Special Issue: Genocide Education for the 21st Century
The Armenian Weekly, April 2023
The impact of genocide lingers long after the initiation of the crime. Genocide scholarship today delves into the more nuanced ways in which victims are subjected to genocidal acts in addition to murder. Sexual violence against women and de-ethnicization of children are just two examples. Entire societies are destroyed through genocide and the surviving remnants separated and scattered, resulting in the magnitude of the crime being difficult to quantify.
While research into a person’s ancestry was traditionally reserved for nobility, and in the United States there were societies devoted to descendants of specific groups, for example Daughters of the American Revolution or Mayflower Descendants, since the 1970s there has been an explosion of genealogical research into all ethnic groups regardless of societal class. The publication of Roots: The Saga of an American Family and the television mini-series based on the book brought forth tremendous interest in genealogy, the family history of African Americans, specifically, and all ethnic groups universally.
In addition, there was controversary over the accuracy of the oral history included in Roots and the ability to document through source records the family history of victims of slavery that is equally relevant for all victims of genocide.
Initially, my involvement in genocide education focused on demographics and the ways in which a numbers game is utilized in genocide denial. A primary recurring theme in the denial of genocide and ethnic cleansing is to minimize the victim population. Presumably, if less Armenians were alive and living in the Ottoman Empire in 1914, that would mean that less were subjected to murder, rape, slavery, etc.
My research has focused on three aspects. First, I work on documenting the location and previous Armenian population of the villages of Western Armenia, given the destruction of many of these locations and the Turkish government’s changes in names and locations. Second, there is a common misconception that the various source documents are in conflict over the pre-genocide number of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. Instead of viewing them in conflict, my research has attempted to show under what assumptions the sources can be brought into agreement. Lastly, I have used micro-studies to better evaluate the quality of the various sources.
Over time, through this research, I additionally saw the continuing damage to our people by the ruptures in our families caused by the Genocide. I was tormented reading the advertisements searching for relatives placed in various Armenian newspapers following the end of World War I.
Since 1996, I have met hundreds of survivors of the Genocide and their descendants still living in Turkey and desiring to reconnect with their relatives. At the same time, the amount of documentary resources available to Armenians attempting to learn more about their family histories has exploded in the last 20 years. From Armenian church records in Armenia and the Diaspora and family history reports available to Turkish citizens to Ottoman population registers and DNA testing, thousands of Armenians are gaining new insight into their ancestors in ways they never thought would be possible.
The Armenian Genealogy Facebook group has provided an invaluable forum for those seeking answers. The Armenian Immigration Project has culled the documents pertaining to Armenians within United States and Canadian civil records, and there are similar efforts beginning in other countries as well. Since 2016, there have been a number of Armenian genealogy conferences held throughout the United States and in September 2022 at the American University in Armenia.
The resulting stories of connections and reconnections of families have served as a powerful educational tool to understand the depth of the crime. For over a century now, Armenian women forced into marriages with Muslims, as well as children forced into slavery, and ultimately, assimilation into Muslim households, have been treated as dead. They considered themselves dead to their families and they urged their families to accept their “death.” There were hundreds of thousands who were included in the 1.5 million deaths of the Armenian Genocide. Yet, we know that many of them “survived,” and against all odds and threats of persecution, they retained their Armenian heritage.
Hrant Dink often wrote of the plight of so-called hidden Armenians in Turkey. In 2004, My Grandmother: A Memoir by Fethiye Çetin was published in Turkey and has gone through multiple printings. Through their efforts, a much greater awareness was created both inside and outside the Republic of Turkey about the Armenians still remaining on our ancestral homeland.
The tragic reality is that many genocide survivors pass away never knowing for certain what has happened to their lost relatives. In 2012, while traveling to the village of my grandmother, I had an epiphany about the way DNA testing could be used to assist in the reconnecting of families. In 2015, my hopes were realized—the family of my great-grandmother’s sister and I found each other through DNA testing.
While it still remains very difficult and certain parts of the homeland are underrepresented, nonetheless today I find it much more common to be able to validate family trees and other oral histories through official documents. The village of Hazari in the Chmshgadzak region is an excellent example of what is possible. In the 1930s, Hovhannes Ajemian collected a tremendous amount of information on the Armenian-inhabited villages of Chmshgadzak. Included with this, thus far, unpublished material were genealogy wheels. I was given a copy of the genealogy wheels for the families of Hazari by the descendants of Vazken Antreasian, author of three books about the village. I was able to rebuild the family trees for most of the families from Hazari based on the genealogy wheels, Ottoman population records and United States records for those who had come from the village. The analysis has been published on houshamadyan.org.
In this way, genealogy is useful in the toolkit of genocide education and also serves as a critical way of mitigating the continued detrimental impact of genocide on the victims.