The Armenian genocide

A new way to commemorate


March 10, 2015
Source: The Economist

In the early 20th century, concern for the fate of the Armenians was often presented in the Western world as a matter of inter-Christian solidarity. If you were an American Protestant church-goer, you probably heard sermons about the suffering endured by your co-religionists in the Near and Middle East. American missionaries were by that time well-established in the Ottoman lands, tending to the education and welfare of Christian communities in far-flung places.

American and other missionaries were crucial witnesses of the terrible fate that was meted out to well over a million Armenians starting in the spring of 1915: a mass "deportation" in which most did not survive, whether they died of heat, hunger, exhaustion or were killed outright. In places ranging from Syria to Transcaucasia, missionaries succoured those who did somehow live through the experience, and made sure that orphans were fed, educated and given a new life. Money for this cause was raised in American churches. In devout American households, a child who ate poorly would be told to "think of the hungry Armenians" and be more grateful.

In New York today, an initiative was launched to honour the dead and celebrate survivors in ways that far transcend the bounds of any one religion or ethnic group. Two businessmen of Armenian origin, one Russian and one American, teamed up with a scholar and philanthropist, Vartan Gregorian, head of the Carnegie Corporation, to come up with a response to the dreadful events of 1915 that goes beyond lamenting the victims of genocide or demanding recompense.

One aim of the 100 Lives project is to uncover stories of "survivors and saviours", in other words cases where an individual or family lived through the horrors thanks to courageous helpers. Ruben Vardanyan, a co-founder who also built up the Russian investment bank Troika Dialog, said his grandfather was saved and schooled by American missionaries; his Armenian-American partner, Noubar Afeyan, a biotech entrepreneur, recalls that his grandfather was spared from execution thanks to the intervention of German officers who were building a Berlin-Baghdad railway for their Turkish allies. But in some cases, the "saviours" might turn out to be a Muslim Turkish or Kurdish family who hid an Armenian family at risk to themselves.

A second part of the project will establish a prize for people in any part of the world who take risks to help others survive, from health workers braving an epidemic to human-rights campaigners in a zone of war or oppression. An Aurora prize of $1m will will be awarded annually to one individual, who will then be invited to pass the money on to an organisation that is doing inspiring work. Selectors will include Elie Wiesel, a Nobel prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, Mary Robinson, a former Irish president and UN human-rights commissioner, and George Clooney, an actor and human-rights campaigner.

There are, of course, lots of initiatives that aim to investigate and denounce genocide; and plenty of efforts to recognise those who have courageously saved human lives, either recently or long ago. This is a proposal to serve all those purposes, with no regard for the religion or race of the saviour or the saved.