Oct 26 2013
Column: Persecution casts a very long shadow
By ELIZABETH EISENSTADT-EVANS
These are words that people of faith read and hear often, whether it
is in a Scripture passage, a sermon, or in a pastor or rabbi’s office.
The topics, and the emotions they evoke, are difficult enough when two
individuals face each other in a counseling session.
But what happens when the antagonists are nations and ethnic, racial
and/or religious groups? How does healing happen when perpetrators and
victims can’t agree on what actually occurred, as with the deaths and
displacement of millions of Armenians during World War I?
When it is not resolved, the history of persecution can cast a very
long shadow, leaving descendants of those who suffered to wrestle with
challenging spiritual, ethical, philosophical and practical questions
that remain unresolved.
After the South African apartheid regime ended, Desmond Tutu, the
retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, wrote the book “No Future
Without Forgiveness.” Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
established by former President Nelson Mandela, Tutu, an outspoken
anti-apartheid advocate for decades, addressed the spiritual, ethical
and practical questions of how to acknowledge atrocities candidly, and
yet be able to move, as individuals and as a nation, towards racial
But such candor has not, to date, been possible when it comes to
healing the profound wounds between the first Christian nation
(Armenia adopted Christianity in 301 A.D.), and the country, with a
huge majority at least nominally Muslim, that swallowed up most of its
land in the carnage of World War I.
– – –
Then in the grip of reform, and trying to hang on to the fracturing
Ottoman Empire,Turkey has, till this day, refused to acknowledge that
it engaged in the systematic killing of the Empire’s Armenian
populace. In fact, as a New York Times article notes: “They reject the
conclusions of historians and the term genocide, saying there was no
premeditation in the deaths, no systematic attempt to destroy a
people. Indeed, in Turkey today it remains a crime – “insulting
Turkishness” – to even raise the issue of what happened to the
While the Turkish government argues that the deportment of Armenians
was a military necessity, and not an intentional strategy, such as the
extermination of Jews under the Third Reich, “it looks pretty much
like an intentional strategy to establish an ethnically pure Turkish
state, and get dissident elements and minorities out,” says Lee
Barrett, professor of theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary.
During the First World War, Turkey, which allied itself with the
Central Powers (including Germany), also saw Armenians as potential
allies of its enemies, which then included Russia, Barrett says.
“Reconciliation of groups that have historically been hostile or
oppressed usually requires full disclosure and candor, and until that
happens I don’t think the situation will improve,” says Barrett,
adding that “South Africa is the counter example.”
Many Americans, long integrated into a pluralistic society, cannot
imagine what it is like to bear the invisible weight of past national,
ethnic and racial tragedies.
But among us walk many descendants of persecution and suffering
(including, among others, Jews, Native Americans, African-Americans
and refugees from Latin American nations) for whom history still has
many tragic stories to tell.
– – –
Chris Bohjalian is a critically acclaimed writer of 16 books,
including nine best-sellers. The Vermont-based novelist has plumbed
the depths of dilemmas involving such knotty topics as gender change,
violent crime, mental instability, and tragic love.
But writing a novel about what many Armenians call “the great crime”?
That endeavor, which resulted in “The Sandcastle Girls,” was a long
time in the making. As the American of Armenian descent recounts, it
is a deeply personal mission.
Set in 1915, the novel, which includes a love story, uses the lens of
family life to bring to life the gritty brutality of the war to end
all wars, and how the conflict and its aftermath is interpreted and
absorbed in multiple generations.
In a way, “The Sandcastle Girls” echoes Bohjalian’s own story – and
the legacy of so many Armenians.
Even in light of the three years of carnage that has engulfed Turkey’s
neighbor, Syria, most people would be challenged to find Armenia on a
map, says Bohjalian, noting the multiple wars and other catastrophes
that have occurred since the turmoil of the First World War.
“I need to explain to them why they knew nothing about the Armenian
genocide … and why, today, it is so forgotten.”
– – –
Adventitiously, a box sent a few months ago from my sister in Boston
holds its own genocidal stories.
The acid-free container sits by the kitchen door – history’s secrets
resting silently, waiting, as they may have waited for 75 years.
Though I walk by the priority mail box countless times in the course
of a day, I haven’t taken a close look yet.
Several lifetimes ago, my maternal grandmother, a Jew born and raised
here in the United States, challenged (deleted word) the restrictive
American immigration policies, anti-Semitism and isolationism of her
time, and petitioned our government to give as many European Jews as
possible refuge from the Nazi regime.
My grandmother’s generation lived in the shadow of the Holocaust – and
the American failure to respond with sufficient urgency to save
millions. Yet her story, and theirs, also is part of mine, and that of
As the decades have slipped by, and survivors have died, it seems
perhaps inevitably, more abstract, less imperative.
Yet I have a sense that these letters, with their pleas for help and
affidavits for refugee status, may bring that long-ago era into my
quiet dining room, as I read them at my parent’s Victorian oak table.
Next time: Bohjalian’s account of the family, ethnic and faith history
that has helped shape his life. And I’ll share some of the content of
the letters I found in that box. Perhaps it will jar your own memories
– ones that you might want to share with other readers here.