“April is the cruellest month,” wrote T.S.Eliot at the beginning of The Wasteland (published in 1922).
For all who claim Armenian ancestry, Eliot is far more correct than he may have realized. On April 24, 1915 Turkish authorities arrested 250 leaders of the Armenian community in Istanbul. These Armenians were taken to detention centers. Most of these were killed. By May efforts to eliminate Armenians from the Ottoman Empire began. In 1915 two million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire. By 1918 over one million Armenians were dead. Their bones are buried in mass graves in the deserts. The government of Turkey has consistently denied that any genocide happened.
The remaining Armenians became homeless refugees. My grandparents eventually arrived in the United States. One family came to the United States by way of Brazil. Another family came through Beirut and probably Marseilles. Years after my paternal grandfather’s death, I found his “green card”—the document that showed him as a permanent resident of the United States. Issued ten years after his arrival, the card lists him as arriving on the “SS unknown.” The family was fortunate or lucky or blessed, or the family happened to be in the right place at the right time. Today the United States would not welcome Garabed Donigian.
The effort to eliminate all traces of Armenian people and culture in the Ottoman Empire and in modern Turkey did not stop in 1918. All evidence of Armenian life was destroyed or debased or mutilated. Armenian churches became prisons or mosques. Armenian graveyards were destroyed; the area known today as Taksim Square was once an Armenian cemetery. The intellectual effort of genocide will continue as long as Turkey denies what happened.
In the years after World War I, people in the United States knew what happened. As I wrote in A World Worth Saving, humanitarian ads addressed the plight of the Armenian people. A Buster Brown shoe ad in The Saturday Evening Post featured a sad Armenian boy with a text that urged people to give to relief efforts. Gifts came and Armenians responded with gratitude.
Then came the Great Depression and Armenians were no longer newsworthy. In an order issued on August 22, 1939—prior to the September 1 invasion of Poland–Adolf Hitler wrote: “I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Once there was knowledge, and then it was not. I invite you to learn more about this history.
We Armenians remember.