Judge whose family survived Armenian genocide: 'They never smiled'

April 23, 2015
Source: Chicago Tribune (Chicago)

By John Kass

Pope Francis set off a diplomatic furor recently when he said what historians and most diplomats have been saying for almost a century now:

That Turkey participated in the first genocide of the 20th century by slaughtering 1.5 million Armenians in 1915.

Friday, April 24, marks the 100th anniversary of the genocide that is still not officially recognized here in the United States as genocide.

And so I sat down at breakfast with U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, America's first immigrant of Armenian descent to be named federal judge.

"The pope acknowledged, as have historians since the beginning of this, that it was a genocide," Der-Yeghiayan said. "It was unspeakable. But still, we speak of it, to remember."

The Turkish government denies genocide and says the deaths were the result of civil war. It withdrew its ambassador from the Vatican. President Barack Obama wrung his hands.

Once, Obama promised to call it genocide. Now he begs Turkey to help him against the Islamic State.

"That's politics," said the judge. "But whatever they call it, it was genocide. It wasn't an accident."
The U.S. ambassador of the time, Henry Morgenthau described the Turkish policy as one of systematic, "wholesale slaughter."

I'd call it a Muslim cleansing of Christians, with fire and sword.

Armenians weren't the only ones. Thousands of Greeks and Assyrian Orthodox were also killed by the Turkish army and its surrogates.

And 1.5 million Armenians were killed.

Think of it as low-tech killing. The Armenians were slaughtered in their villages. They were chopped to pieces and thrown into rivers. They were raped and shot and sabered by cavalry as they ran with their children on their backs.

The fine actor, Russell Crowe, has directed a controversial movie coming out Friday called "The Water Diviner," about Turkey of that troubled era.

I can't wait to see it. I've read that in his film, Turks are sympathetic figures. It is the Christians — notably the Greeks — who are the savages.

But just Google "Armenian Genocide" and check "images." And you will see how brutality becomes viral.

One photo I just can't shake depicts Armenian girls who've been crucified by Turks.
The girls are naked. Their long, black hair covers their faces. The crosses are set on the side of a dusty road. It demands vengeance.

"My great-grandfather was an Orthodox priest," Der-Yeghiayan said. "The Turks rounded up the family, his sons and daughters, his wife. They gathered them. Then they dishonored him.

"First they cut off his beard. They laughed. They told him to deny Christ. He refused. And when he refused, they chopped off his hands. They chopped off his feet. They threw him in the river."
I saw an old family photo. There was a tiny, 5-foot-tall woman, a great-aunt in the back row. She was the only survivor.

The Turks had killed her infant daughter. She jumped in the river to die.

"She told me from her own mouth," Der-Yeghiayan said. "The river was called the River of Blood. She became lost in all the bodies. Downstream she was fished out, saved by a kind Turkish family. And there were kind Turkish people too."

I liked visiting Turkey. I liked the culture and the people very much. That's what makes writing this column so difficult. But the dead compel me.

Americans forget too easily. We allow our memories to be washed, from generation to generation, in the interests of commerce. Yet the dead can't be coerced by capitalism.

Der-Yeghiayan's grandfather, who had been living in the U.S. working in a steel plant, went back in 1919 to find those who were left.

"He never smiled," said the judge. "As a boy, late at night, I would hear him from the other room, on his knees, praying for all their souls. But I never saw him smile once. My grandmother never smiled. All the Armenian people of the time, they lived, they survived, they raised families.

"But they never smiled. Ever."

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