Face history's heartbreaking truth

August 19, 2004
Source: International Herald Tribune

By Jay Bushinsky

JERUSALEM - When the writer Franz Werfel, visiting this majestic city in the early 1930s, sought a shoemaker, he was told that there was a very competent one on Jaffa Road. His wife, the former Alma Mahler, had lost one of her shoes aboard ship en route to Palestine and was desperate to have the missing one replaced.

The shoemaker's name was Garabidian - an Armenian name. Werfel was surprised to discover Armenians in Jerusalem. When he found out that the Old City had an Armenian Quarter and that most of its inhabitants were survivors of the 20th century's first genocide, he was overwhelmed with emotion. That conversation inspired his internationally acclaimed novel, "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh."

The carnage perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks 89 years ago, in which 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were killed or deported, was a tragic prelude to the Nazi Holocaust of 1939-1945 in which six million Jews were annihilated.

Hitler's determination to destroy European Jewry was encouraged by the world's lack of interest in the Armenian tragedy. In a speech delivered to his troops on Aug. 22, 1939 - nine days before he invaded Poland - he was quoted as having said: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

The fact that these words were not included in the official text has prompted skeptics to contend that they never were uttered. They may have been said off the cuff, since it is hard to believe that they could have been invented by others.

Ironically, Hitler's rhetorical question is inscribed on one of the walls of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington, and rightly so. But there is a vast chasm between moral sentiment and political expediency. The latest attempt by Armenian-American activists to win Congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide was a failure. Other interest groups, including Jewish ones, misguided or opportunistic, convinced a vast majority of the American lawmakers that a resolution along those lines would offend the Turks at a time when the United States needs them as allies.

Israeli diplomacy also puts contemporary priorities ahead of moral obligations. When a major documentary about the Armenian genocide was due to be screened here, the foreign ministry intervened out of consideration for Turkish sensibilities. It is hypocritical to expect compassion and sympathy from the peoples of the world for the lives lost in the Holocaust when 'raison d'├ętat' prevents Israel and most Israelis from commiserating with the Armenians.

Israel's government winced when Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, assailed its policy and behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as toward the Palestinians in general. But neither Israel nor the overseas Jewish organizations dared remind Erdogan that leaders of nations that had committed crimes against humanity had best refrain from preaching to others - a lesson learned and followed by Germany.

Historical truth must be faced regardless of how heartbreaking it may be. It cannot be subordinated to the ebb and flow of modern international relations. Anyone who visited the Armenians' grim memorial to their martyred brothers and sisters south of Yerevan, Armenia's capital, in the shadow of biblical Mount Ararat, cannot but grieve with them.

Israelis, Jews, Zionists and their supporters should comfort the Armenians in their national sorrow and the Turks should accept the photographs, documents and above all testimony, which commemorate the Armenian genocide, instead of insisting that it never happened.

Jay Bushinsky is a freelance writer based in Israel.