The Armenian Weekly April 2013 Magazine
One night in November 2009, I heard Gerda Weissmann Klein speak in Austin, Texas, at the Hillel chapter at the University of Texas. Gerda is not only one of the most charismatic women I’ve ever met, she is also an immensely gifted writer and speaker. She is also a Holocaust survivor. Her 1957 memoir, All but My Life, chronicles her harrowing ordeal in labor camps and death marches during World War II. Cecile Fournier, the concentration camp survivor in my 2008 novel, Skeletons at the Feast, owes much to her and to her story. Gerda is, pure and simple, one of the wisest and most inspirational people I know.
During the question and answer period of her speech that night three and a half years ago, someone asked Gerda, “What do you say to Holocaust deniers?”
She shrugged and said, “I really don’t have to say much. I simply tell them to ask Germany. Germany doesn’t deny it.”
I recalled that exchange often this past year. The Sandcastle Girls, my novel of the Armenian Genocide, was published in North America last summer, and the reality is that outside of the diaspora community, most of the United States and Canada knows next to nothing of this part of our story. If you trawl through the thousands of posts on my Facebook page or on Twitter, for example, you will see hundreds of readers of the novel remarking that:
1) They knew nothing of the Armenian Genocide; and
2) They could not understand how they could have grown to adulthood in places such as Indianapolis or Seattle or Jacksonville and not heard a single word about the death of 1.5 million people.
Sometimes these readers told me they were aghast. Sometimes they told me they were ashamed. And very often they asked me why: Why did no one teach them this part of world history? Why did their teachers skip over the 20th century’s first genocide?
And the answer, pure and simple, is denial.
Imagine if I had answered my readers who wanted to learn more about the Armenian Genocide by saying, “Ask Turkey. They’ll tell you all about it. They don’t deny it.” But, of course, Turkey does deny it—as, alas, do many of Turkey’s allies. Now, these readers were not disputing the veracity of the Armenian Genocide. They were not questioning the history in my novel. My point is simply this: There is a direct connection between the reality that so few Americans know of the Armenian Genocide and the Turkish government’s nearly century-long effort to sweep into the shadows the crimes of its World War I leaders.
As anyone who reads this paper knows, the Turkish government’s tactics have varied, ranging from denial to discreditation. They have, over the years, blamed others, and they have blamed the Armenians themselves. They have lied. They have bullied any historian or diplomat or citizen or journalist or filmmaker who’s dared to try and set the record straight.
Now, in all fairness, there might be a small reasonableness trickling slowly into Turkish policy on this issue. Earlier this year, on the anniversary of Hrant Dink’s assassination, the editor of this paper gave a speech in Turkey—in Turkish—about justice for the genocide. You can now read Agos, the Armenian newspaper in Ankara, while flying on Turkish Airlines.
Nevertheless, it is a far cry from these baby steps and Ankara following Berlin’s lead anytime soon and building—to use the name of the poignant and powerful Holocaust monument near the Brandenburg Gate—a Memorial to the Murdered Armenians of the Ottoman Empire.
And the reality remains here in the United States that we as Armenians actually have to struggle to get our story into the curriculums of far too many school districts. We often have to create the curriculums ourselves.
How appalling is this issue? My own daughter went to a rigorous high school just outside of Boston, no more than 10 or 15 minutes from the Armenian community in Watertown and the Armenian Library and Museum of America. I saw the school had an elective course on the history of the Ottoman Empire. When I ran into a student who had taken the semester long class, I asked, “How much time was devoted to the Armenian Genocide?” He looked at me, perplexed. He had no idea what I was talking about. “I guess we never got to it because the course only went as far as the end of the First World War.”
Consequently, this past year I wound up as far more of an activist than I ever expected I’d be about…anything. The reality is that activist artists—or at least activist novelists—sometimes seem more likely to embarrass themselves than affect social change. (Exhibit A? Norman Mailer’s campaign for mayor of New York.) But with every one of those posts on my Facebook wall, as one reader after another asked me how it was possible that they had never heard of the Armenian Genocide, I found myself growing unexpectedly, uncharacteristically angry. Make no mistake, I wasn’t angry with Turkish citizens or Turkish-Americans. But I was furious with a government policy that has allowed a nation to, in essence, get away with murder—to build a modern, western state and a civilized reputation on the bones of my ancestors. And I found myself energized at every appearance in ways I never had been before, whether I was speaking at a little library in central Vermont with exactly zero Armenian-Americans in attendance or on Capitol Hill, under the auspices of the Armenian National Committee of America.
So, will more Americans know our story two years from now, when the centennial of the start of the slaughter arrives? Darned right they will. We will see to it.
Chris Bohjalian’s novel of the Armenian Genocide, The Sandcastle Girls, was published in paperback in April by Vintage Books.