One hundred years ago, 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a genocide. My grandparents survived, but as many as two-thirds of all Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) were killed. Today, we remember their legacy.
The Armenian genocide was so mercilessly efficient that it later provided a template for the Nazi Holocaust. Speaking in 1939, Adolf Hitler is quoted as having said: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The Armenians are an ancient people whose homeland centers on Mount Ararat, the Bible’s location for Noah’s Ark. In 301 A.D., Armenia became the first Christian country in the world. Eventually falling under Ottoman rule, Armenians were made the subject of calls for jihad, and their killing was sanctioned by Muslim leaders. Finally, on April 24, 1915, a full genocide was launched. Able-bodied men were arrested and massacred or conscripted to forced labor. Women, children and the elderly were “deported” by means of railroad cars or death marches. Most died of starvation or disease. Many were bayoneted. Some were crucified.
My grandmother, Loucia, was one of the survivors. When she was 10, her family was pulled out of their home and Turkish gendarmes killed her parents while she watched. Loucia and her older sister and younger brother were sent on a death march to Aleppo, Syria. They ate grasses to stay alive. Miraculously, all three survived, but they were separated. The two sisters were forced to work as “maids” (essentially slaves). One day, the older sister saw a boy sleeping under a bench and recognized her little brother. For months, she sneaked rice to him, passing it over a wall, to keep him from starving. Eventually, a relief organization intervened and placed the three siblings in an orphanage.
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My grandfather, Hovhannes, escaped the worst of the Armenian genocide. After his parents were killed in an earlier “pogrom,” he was conscripted into the Turkish army. He deserted in the Balkans, made his way to France, and saved enough money to book passage to America. On April 18, 1913, he stepped off the boat, age 24, unable to speak English and without a penny in his pocket.
Years later, another Armenian showed Hovhannes a picture of Loucia. After corresponding for a few months, they agreed to marry and he arranged for her passage to America. Settling in New York City, Hovhannes and Loucia raised five children. Two of their sons, including my father, fought in World War II. Hovhannes opened a small butcher shop selling meat and groceries, and it became a gathering place for Armenians. Customers would spend hours at the store, where Hovhannes — known as “Aslan,” or “lion” in Turkish — told jokes and urged young Armenians to learn English and get an education, because that was the only way to get ahead in America.
Over the years, the Armenian genocide has been recognized by many world leaders, including the Roman Catholic pope, the European Parliament, the French National Assembly and the Association of Genocide Scholars — but not the U.S. Congress, due to intense lobbying from Turkey, which outrageously continues to deny the genocide.
Today, Armenian-Americans remember the Armenian genocide with a mix of sadness for the victims and pride in the survivors who later flourished in this country. As poignantly stated in my grandfather’s 1965 obituary, his tomb was “the first in this hospitable country” and one what will “stay in our broken hearts as a monument to more than 30 innocent” family members who were killed by “Turkish yataghans” (short sabres) during the “Armenian Genocide.” May they all rest in peace.
John Zarian is an attorney and a shareholder in the Boise office of Parsons Behle & Latimer.