LOWELL, Mass.—On March 18, Lowell High School (LHS) hosted a scholarly panel in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide—on April 24, 1915—in the Ottoman Empire; 1.5 million Armenians would ultimately be killed in the genocide.
The panel was conceived and organized by LHS Social Studies teacher Lisa Menasian Colloca, who participated in the panel along with Julianne Tavitian (University of Massachusetts Lowell 2014) and Asya Darbinyan, a genocide scholar. Darbinyan, former deputy director of the Armenian Genocide Museum and Institute in Yerevan, Armenia, has held fellowships in Paris and Los Angeles.
The event began with a welcome from LHS alumnus Aram Jeknavorian (LHS 1956), who, with his four siblings, is a first-generation Armenian American. His father, Abraham, survived the genocide and made his way to Lowell, along with many other Armenians who formed an important community here. Abraham became a fixture of the community, founding the Post Office Locksmith Shop, which is still run by his son, Armen. Aram Jeknavorian drew parallels between his family’s experience and the later experience of other refugee immigrant groups, especially the Cambodian community.
Menasian Colloca teaches AP courses at LHS, has traveled to Armenia, and is a board member of the Boston branch of the Society for Orphaned Armenia Relief. She conceived of the panel in early 2014 as a way to honor her grandparents and other survivors and victims of the genocide. She also hoped that the lessons of the genocide would find resonance for students at LHS who have experienced similar horrors in places like Burma and Iraq. In her talk, Menasian Colloca gave a geography and history lesson that sketched the early history of Armenia, pointing out that it was the first country to formally accept Christianity, in 301 A.D. She showed some of the impressive architecture and art of medieval and present-day Armenia and mapped out the position of Armenians in the Ottoman and Russian Empires.
Darbinyan went into great detail about the mechanics of the genocide, which began with government edicts that set in motion multiple waves of oppression, massacres, and large-scale death marches from April 1915 until 1918. Her presentation also focused on the politics of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey (the successor state to the Ottoman Empire) and independent Armenia today, as well as the Armenian Diaspora in the United States and the role of Americans in response to the genocide. Americans, led by the child movie star Jackie Coogan, gave $110 million (the equivalent of $5 billion today) in relief aid to surviving Armenians during and after World War I. Finally, Darbinyan, a native of Yerevan, Armenia, noted that the genocide is not specifically an Armenian event, but an event against humanity, a fact that must be understood for every genocide, no matter where it occurs.
Tavitian spoke passionately about her experience as a second-generation Armenian American and how her travel in Armenia has transformed her understanding of the genocide and what it means to be Armenian American. She also spoke out strongly against genocide deniers, noting the experience of many members of her family. One LHS student said that Tavitian’s emotional discussion of how she was shaped by her grandparents’ experiences in the genocide resonated strongly with what he feels from his own parents’ experience with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
During the question and answer period, the issue of “crimes against humanity” and genocide law was raised. Darbinyan had already noted that the first recorded use of the term was made during the genocide, when it was mentioned in an international memorandum. She further spoke about how Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who coined the term “genocide” and is considered the father of modern human rights and genocide law after World War II, had begun his work in the area following the trial in Germany of an Armenian charged for the assassination of one of the three Ottoman architects of the genocide.
The audience was warm in its appreciation and comprised a large number of students, educators, and members of the greater Lowell Armenian-American community. The panel is part of Lowell High School’s Occasional Series on Contemporary Issues, which was instituted last spring and seeks to bring scholars of significant standing to the school as well as to showcase the expertise of faculty at LHS. The next OSCI panel, “The Black Experience of the Public School Community,” will take place on April 7 from 2:45-4:15 p.m. in the Little Theater of Lowell High School. It is free and open to the public.
Further commemorations of the Armenian Genocide in Lowell include the Whistler House Museum of Art’s current exhibit, “Pursuing Justice through Art,” which runs from March 18 through April 25.