SKOKIE, Ill.—On Feb. 8, the second largest Holocaust museum in the United States hosted a symposium titled, “American Response and American Philanthropy,” in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. A crowd of nearly 400 came out on a Sunday afternoon to listen to four scholars and humanitarian workers speak about the international response to genocide, from the Armenian Genocide to the Holocaust to Darfur. The panel included Stephen Smith, the director of the USC Shoah Foundation and Institute for Visual History; Peter Balakian, Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University; Shant Mardirossian, chair, Board of Near East Foundation; and Omer Ismail, a Darfur genocide eye-witness and senior advisor of the Enough Project.
In his opening remarks, Balakian praised the history of Jewish rescue, witness, and intellectual work on the Armenian Genocide. From Ambassador Henry Morgenthau to Raphael Lemkin, to Franz Werfel and into the modern era of Jewish scholars working on and standing up for the Armenian Genocide discourse, Balakian noted that “the role Jews have played in bearing witness to and later defining the Turkish genocide of the Armenians has been profound.”
Smith spoke about the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and its impact on survivor culture of the 20th century, and noted the seminal importance of Armin T. Wegner who was an eye-witness to both the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. Balakian spoke about how the Turkish extermination of the Armenians of Ottoman Turkey became the template for genocide practiced in a modern mode as distinct from pre-modern practices of genocide.
Mardirossian presented the history of Near East Relief as the most important American philanthropic NGO of its time, which had its origins in Armenian massacre relief in 1915. As Mardirossian noted, “It was the birth of what became known as ‘Citizen Philanthropy’ on an international level yet to have been seen in American history. An unprecedented $117 million in funds and supplies were raised during the period of 1915-30, representing over $2 billion in today’s standards.” A hundred years later, NER still has vital relief projects in various countries of the Middle East.
Ismail spoke about the Darfur Genocide and the ordeals of international intervention, and addressed issues of peace, reconciliation, and social justice in a society where both perpetrators and survivors must live side by side. The presentation was followed by lively discussion and a question-and-answer session.
In addition to the crucial work of Kelley Szany and Arielle Weininger at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, the symposium was sponsored by the ANC of Illinois, the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center, and the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University.