genocide and assumption of responsibility for its history. AGA founding member Gerayer Koutcharian opened his remarks at the vigil with the Hayr Mer, something, he said, that perhaps might raise questions. He then read out the names of 24 Armenian intellectuals, artists, journalists, writers, parliamentarians and clergymen, who were deported, killed and lie in unknown graves; they were the first in an “Elitocide,” almost unique in human history.

A Religiously Motivated Genocide

This, “the greatest persecution of Christians in human history,” he said, “did not take place in Rome under Emperor Nero, but in Turkey in 1915.” Among the more than 5 million Christians who were murdered or deported were “Armenians, Greeks in Pontos, in Asia Minor and Thrace, Aramaeans/Assyrians/Chaldeans, Christian Arabs, Armenian Roma and also Yazidis.” Gerayan focused on this aspect of the genocide. It was religiously motivated, he said, and the Elitocide targeted “the clergy of the Armenian-Apostolic, Armenian-Catholic or Uniate Christians as well as the Protestant Armenians. Of the 5,500 Armenian priests and pastors of various denominations, there were only about 52 still alive at the end of the First World War.”

Koutcharian said 2,250 Armenian religious edifices, churches, monasteries, chapels that were turned into mosques and said the devastation continues today, as so-called treasure hunters ravage such buildings in search of buried wealth. He noted: “How cynical is this pretext for destruction? Do Turks perhaps hide money or gold in mosques?”

It was not only the Armenian but also other Christian communities whose monuments were destroyed; here too he gave figures: “2.5 million Greeks lived around 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, with 2,300 schools and 200,000 pupils… 2,000 Greek Orthodox edifices, and over 3,000 clergy.“ By contrast now there are fewer than a thousand in what was once the Greek Byzantine capital Constantinople. Koutcharian noted in this context the transformation last year of the Hagia Sophia in a mosque “under the eyes of the whole world.” The tragedy continued, eliminating a half million Assyrians and Chaldeans, devastating their holy places.

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Turning to the current situation, Koutcharian addressed the continuing aggression by Azerbaijan and Turkey: quoting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 2021 declaration in Baku, that they were “completing what had begun in 1915,” Khoutcharian said the genocide was continuing in the shadows of the Ukraine war.

In his view today’s advocates of “Pan-Turkism” aim to take Artsakh, then Syunik, then Yerevan and surroundings, all “under the harmless term ‘normalization of relations’ with Turkey and as implementation of a ‘peace treaty’ with Azerbaijan” — a treaty he hopes will suffer the same fate as the 2009 Zurich protocols — a dead letter.

Koutcharian ended his speech with a call for all those victimized in the genocide, Christians of all communities as well as Armenian Roma and Yazidis, to work together.

Ecumenical Altars of Remembrance

The following day, well over 70 people attended a commemoration at the Lusienkirchhof Cemetery in Berlin-Charlottenburg. It was organized by the Promotional Society for the Ecumenical Monuments for Genocide Victims (FÖGG), the group which sponsored three Altars of Remembrance there. These are majestic monuments dedicated to the memory of the Armenians, the Greeks of Pontos, Asia Minor and Thrace and the Aramaeans, Assyrians and Chaldeans. Along with the many Armenians present—young and old–were also numerous Kurdish and Turkish participants.

Dr. Tessa Hofmann, FÖGG board spokeswoman, opened the event, held in the chapel, by recalling the “Elitocide” committed by Ottoman Turkish rulers on April 24 in Constantinople, when members of the “intellectual and spiritual leadership” were arrested and sent to their doom, merely because they were Armenians. This was the first act in the planned elimination of 1.5 million Armenians, implemented through deportations that turned into death marches that ended up in the Mesopotamian deserts. The answer to the question, “Who was most endangered?” she said, cannot be given in the case of genocide, “since it aims in fact precisely at the extermination of an entire national, ethnic or religious group.”

The Genocide memorial

And yet, the fate of Armenian children is “particularly tragic. In the tens of thousands, they were burned alive, drowned in rivers, lakes and even the Black Sea, poisoned or massacred.” To commemorate these victimized children, actress Bea Ehlers Kerbekian would deliver a dramatic reading of a Greek eye-witness account from the Pontos region. The author, Efstathios Christoforidis (Sarpoglis), was born in 1905 in Kounaka, in the Ottoman province Trabzon. He lived in Xirolimni, Greece, after the genocide and forced population transfer, and died in 1984. Hofmann related how Christoforidis, as a youngster of ten, witnessed the mass murder of deported Armenian children in his homeland. The experience traumatized him his whole life. His children related how “our father never slept through till morning” because “the heads of the Armenian children are waiting for me.”

It took 68 years before he was able to write down what he had experienced, in a memoir he finished a year before his death. The book, Black Times and Black Day – The Birthplace of Kounaka (1983), written in his Pontic dialect (Pontiaka), includes the description of the brutal murder of six hundred Armenian children.

Enduring Trauma and Solidarity

Hofmann stressed that the trauma experienced by Armenians, Greeks and Aramaeans was transmitted to subsequent generations, who continued to live in precarious conditions. “This applies to Armenians still threatened in what remains of their homeland,” she said, pointing to the continuing Azerbaijani aggression in Artsakh. She added that, not satisfied with its military gains, Azerbaijan has exploited the situation of war in Ukraine to intimidate and drive out the remaining Armenian population through continued aggression. “Many Armenians are indignant and frustrated, that Europe’s and North America’s solidarity with Ukraine, attacked by Russia, seems boundless, while other victims of war, including in Artsakh, have sorely missed it.” She explained that Armenians experience this aggression by Azerbaijan — supported by Turkey — if not as a continuation of the genocide, at least as a threat of annihilation. The trauma of the past reemerges as a “trauma of withheld solidarity.”

Hofmann called on German political decision makers to demonstrate such solidarity, as they have in the case of Ukraine, with Armenia and Artsakh.

Tessa Hofmann

Unatoned Genocides

Following Hofmann’s introduction, AGA member Gülsen Aytan read a statement by the Frankfurt Association Against Genocide (Soykırım Karşıtları Derneği-SKD), whose founder, human rights activist Ali Ertem, had joined with the AGA in 2000 to petition the German Bundestag (Parliament) to recognize the 1915 genocide. Last December, Hofmann had recalled, Ertem passed away, just a month after the death of another intellectual and human rights advocate, Doğan Akhanlı. Both colleagues are sorely missed; Hofmann expressed her gratitude to Ertem’s widow, Selay Ertem, and the association for carrying their work forward.

The SKD statement began with a pledge to continue fighting for recognition in Turkey of the genocide that began 107 years ago. Why is it so important even at this late date? Recognition is “necessary,” Aytan said, because “no society and no state that flee from their own historical and social realities, blind themselves to them or even turn them upside down and distort them, has a future … an enlightened and democratic future.”

Furthermore, “unatoned genocides” have to be seen, not only as a Turkish problem, but one affecting the international community; in this sense the SKD calls on Germany to own up to its own responsibility as well as to exert pressure on Turkey.

The genocide against the Armenians developed into a genocide against all Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire, thus altering the social-demographic structure totally and eliminating powerful forces for development. Turkish society “plunged into profound darkness.” Furthermore, this, the “greatest unpunished genocide of the modern era” stands out from other genocides due to continuing denial, denial which has “been transformed into an instrument of power.”

Aytan concluded with a pledge to continue to “tell our children the truth,” to keep alive the memory of the genocide and “our responsibility for justice … so that future generations may live together on the basis of mutual respect, and enjoy the rights and freedoms we have longed for, without war or destruction, in accordance with human dignity!”

Protestors holding signs decrying the Genocide

Tragic Fate of Children

Bea Ehlers Kerbekian’s dramatic reading of the text by Efstathios Christoforidis shook the audience profoundly. It simply defies summarization; the English version of the account, “What Our Eyes Have Seen… The Mass Killing of Armenian Children near Farnavazu,” can be accessed at this URL (scroll down to last item):

Actor and songwriter Stepan Gantralyan sang Cilicia, a song considered the unofficial hymn of diaspora Armenians. The entire event was accompanied by music: violinist Lilit Rostomyan performed three folk tunes arranged by Komitas, who was among the first intellectuals arrested on Bloody Sunday 1915.  Also by Komitas were Dle yaman and Garuna.

Outside the chapel, participants gathered with Archbishop Yeghishe Avetisyan (Honorary Chairman of the Armenian Church and Cultural Community), who offered requiem prayers and a wreath was laid. Lilit Rostomyan concluded with Krunk, (Crane), which expresses diasporan Armenians’ longing for their homeland.

A report of the Frankfurt commemoration will appear next week.




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