Turkey’s ban on the Armenian genocide being taught is a slap at history and truth. South Dakotans should take note.

John Tsitrian

As an Armenian on my dad’s side, I’ve listened to some of the most horrible stories you can imagine about the treatment our family and friends got at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government a century ago.  The Ottomans tried to obliterate anyone having anything to do with Christianity, and that included us Armenians.  

We accepted Christianity as our national religion in 301 A.D. For centuries we lived on the Anatolian Peninsula, home of the modern Turkish state, and co-existed with our neighbors in a generally peaceful way, including during the centuries that the region came under the control of the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922), an Islamic state.

For political and economic reasons too numerous to recount here, the Ottomans started unraveling somewhere around the beginning of the 19th century, and, as a last gasp of trying to contain the many forces of its demise, they started blaming the Christians living within their territory for many of the empire’s troubles, all of it culminating in a mass slaughter that took place during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century.

It wasn’t just Armenians who took the subsequent genocidal hit, though we got the worst of it.  Estimates vary, but the numbers involved were huge.  In addition to the 500,000 Christian Assyrians and Greeks who were eliminated, 1.5 million Armenians were also killed.  My grandfather and namesake John the Baptist was one of them.

A week ago I visited my family’s home community in Adapazari, Turkey, a tidy little town, quite pleasant, actually, but found no mention of the Armenian quarter that was once a thriving and peaceful part of the region. The picture above is of the 1908 graduating class of the town’s Armenian Girls High School, taken when my grandparents were part of the community.  I might well have had a family member in the photo, which reflects a significant Armenian presence in the area.

But as far as the town is now concerned, its Armenian heritage is non-existent.  

Otherwise rich in detail about its archeological remains and anthropological history, there is no mention of the Armenian community ever having even lived in Adapazari in the local museum.

This is an affront to history and intellectual honesty, and it doesn’t occur casually.  I have no doubt the same scenario exists in all the towns of Turkey in which there was a significant Armenian population.

Why the absence of any history of the Armenians?

It is a result of a long-standing policy in Turkey that continues to deny the genocide and endeavors to scrub it out of official existence.  

One major means of doing so is through its schools. Much has been written about how Turkey has banned teaching of its genocide, which comes as no surprise, considering that this is a country that has even banned mention of the Armenian genocide in its parliament. The government has institutionalized a whitewash of its own history.

And that gets me to South Dakota.

Native Americans in our state are understandably concerned over Gov. Kristi Noem’s executive order to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) in South Dakota’s schools. Signed last April, Noem said "Our children will not be taught that they are racists or that they are victims, and they will not be compelled to feel responsible for the mistakes of their ancestors."  That’s a nice sentiment but ignores the reality that historical mistreatment is a fact and that current generations of students need to understand our history as they grapple with difficult relationships in our schools and communities.  

Knowing what happened to my forebears at, say, Adana, Turkey, in 1909, means knowing that they lost everything, including their lives.  This is something that Armenians will resent forever. Having grown up among the generation whose social and economic circumstances were affected by the genocide, I know that the hatred and bitterness can’t be mandated away by ignoring or whitewashing the events in schools.  

People know their history.

This is why Noem’s edict is destined for futility. I don’t know what she means by teaching history in a way that will avoid making children feel responsible for or victimized by the ugliness that occurred during this country’s westward expansion, but she is pipe-dreaming if she thinks Native American kids won’t feel the reverberations that stemmed from incidents like Wounded Knee or the Sand Creek massacre. Those occurrences can’t be taught without exposing the fact that they were systemic applications of the hatred directed at their forebears. I’d like to see the study guide developed by Noem’s initiative that teaches those bloody incidents in a way that will keep kids from figuring out who the good guys and the bad guys were. These things need to be presented in their full awfulness, which is the only base from which reconciliation can begin.  There’s a Bible verse that covers it:  “The truth shall set you free.”

Noem says she doesn’t want students to feel like victims.  So how will she teach history in a way that the kids studying it won’t feel victimized?  Can’t be done.  Why?  Because the reality is that many of these children are victims of circumstances created by the history of westward expansion, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

Take it from the son of an Armenian family that lost everything, including its patriarch, during the Turkish holocaust. The only way to settle the issue is by getting all the facts on the table, not by presenting events in a way that’s designed to avoid hard feelings.  

John Tsitrian is a businessman and writer from the Black Hills. He was a weekly columnist for the Rapid City Journal for twenty years. His articles and commentary have also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Denver Post and The Omaha World-Herald. Tsitrian served in the Marines for three years (1966-69), including a 13-month tour of duty as a radioman in Vietnam.