Armenia's 'Christian holocaust'

Though Israel does not officially recognize the Armenian genocide, the Hebrew University will commemorate it at a symposium this week

In late August 1939, the day before his invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler gathered his commanders at his home and informed them he had placed "death's head" military formations in the east with orders "to send to death mercilessly and without compassion men, women and children of Polish derivation and language." He assured his commanders the world would not long condemn them, justifying his brutality by asking rhetorically, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" Hitler was referring to the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turkish forces beginning in April 1915. Until today, the Turkish government denies the authenticity of both Hitler's statement and the genocide itself. Tel Aviv University professor Israel Charny, chief editor of the Encyclopedia of Genocide, insists the statement was recorded by "an indisputably serious" Associated Press correspondent, and that other remarks were made by Hitler that "confirm that the Armenian genocide was an active guiding concept in the monster's mind." Kevork Kahvedjian, son of Jerusalem photographer and Armenian genocide survivor Elia Kahvedjian, explains his father was personal testimony to the genocide and its savagery. "When it started, he was only five years old, but he remembered it very clearly. Especially the last year of his life he remembered it..." Kevork continually slipped into the first person while recounting his father's story, as if it had happened to him: "I used to see lots of dead people, piles of them. Some had been burned. Until today I remember the smell of burned flesh," he narrated, detailing the death march through the desert. He remembered the sound of the German cannons pounding the city, then a lull of about a month before the Turkish soldiers entered his home and took Elia, his mother, a sister and two brothers - one brother was just a few months old. Two older brothers had already been hanged. "Soldiers came and started pushing my mother. She tried to go back to the house but the soldiers hit her with rifle butts and she had to take the children and start walking." The Armenians were allowed only what they could carry. They walked for weeks through the desert of Deir Zor with soldiers on both sides. The soldiers offered neither food nor water, but the prisoners ate some plants and drank brackish water on the way. After weeks of carrying her six-month-old baby, Elia's mother, exhausted, set the infant in the shade of a tree and abandoned him, hoping some kind person would find him. The older sister, about 12 years old during the march, was abducted. Elia found her 18 years later and discovered she had been forced to serve in a harem. In a wadi, near the end of the trek, "I heard my mother say, 'Today, I think they're going to kill us.'" It happened that that a Kurd was passing by. She called the Kurd and told him, "Take this boy and go." The Kurd took Elia and the boy remembered, "At the top of the hill we turned around and saw the soldiers killing everyone." The Kurd took Elia, burned his clothes, gave him medicine for dysentery, and sold him to a blacksmith, who eventually sent him away. Elia sought refuge in a Syrian convent. In 1918, when the war was over, the American Near East Relief Foundation began to gather Armenian orphans and distribute them in its orphanages throughout the Middle East. Elia was transferred to Lebanon, then to Nazareth in 1920. There, one of the teachers was a photographer and Elia worked for him. Elia learned the photography trade and became a prominent photographer. Many beloved pictures of early 20th-century Jerusalem were taken by Elia; the album, Through My Father's Eyes, celebrates his work. Turkish authorities strive to discredit accounts such as Elia's, although his testimony is confirmed by an abundance of contemporary journalism, eyewitness accounts by statesmen such as American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau, as well as German and Austrian documentation. Charny claims there was "most certainly" a religious element in the persecution of the Armenians, the first empire to embrace the faith. (Armenia officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in 301 CE, about 25 years before the Roman Empire did so.) "There are even some who want to refer to this period overall as 'The Christian Genocide,' because the victims of the Turks' genocide were not only Armenians but also Assyrians and Greeks," he explains. Still, he is reticent to use that term as it "could seem to remove from the Armenian community their hard-won gains for recognition of the genocide of their people." According to Charney, "What stands out about the denials of the Armenian genocide is that for many years, the full power of the Turkish government has been devoted to denials of the genocide. Turkey literally spends millions on advertising agencies and on publicity efforts. It also throws the considerable weight of its government behind coercing denials from other countries, with threats to the United States of not allowing American military planes to use Turkish air space or threatening to pull out of joint NATO military exercises, as well as with threats of major economic retaliation should or when a country, such as France, confirms recognition of the Armenian genocide. "Israel is regularly the object of threats by the Turks and, regrettably to say the least, for many years has kowtowed to these threats. But then too so has the stronger United States" MK Haim Oron (Meretz) proposed in March that the Knesset appoint a committee to consider recognizing the Armenian genocide, adding, "It is unacceptable that the Jewish people is not making itself heard." Although the measure passed, MK Shalom Simhon (Likud) responded, "this has become a politically charged issue between Armenians and Turks, and Israel is not interested in taking sides." Many Israelis are eager for their country to recognize the genocide. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem will hold an event titled "A Symposium in Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide" at its Givat Ram campus on April 29 at 6:30 p.m. Both Kevork Kahvedjian and Charney will speak. Israel will eventually recognize the genocide, insists Kevork, who manages his father's business, Elia Photo Service, in Jerusalem's Old City. Kevork, named for the baby left under a tree in the desert, believes, "One day they are going to say, 'Yes, it happened.' If not now, then in 50 years!" Otherwise, Armenians worry, states that refuse to recognize the genocide risk rendering Hitler's rhetorical question a reality.