Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide has great meaning for the global Armenian diaspora

Daily Maverick, South Africa
May 4 2021

Semma Marashlian, the author’s great-grandmother, sits on the right with her family. (Photo: Supplied) 

Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide has…

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Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide has…

US President Joe Biden made a statement on 24 April that officially recognised the Armenian Genocide. Between 1915 and 1917, over a million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks and another million were forced into exile.

“Of those who survived,” Biden said, “most were forced to find new homes and new lives around the world, including in the United States. With strength and resilience, the Armenian people survived and rebuilt their community.” 

Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide has…

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Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide has…

Biden’s statement on the 106th anniversary of the start of the genocide had great meaning for me personally. I grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts, which is a major centre of the Armenian diaspora in the United States. Watertown is home to the Armenian Library and Museum of America, as well as Armenian churches, grocery stores and bakeries and several Armenian newspapers.

In addition to reminding me of my childhood, Biden’s statement also made me think of the mid-1980s when I worked as a young foreign policy aide in Senator Edward Kennedy’s office in Washington, DC.

For more than 40 years, Senator Kennedy was a proponent of recognising the Armenian Genocide and represented Massachusetts in the US Senate. The major focus of my work at the time was South Africa and the region of southern Africa, supporting efforts to bring attention to the atrocities of apartheid. The end of apartheid seemed distant if not impossible, and it would be another eight years before South Africa would hold its first democratic elections.

I remember the 71st and 72nd anniversaries of the Armenian Genocide passed with several senators reading statements into the Congressional Record with little attention from the broader public. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 and arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union were Kennedy’s foreign policy priorities at the time.

In 1989, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kennedy joined with then-committee chairman, now President Joe Biden, in leading the effort to pass a resolution that would mark 24 April 1990 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Over the objections of the US State Department and the Turkish government, the committee adopted the resolution. From then on, Kennedy spoke on the Senate floor numerous times commemorating the Armenian Genocide.

Samantha Power has long campaigned for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. She was president Barack Obama’s Ambassador to the United Nations, and was recently nominated by President Biden, and then confirmed as the head of USAID. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell published in 2002, Power described the newspaper coverage of the massacres of Armenians in the early 20th century and how a young Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin was observing events.

Lemkin drafted a paper about the Ottoman massacre of Armenians and wrote that those crimes had been largely ignored by most Europeans as an “Eastern” problem. Lemkin drew attention to the rise of Hitler and he was concerned that if it could happen to the Armenians, it could happen again. In 1933, he suggested that, if the international community wanted to prevent mass slaughter, they had to unite in a campaign to ban it, but he was not successful in getting people’s attention.

Lemkin was correct that Hitler had learnt from the past. In 1939, Hitler made a speech declaring “Who today still speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?” A week later, the Nazis invaded Poland.

When words such as “barbarity” failed to take Lemkin’s campaign forward, he decided that he needed a new word. He coined the word “genocide” in 1944 combining the Greek geno meaning “race” or “tribe” and the Latin cide meaning “killing”: genocide.

In December 1946, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution that condemned genocide as “the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups”. Lemkin’s efforts to create the word genocide were motivated by what happened to the Armenians in 1915 and to the Jews in the 1940s.

The Armenian Genocide looms large in my family history. My great-grandmother Semma Marashlian survived the 1895 massacre of Armenians in the Turkish town of Marash and another massacre in Tarsus in 1909 that foreshadowed the genocide. The stories of her life, spanning from Turkey to Syria to Brazil to the United States have inspired me.

This global recognition is important because it rejects the decades of lobbying and denial from the Turkish government. Hopefully, this recognition will encourage Turkey to come to terms with its past.

Despite how much I know about Semma’s life, there are at least two aspects of our family history that remain mysteries. On 24 April 1915, the date that is remembered as the start of the genocide, Talaat Pasha, Turkey’s Minister of the Interior, issued an order for the arrest and execution of 250 Armenian lawyers, writers and intellectuals in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Most of these leaders were detained, deported and eventually killed.

In a memoir published by Grigoris Balakian in 1922 titled “Armenian Golgatha, there is a list of 69 people who were arrested on that day and deported to the city of Chankiri. Sarkis Kuljian, a writer and a teacher is on that list and is listed as having survived. Like Grigoris Balakian, how did he escape? With that surname, I wonder, was he related to my family?

A second mystery might be easier to solve and could reveal more information. My great-grandmother, Semma Marashlian’s older brother Krigor Kalustian wrote a book titled Marash that tells of the massacre of Armenians in the town of Marash in Turkey. Although the book is written in Armenian, I am told that one of the chapters is specifically about my family. Krigor gave one copy of the book to his nephew, Semma’s son, who gave the book to his daughter, my aunt Alice, who gave the book to me. Over the years, the book travelled from Turkey to Syria to Brazil, then to the United States and now to South Africa. I am excited to have even one chapter of this precious family heirloom translated.

Along with this painful family history, I grew up being taught that the Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century. I believed this to be true well into adulthood. As late as 2015, Pope Francis said that the Armenian Genocide was “considered the first genocide of the 20th century”.

It was only after living in South Africa for some years in the 1990s that I learnt of the Herero and Nama genocide in Namibia. Until that time, my engagement with Namibia had focused on Swapo’s struggle for freedom from South Africa’s illegal occupation. After Namibia’s independence, there was growing international awareness of this earlier history of the German colonisation of South West Africa.

In August 1904, German General Lothar von Trotha issued an order that all Herero men should be executed and that women and children should be led into the desert and left to die, killing over 100,000 people. Samantha Power’s book A Problem From Hell reviewed “America and the Age of Genocide” in the 20th century, and described Raphael Lemkin’s work to recognise “a crime without a name,” yet Power did not write about the Herero and the Nama. In July 2015, however, the German government officially called the events of 1904 and the killing of the Herero and the Nama a “genocide”.

According to the Armenian National Institute, there are 30 countries that have officially recognised the Armenian Genocide, including France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, and now the United States. This global recognition is important because it rejects the decades of lobbying and denial from the Turkish government. Hopefully, this recognition will encourage Turkey to come to terms with its past.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, author and academic Peter Balakian says that Biden’s statement is important to Armenians around the world. I will continue, annually, to mark Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on 24 April by mourning this painful history and being thankful for the resilience of my ancestors. DM

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