Remembering the Extermination of the Armenians

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Remembering the Extermination of the Armenians

Apsel, Dr. Joyce.
Ashville, North Carolina: Ashville Citizen-Times, 2000, 2 pages.
(read indepth content below)

A reading with accompanying activities created by Dr. Joyce Apsel that were included in the Anne Frank: Lessons in Educating for Human Rights published in the Ashville-Citizen Times (2000). The lessons complement the Anne Frank touring exhibit created by Anne Frank Center USA.

Remembering the Extermination of the Armenians


The 20th century has been one of genocide against individuals belonging to targeted groups. War is often a cover for genocide and the genocide against the Armenian took place during World War I.

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
- Czech novelist Milan Kundera

"Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?" - Adolf Hitler

Before the invasion of Poland by the German army in 1939, Adolf Hitler made this comment in a speech to his commanding officers. What lesson did the Nazi leader take from the world's failure to bring to justice those who planned and carried out the killing of the Armenians during World War I?

Hitler was referring to the genocide (genus means people; cide means killing) of the minority Armenian people ordered by Turkish leaders. Under the cover of war, the state eliminated the Christian Armenian minority through mass deportations, death marches and killings. By 1922, 1.5-million Armenians were killed and hundreds of thousands were refugees. The mission of creating a more homogenous state and getting rid of the Armenian minority had been successful.

A telegram dated Sept. 16, 1915, from Talaat Pasha, a leader of the ruling Committee of Union of Progress(Ittihad), stated:

"Instructions to the government of Aleppo: It was at first communicated to you that by order of the Jemiet, The Ittihad Committee had decided to destroy all Armenians living in Turkey. Those who oppose this order and decision cannot remain on the official staff of the Empire. An end must be put to their existence however criminal the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex or to conscientious scruples." (Quoted in Black Dog of Fate, by Peter Balakian, Broadway Books, 1998)

"They knew that their only 'crime' was being Armenian." - John Minassian

Author John Minassian, a survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide, tells of his experience in this excerpt from his book Many Hills to Climb, Memoirs of an Armenian Deportee (Jim Cook Publishing, 1986)

The First Day

"It was an ironically bright and sunny day when our band of 300-hundred Armenians started to move south. Women were crying bitterly, and the elders had practically to drag the youngsters along..."

"I could see close friends, relations, neighbors, church members, classmates. all good people who had worked hard and always helped others and their church and schools whenever asked. Many of them did not know how to read or write, but they had a keen sense of right and wrong. These fine people were now being made into refugees only because they had clung to their ancient beliefs and the faith of their ancestors. They marched proudly under a yoke of hatred, prejudice and bigotry, their morale high, their spirit as yet unbroken. They knew that their only "crime" was being Armenian. They had deep convictions about this, held for centuries, never broken by the ups and downs of history. They were robbed of their belongings, their homes and their security. Who was entitled to their homes, their properties? They were built by their fathers, and their fathers' fathers before them, and so on way back."

"After a while, my three-year-old sister wanted to be picked up, so I carried her. Her twin brother also wanted to be lifted. I put down sister and picked him up. My sister, Anoush, and brother, Vahan, were doing well. Father, weakening, would raise his head once in a while and repeat, "Many hills yet to climb."

"In fact, the promise of "relocation" was a myth. We trudged on. Mother never complained, nor did Father, but he was losing faith in what the Turks had promised to be our destination. He concluded that this was a road leading nowhere, but he was kind and encouraging nevertheless. He felt responsible for all of us in this unpredictable world."


The perpetrators of the genocide were not prosecuted. What does the term "impunity" mean? Look it up in the dictionary: im is not; punity is punish. If an individual or a government commits a crime and gets away with it, that is impunity. One of the lessons we all are taught is that if we break rules or do something wrong, then we have to live with the consequences and take the punishment. Is it important for each of us to admit if we do something wrong or harm someone, whether through language or action? If harm is done to us, does it help if someone apologizes, admits the wrong or is punished? What happens when those who harm others get away with it? What is the legacy of that silence?

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson spoke about the importance of self-determination and minority rights. But after WWI, a separate treaty was made with Turkey overturning earlier agreements that give Armenian autonomy. The international community turned away from holding Turkey accountable. Compare the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

Denial of genocide

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the genocide against the Armenians is that the Republic of Turkey continues to insist that the Armenians were not killed in a state-directed genocide. Because of Turkey's important strategic role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, the United States and other countries have been reluctant to speak out against the genocide in recent years.

It is essential not to allow the Armenian genocide to be denied and written out of history. As noted scholar Richard G. Hovannisian writes in the collection Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide (Wayne State University Press, 1999):

"It has been said that denial is the final phase of genocide. Following the physical destruction of a people and their material culture, memory is all that is left and is targeted as the last victim. Complete annihilation of a people requires the banishment of recollection and the suffocation of remembrance. Falsification, deception and half-truths reduce what was to what may have been or perhaps what was not at all.... By altering or erasing the past, a present is produced and a future is projected without concern about historical integrity. The process of annihilation is thus advanced and completed by denial."

Other genocides have been denied by perpetrators and their governments. Deborah Lipstadt, a historian who wrote an important book about Holocaust deniers called, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Free Press: NY, 1993), was accused of libel by Hitler biographer David Irving. In a recent ruling, a British court called Irving "anti-Semitic and racist" and rejected his charges that Lipstadt's book distorted the truth and damaged his reputation. Anne Frank's diary was attacked by Holocaust deniers, some of whom claimed it was a forgery and a hoax. Otto Frank brought the deniers to court, and a 1986 scientific examination of the diary pages proved conclusively that it is authentic. After one of the first articles I wrote for this series in the St. Petersburg Times, I received a letter from a reader stating that he did not believe the diary was written by Anne Frank.

Denial of the truth of history has repercussions for each of us and our stories. As individuals and as a nation, we must face the rights and wrongs and learn from uncovering the truth of history, however painful. For example, for a long time, history books in the United States denied the degree to which U.S. history included violating the rights and lives of certain groups, such as American Indians and African-Americans.

Facing the "stains" of our past is the way to begin working toward redressing the wrongs and moving forward. Human rights and dignity can be achieved only if we face the past and resolve to admit responsibility and error. The Turkish denial campaign continues today.

Remembrance is an important part of history. Here are two poems. The first is written by an Armenian poet, Siamanto (1878-1915), who was killed by Turkish security agents.

"And the spirits of all the dead, tonight,
Through my own eyes and soul,
Are awaiting the dawning of the light,
So that, to humanize the cruelty
Of our inhuman lives,
Perhaps from above a drop of light
May fall upon the murdered and the murderer alike."

More than 80 years later, New Jersey-born Armenian-American poet Peter Balakian gives voice in his poetry collection Sad Days of Light (Carnegie Mellon Press) to memories of his Armenian grandparents and other family members who survived the 1915 genocide. With a mixture of emotions from rage to love, he records his story and that of the Armenian people. In the following poem, he traces his grandmother's terrible ordeal as she was driven from her ancestral home.

Road to Aleppo, 1915

There must have
been a flame
like a leaf
eaten in the sun
that followed you.
A white light
that rose higher
than the mountain
and singed the corner
of your eye
when you turned
to find the screaming
trees dissolving
to the plain.
Even when the sun
dropped, there was a heat
like the ground
of needles stirring
up your legs,
and in a light
and dying wind
the throat of boys
droning like the sheep
beyond the hill
kept ringing
in your ears.
The silence
of the ground
filled the high
empty sky.
Your breath
like horizon
settled into black,
and you stuttered
every mile
to your daughter's
shorter step.
The moaning air
almost gone
filled inside
your dress.

Activities to do in class or home:


1. Discuss and write your reaction to these two poems in your diary. For more information on the history of the Armenians see: Faces---Armenia: World Cultures (available at; Some of US Survived: The Story of an Armenian Boy, Kerop Bedousian(Farrar Strauss, 1978); The Road from Home: The Story of an Armenian Girl, David Kherdian(Greenwillow, 1979). For an Armenian American memoir see Black Dog of Fat, Peter Balakian (Broadway Books, 1997) and see The Armenian Genocide in Perspective and Denial and History by historian Richard G. Hovannisian. Access the web-site:
2. The International Criminal Court is a new international body which has been established to prosecute perpetrators of crimes against humanity, genocide and other crimes. Research the history of the International Criminal Court. Do you think that creating such a court is a way to deter individuals from committing genocide and other atrocities in the future?
3."Sacred Spaces" Barsamian, the American-born son and grandson of Armenian genocide survivors, is an artist who creates pieces that symbolize the genocide, both the depths of its horrors and the miracle of survival. His mixed media exhibit of images and objects such as dried flowers, twigs and lace abandons "the traditional gallery format and (creates) an unexpected environment that engages people in a new way, not only to see my history, but to put it in context," he says.