New translation of Tehlirian's memoirs

Tehlirian Memoir, Translated Into English, Sheds Light on Historical Figure

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BELMONT, MA — March 15 was referred to by the Romans as “the Ides of March.” A day for settling debts, it became infamous as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Whether or not this day was chosen on purpose by the planners of Operation Nemesis or it was a coincidence, it was also the day that Talaat Pasha, de facto dictator of Ottoman Turkey during the First World War and chief perpetrator of the Armenian Genocide, was gunned down by Soghomon Tehlirian in 1921 on a Berlin street in an act of vigilante justice carefully planned and executed.

On March 15 of this year, a virtual talk was sponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) with the participation of the Ararat-Eskijian Museum and the Armenian Film Foundation on the publication of Remembrances: the Assassination of Talaat Pasha, featuring translator Bedo Demirdjian and documentary filmmaker Carla Garapedian. Remembrances is the first-ever translation into English of Soghomon Tehlirian’s memoir, Verhishoumner, originally published in Cairo in 1953 by the publishing house of Housaper, the ARF’s affiliate newspaper in Egypt.

While the court proceedings of Tehilirian’s Berlin trial (where he was found innocent) and numerous historical and artistic works have been created in the years since the historic assassination, including Eric Bogosian’s popular history Operation Nemesis and Marian MacCurdy’s Sacred Justice, which brought to light the invaluable documentation in the personal papers of her grandfather, Aaron Sachaklian, to date nobody had translated for publication in English the entirety of the only book that could sufficiently tell the true story in its entirety: Verhishoumner, the memoir of Tehlirian himself.

As explained in the talk, the genesis of this project came about when Garapedian became interested in making a feature film about Tehlirian. Garapedian, a former television newscaster and producer who was the first American to anchor BBC World News, has in the past two decades made a name for herself as a documentary filmmaker. Her film, “Screamers,” released in December 2006, used the music of rock band System of a Down to explore the horrors of Genocide in the 20th century, including the Holocaust, Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda, and of course, the Armenian Genocide.

She is also closely connected with the Armenian Film Foundation, which was started by her father Leo Garapedian to support filmmaker J. Michael Hagopian in his efforts to document on video the stories of Armenian Genocide survivors. After the death of Hagopian, Carla Garapedian took over as project leader of the Armenian Genocide Testimonies collection which digitized these videos to be stored in the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, a project spearheaded by Steven Spielberg, based at the University of Southern California.

Demirdjian was born and raised in Beirut and attended school at the now-closed Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus followed by university in Greece. Having worked as a journalist and communications director for the Armenian National Committee – Europe as well as for the Permanent Representative of Artsakh to the Middle East, he settled in Armenia in 2020 where he headed the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) Smart Center in Lori and currently lives in Yerevan where he works as the communications director for the Tufenkian Foundation.

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Garapedian told the story of how the translation of Remembrances came to be. When she became interested in making a film about the assassination, she discovered Tehlirian’s Armenian-language memoir, but her linguistic skills were not up to the task of reading it. She met Demirdjian, who had the benefit of a full-fledged Western Armenian education, in Amsterdam, and the two began corresponding with Demirdjian sending Garapedian on-the-fly translations of sections of the book by email.

Carla Garapedian

Garapedian spoke about the importance of the Tehlirian story for history and for international law. For example, one of the reasons that Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin gave for his development of the legal concept of Genocide was the question he asked himself upon learning of the Tehlirian trial – why was the world unable to punish Talaat Pasha, a mass murderer, to the point where an Armenian vigilante had to take justice into his own hands? Even though Talaat was condemned to death in absentia at an Ottoman military tribunal in 1919, he was still living in Berlin in 1921. Yet, as Garapedian noted, the outside world seems to have heard the voices of almost everyone involved in the past 100 years except for Tehlirian himself. Therefore, the publication of Demirdjian’s translation was of utter importance. For this reason, Garapedian introduced the translator to Ara Sarafian of the Gomidas Institute.

Travels To Yerzinga

Garapedian shared with the audience a short film she had made about Tehlirian and his memoir, which included footage of a trip she recently took to the Yerzinga region of Historic Western Armenia with Sarafian, known today as Erzincan, Turkey. The landscape of Yerzinga, where Tehlirian grew up, and the Kemakh (Kemah) region, where he was born in the village of Pakarich, was also moving from the perspective of the history of the Armenian Genocide in general; the deep gorge which the Upper Euphrates cuts through the mountains, starting in Kemakh and leading through the Agn region almost to Kharpert, was the site of mass slaughter in 1915, where the bodies of Armenians who had no way to escape the bare rock walls were thrown into the river, which is reported to have run red with blood.

Garapedian noted that the current inhabitants of Tehlirian’s home village welcomed them and showed them former Armenian sites. They apparently want to encourage tourism. Their economy, as it was when Armenians lived there, is mostly based on harvesting honey from bees. Garapedian’s film concluded with a visit to the remains of the fourth-century Armenian Church in the village of Dogan (called Tortan in Armenian). While Garapedian did not mention it, the historic church, according to tradition, contains the tombs of Gregory the Illuminator, King Drtad, Queen Ashkhen, Princess Khosrovitoukht, and other figures connection with the conversion of Armenia to Christianity.

The Translation Process

The main portion of the talk featured Demirdjian. Describing himself as having been interested in Tehlirian’s story since his youth, he stated that the assassination of Talaat was a commonly discussed topic in the Armenian community of Beirut in the 1970s and ’80s, when he was growing up there.

Demirdjian presented the challenges associated with the translation, such as the fact that Tehlirian travelled to so many places and was associated with so many historical figures that the average reader would be confused by the plethora of references. To remedy this, Demirdjian began preparing footnotes explaining little known historical people and places in detail, but this would have proved to make the book too long. Therefore, Sarafian as editor helped him cut the annotations to only the most important. In addition, a preface written by someone else at the time was deemed obsolete and referenced the current political climate of 1953; Demirdjian felt its inclusion would take away from telling Tehlirian’s own story.

Bedo Demirdjian

Demirdjian shared the general outline of how the book was created; Tehlirian, who was living in Belgrade, Serbia at the beginning of WWII, told his life story to Vahan Minakhorian, who wrote it down. Minakhorian was a Genocide survivor and political figure from the WWI era; having been a member of Parliament in the First Republic of Armenia, he was a political exile during the Soviet Regime and also living in Belgrade, although he did not belong to the ARF; interestingly enough, he had been a representative of the little known Social-Revolutionary Party. Minakhorian’s deep understanding of the people, places and events, and his skills as a writer made him an excellent arranger for the book, but the memories are mostly Tehlirian’s.

Demirdjian discussed the contents of the book: the story starts with Tehlirian in Serbia, where he had gone as a young man to help his father in business, leaving his mother and siblings behind in Yerzinga. When the war breaks out, Tehlirian goes to the Caucasus to join General Antranik’s battalion. Antranig and his men help occupy Western Armenia and reach as far as Yerzinga, Tehlirian’s hometown. There he finds his niece, who tells him that his mother, brothers, and sisters-in-law are all dead. The Armenians are forced to retreat and after the war Tehlirian goes to Europe, where he is enlisted by Shahan Natalie and the ARF to participate in Operation Nemesis, the plan to assassinate the former Ottoman leaders responsible for the Armenian Genocide.

Shahan Natalie, who was the mastermind of the operation, had been ousted from the ARF ranks some years before, and by the time the book was written, had become the head of the AGBU’s New England District Office. Since the original book’s publication was supervised and edited by the editorial staff of Housaper, which included former Armenian Prime Minister Simon Vratsian and other members of the ARF’s Central Bureau, they demanded that Natalie’s name be left out of the book. However, Tehlirian insisted that the true events be recognized, and therefore Shahan Natalie’s part in the events is mentioned, but referring to him only as “the comrade responsible” and other titles.

The book concludes with Tehlirian going to Berlin, the assassination, the trial and subsequent acquittal.

Importance of Truth in History

Demirdjian stressed that the importance of this publication is that it is the true version of the events of Operation Nemesis, or at least the closest testimony we have. When Tehlirian gave testimony at his trial in Berlin, he stated that he was in Yerzinga during the massacres and saw his family, including sisters, killed. Tehlirian was lying — the truth was, he was living in Serbia and he had no sisters. This raises some good philosophical questions about the nature of law and justice — as does the entire issue of the assassination and why it had to be done in the first place, which is what Lemkin had pointed out. Nevertheless, Tehlirian’s family was in fact killed and he did travel to Yerzinga and witness the aftermath of the decimation of its Armenian population.

However, since Tehlirian’s memoirs have never been translated into English, few people are aware of the true facts of his life and a popularized account of his story has circulated ever since the court transcripts from his trial were published by the Mekhitarists in the 1920s. Previous historians and scholars outside the Armenian-speaking world have relied on the court testimony to tell Tehlirian’s story; Demirdjian stated that Tehlirian himself came clean about what really happened, and we too should be careful to tell the truth, because Tehlirian’s story can be incorrectly used by Armenians who don’t know any better, as well as abused by our adversaries who can twist the story in order to condemn us. Demirdjian would like to see Remembrances serve as the foundation for future academic study of the Genocide and of the Armenian revolutionary movement and Operation Nemesis.

Kemah Gorge

In addition, Demirdjian stated, the book would be an excellent tool for educators to teach about the Genocide and modern Armenian history, considering that it contains a sort of “micro-history” of the Genocide. There are numerous incidents in the book that tell the story of the Armenians in that time, as Tehlirian traveled throughout Western Armenia, the Ottoman Empire, Europe, the Caucasus, and so on. His experiences included working with Sepastatsi Mourad’s administration over Yerzinga as a “collector of orphans,” rescuing Armenian orphans who had been taken by Kurdish families in the region, among other moving episodes and historical testimonies. In other words, the book is a historical primary source and should be treated and used as such. Demirdjian and Garapedian are both optimistic about the value of an English translation of this historic memoir, not only for the Armenian community and not only for justice for the Armenian Genocide, but for the world and for the understanding of genocide, law, and human rights in general.

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