Boise’s small but active and growing Armenian community gathered Saturday for its annual memorial marking the national Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
Held every year locally, this year’s commemoration carried special meaning.
“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” according to a statement from President Joe Biden, the first time an American president has formally acknowledged what took place from 1915 to 1923 as a “genocide.”
President Ronald Reagan in 1981 referred to the atrocity as a “genocide,” but later backtracked. Presidents since have been urged each year to refer to what happened as a genocide, but all have buckled under fears of upsetting and offending Turkey, which denies the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.
Why is this important?
Adolf Hitler, in a precedent to the extermination of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, knew full well what happened to the Armenians and knew full well what it meant to deny and hide the atrocity.
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler said in a speech in 1939.
The 1915 Armenian genocide is considered the first genocide of the 20th century and served as a precursor to the genocides that followed around the globe.
It was fitting that Greg Hampikian, a Boise State University professor and head of the Idaho Innocence Project, whose job involves analyzing genes and DNA, spoke at Saturday’s commemoration. He noted that the word “genocide,” itself, addresses his very work: It is the attempt to destroy a gene lineage, wipe out those who share a common genetic code. He became emotional several times, but particularly as he referred to the 75 or so people gathered at the Anne Frank Memorial as a testament that the genocide was not successful, that those gathered continued to carry the Armenian heritage forward.
The United States is home to a large Armenian population, particularly in Southern California (most Americans are familiar with the world’s most famous Armenians, the Kardashians, and, for you literary types, you may be familiar with the writers Chris Bohjalian and William Saroyan).
Dan Prinzing, executive director of the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights, which maintains the Anne Frank Memorial, gave a wonderfully impassioned speech Saturday about why it’s so important to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian genocide.
“When there is still denial, there can be no justice,” he said, adding that when a country can deny a genocide with impunity, it serves only to embolden those that later commit such atrocities.
The first phase of the Armenian genocide began on April 24, 1915, as the Ottoman government arrested and murdered hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul, according to the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities. The killing expanded into brutal massacres of the male Armenian population across Ottoman lands and the deportation of Armenian women, children and the elderly into the Syrian Desert.
Jo-Ann Kachigian, of Boise, recounted her mother’s story of being led, as a 12-year-old girl, on one of those death marches, only to be “saved” by a Turk in Aleppo, Syria, where she was sold into servitude. She considered herself to be saved because the next stop on the death march was a mass execution.
Jo-Ann’s mother eventually made her way to the United States, where she was reunited with her brothers, who had escaped the genocide.
Many have similar stories of escaping persecution, including my wife’s family. Our son is named for his great-grandfather Luke Dohanian, who fled the region with his family and made his way to America, leaving a long lineage of proud Armenian Americans.
The New York Times reported Sunday that in its ardent denial of what happened as a genocide, Turkey ensures that schoolchildren are taught that the atrocity was not a genocide, but rather a quelling of an uprising.
It’s important that President Biden — and all of us — reject Turkey’s attempts to erase the stains from its own history.
Because if there is one lesson we can learn from the denial of the 1915 Armenia genocide, it is that old adage, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.