Another April. Another swirl of genocide-related events, commemorations, and exhibits. Yet another year of denial. And alongside the political speeches and keynote speakers, every year the almost hundred-year-old black and white archival images resurface. I watch these grainy photo stills and jumpy film reels, amazed by the historical and ethnographical value they contain. I realize that I have come to memorize the scenes of emaciated children lost in barren landscapes, the destitute stare of head scarf-clad women, angled frames of overflowing train wagons, human caravans, and piles of withered corpses, which I wish to confuse with piles of autumn leaves. Having memorized, if not internalized, such scenes, I am becoming increasingly detached from these images.
Archival imagery is and will remain a direct and timeless witness to genocide. But what I find exasperating when watching the macabre black and white slideshows year after year is how these atrocities can remain denied, despite historical veracity. If words can easily be countered, the strength of visual proof is impossible to disregard and neglect.
In addition to photographic evidence provided by archived images are the survivors’ testimonies. In flesh and bone, they provide vivid recollections and personal narratives of survival, vital not only to Armenian history but to world history, as well. Each memento from them must be cherished. Every word uttered, every story, each life trajectory recorded and preserved, as the last of the survivors wither away.
My grandfather was a genocide survivor. I would often look in his peaceful blue-green eyes, knowing that there would come a day when I no longer could. Searching in his eyes, I would try to understand where and how he hid the unfathomable loss and pain he suffered as a five-year-old orphan. I would look in his eyes through my camera lens when interviewing him on how he was deported, how he fled the orphanage, and how he finally managed to find refuge. All I could think of was how cruel humanity can be. The same thought invaded me at his deathbed when I realized how his blue-green eyes—which once witnessed utter dispossession and mass murder—would never witness justice. I remain in awe at how he preserved his dignity, his composure, and lucidity until he drew his last breath, having gone through deportation and the loss of his entire family, surviving against all odds.
Now he, too, is all but photographic and oral proof, like the black and white images documenting atrocity.
For 98 years, Khatcher Menakian was living proof of what has been and continues to be denied.
Every Armenian shares similar recollections of their grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers, and fathers. Such narratives not only feed our collective memory as Armenians, but also keep the survivors’ memory alive. Most importantly, as generations to come are further and further removed from the genocide survivors, there is a sense of urgency in keeping their memory—and the commitment towards recognition—more alive than ever.
On the eve of the 95th anniversary, I see an encouraging scene amid the black and white images of genocide. I see the Armenian community in Montreal, just as in other cities with Armenian populations, coming together regardless of political or religious affiliation, to commemorate the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
As scattered beads with various textures and colors, we come to embellish and make the necklace—once violently snatched off—stronger and brighter, more solid than ever.
After all, throughout the diaspora and Armenia, collective strength is generated from our collective memory.
How inspirational when scattered beads become united from time to time…