By Karine Shnorhokian
My childhood, like many Armenians in America and around the world, involved an understanding and a shared pain that something tragic and unforgettable happened several decades earlier to our ancestors. April 24th- the day Armenians around the world commemorate the Armenian Genocide- is a day not only of remembrance, but an ongoing battle to have the Government of Turkey take responsibility for these crimes, and stop their ongoing campaign of genocide denial. Whether it is attending a commemorative church gathering, protest, lecture, walk, or lobbying with members of Congress, April is an active time for Armenians. Year round however, we continue to seek justice for our ancestors and pay tribute to those who suffered and perished 99 years ago during the Armenian Genocide- the first genocide of the 20th century.
I remember during my youth, the first several rows at Armenian Genocide commemorative events were reserved for the survivors. The seats were filled, and during the night, these survivors were recognized, received flowers, and applause from community members. In our eyes they were our fedayees, our soldiers, and their stories were immortalized in our communities. Decades later, the first several rows are still reserved, but the seats are now empty. The survivors are not forgotten, but time has passed, and they have passed on. We read about their obituaries, and saddened to hear that the last genocide survivor in a well-known city has passed on. Their stories however live on through us, and although denialists- like the Government of Turkey- think that time will erase history, our Diaspora is too strong and too proud to move on and forget our past. We console and unite with others who have suffered genocide, and continue to educate anyone who will listen. We always find a way to tell our story.
My husband’s grandmother Alice was a resilient woman. Succumbing to illness in 2011, she was 98 years old when she passed away, and was determined to make her story known. In 2008, she made one of her final journeys to Washington, DC to meet with members of Congress to discuss the Armenian Genocide and the ongoing denials by the Turkish Government. She remembered her story clearly; how she and her brother rode in the side baskets in a donkey during the deportations and how luckily, right before the death march through Der Zor, they were saved. I was very fond of Alice and though my time with her was limited, I appreciated the time I did have with her. Honestly, I was quite intimidated when I first met her, being that she was a much respected woman within the Armenian Presbyterian community. I had heard she was quick to judge and had no intention of holding back her feelings. When we first met, however, we had an instant bond. Perhaps it was that we were both nurses or that she was excited that her grandson was dating an Armenian girl or she was fond of my extreme passion for educating others about our history. I knew she had a story, and she knew I wanted to hear it. Like many grandmothers, her cooking was exceptional, and it was an insult if you didn’t have seconds. She was known for her Sou Boureg, an Armenian dish made with sheets of pasta like dough and stuffed with a cheesy filling. She tried to teach me how to make it, and gave me much grief when she learned I did not know how to use a rolling pin.
So many people with similar ethnic backgrounds can relate to Grandma Alice. She was a proud woman who ran her household like a tight ship. She was well educated and was very knowledgeable on various topics. Always exercising her mind, body, and spirit, she went to Church every Sunday, had plenty of friends she visited with throughout the week, and she loved to cook. As a survivor of genocide, she wanted to tell her story and talk about what happened. She pleaded that the truth be uncovered and one of her final requests was “for justice of this great country and for the world to not forget the tragic suffering and terrible genocide of the Armenians.”
As I was writing my conclusion to this blog, I had an encounter that I feel compelled to share. It was a little after 1:00am on April 24, 2014, and I was anxious to get home from the airport after a long day of work and travel. My taxi driver was curious and asked me my ethnicity as I got into the town car at Newark Airport. Not even thinking twice, I told him Armenian. In return I asked him what he was, and he said Turkish. You could tell he was a little defensive in his response, however, very pleasant. Throughout the course of the ride home we discussed the history of the genocide, which he was unable to accept. He pleaded that he has never really “investigated” this topic. Whether it was shame, guilt, or the unfortunate consequences of the Turkish government’s forced teaching of genocide denial in public schools – he was simply unwilling to face the truth. Obviously it made him uncomfortable being that I was his client and the topic was sensitive, but it made me realize that the denial doesn’t just exist in Turkey, it exists here in America as well. For whatever the reason, it made me think of Grandma Alice – and her lifelong vigilance to speaking the truth. I know I will follow in her path. I, like so many other Armenians, will continue to be fedayees for our cause.
Watch the re-cut version of Alice Khachadoorian-Shnorhokian’s interview here.