J. M. Hagopian, who told of genocide, dies at 97

December 20, 2010
Source: The New York Times

By Dennis Hevesi

J. Michael Hagopian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide who came to the United States from Turkey after World War I, studied filmmaking and made a series of documentaries based on interviews with hundreds of other survivors, died on Dec. 10 at his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He was 97.

Historians say that as many as 1.5 million Armenians died in orchestrated killings between 1915 and 1918, amid the chaos of World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey, which has always denied that there was a planned genocide, maintains that 300,000 Armenians and at least that many Turks were killed in civil strife after Armenians, backed by Russia, rose up against the Ottomans. To this day, uttering the words “Armenian genocide” can be grounds for prosecution in Turkey.

Mr. Hagopian made 12 documentaries about the genocide. In 1976, “The Forgotten Genocide,” his sweeping account of the killings, received Emmy nominations for best documentary writing and production. Since 2000, Mr. Hagopian’s Armenian Film Foundation, which he started in 1979, has produced three films about the genocide.

“The River Ran Red” recounts how three waves of Armenians were forced into the Syrian desert, where most of them died of starvation. “Germany and the Secret Genocide” posits that German officials provided cover for the Turks by telling the world that the Armenians had to be deported for their own safety.

Mr. Hagopian appeared in “Voices From the Lake,” the first film in the trilogy, about the destruction of his hometown. In the closing scene he says, “I remember my mother saying, ‘You can kill a people, but their voices will never die.’”

In that film, one survivor, Sam Kadorian, recalls: “The gendarmes came and picked up all the boys between 5 and 10 years old and threw them in a pile. After they had all the boys in this pile they started with swords and bayonets killing us boys, and one of the bayonets just hit me in the right cheek.”

Last April, the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute, founded by Steven Spielberg after he directed “Schindler’s List,” signed an agreement with Mr. Hagopian under which his archive of testimonies of Armenian genocide survivors and witnesses would be made available for educational purposes.

Hagop (Jacob) Mikael Hagopian was born in the town of Kharpert on Oct. 20, 1913. One night in June 1915, after his parents heard that Turkish soldiers were on the way, they hid him in a well behind their home. The soldiers did not come that night. But when they did several days later, the family was spared because his father was a physician who had treated local Turks. The Hagopians left Turkey for the United States in 1922, eventually settling in Fresno, Calif. Besides his daughter, Mr. Hagopian is survived by his wife, the former Antoinette Hobden; three sons, Michael, David and William; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Hagopian received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a doctorate in international relations from Harvard. He taught at several universities, including U.C.L.A. and Oregon State.

Realizing that he could reach more people by producing documentaries, he started Atlantis Productions in 1952 and began roaming the world, making films about the cultures of the Middle East, Nigeria, India and American Indians.

In April, after reaching the agreement with the Shoah Foundation Institute, Mr. Hagopian said: “Victimization and genocide perpetrated and denied in one part of the world can become the breeding ground for greater crimes against humanity in another part of the world. It was my responsibility to educate and inform so that history won’t be repeated.”