BERLIN — On September 21 Armenians throughout the world celebrated 30 years of independence for the Republic of Armenia. In official venues, like the Armenian Embassy in Berlin, the event was commemorated in the presence of public figures from political life. It was an occasion to reflect on 1991 and to cast a glance to the future, enriched by the lessons learned in the intervening period.
On that same day, a group of Armenians and Germans, scholars, writers, civil society activists and others, convened in a virtual Zoom meeting, to offer insights into events of the far more distant past, the genocide a century ago. But here too the intent was to reflect, learn and prepare for a better future. The occasion was the appearance of a recently released book that tells the story of the genocide in a bold, new form.
The title, Wurzeln in der Luft: Völkermord und Lebensspuren can be translated “Roots in the Air: Genocide and Traces of Life.” Roots normally live in the ground, and reach down ever more deeply to establish stability, but here are the roots of men and women, violently torn out of the earth by the trauma of genocide, floating dispersed in the diaspora for generations, yet preserving the indelible signs of life and the will to persevere.
Tessa Hofmann, renowned genocide scholar and author, organized the book presentation, sponsored by the Association Working Group Recognition – Against Genocide, for International Understanding (AGA). She was a founding member of AGA, which is a human rights group that has been campaigning for recognition of the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians and other Christian minorities. Her contribution to the book is an essay sketching the story of how she found the theme that was to engage her activities for decades.
To introduce the new anthology, published by Projekt Verlag in Bochum, Hofmann asked Heide Rieck, one of the two editors, how it came into being. Rieck is herself an author of 14 books and a leading literary figure in Bochum. In 2013, she related, she had attended a play that introduced her to the history of the genocide. Following the theatrical performance was a panel discussion that included descendants of survivors.
She was so moved by one family’s story, she said, she “had to do something” to spread knowledge of these events. She sought Armenian contacts and found Azat Ordukhanyan, a Yerevan-born journalist now living in Bochum and president of the Armenian Academic Society. Together they organized a German-Armenian cultural program that sponsored some 40 cultural and political events for several years.
The idea for a book presenting personal stories of the genocide grew from this collaboration, and the two co-edited the volume. As she explained, the concept evolved over time, as they expanded the scope to include not only Armenians but also Greek Orthodox and Assyrian-Aramaeans; they decided to look for contributions also from the side of the perpetrators, Germans and Turkish.
As Ordukhanyan added, following the resolution on the genocide passed by the German Bundestag (Parliament) in 2016, which called for the topic to be included in school curriculum, there was a need for adequate textbooks. The aim was to educate youth on the history of the genocide and the loss of the homeland.
The authors they looked for fell into three categories: the children and grandchildren of survivors, qualified experts on the subject, like Tessa Hofmann and Roy Knocke of the Lepsiushaus, and descendants of wartime allies Germans and Turks. Rieck added that they hoped to stimulate debate in schools and universities, to educate pupils and students of various backgrounds in multi-ethnic Germany about their history.
It is a task that demands courage on the part of educators, and is prerequisite to understanding among peoples and eventual reconciliation. Hofmann noted that it was not only the work of direct descendants on the Turkish side that was crucial, but also research published by scholars not represented in this book, like Dogan Akhanlı and Taner Akçam.
Robbed of Identity
The presentation unfolded in a series of selections from the book, interspersed with musical interludes. Ani Serobyan, an associate of Hofmann’s, read first from two Armenian authors whose accounts portrayed the loss of identity. Lusin Arshaluys Bakircian-Dolas was born under the name of Necla Bakirci in Ra’s al-‘Ain near Urfa in Turkey, the sixth of 13 children.
In the selection titled “No Lullaby in the Mother Tongue,” she tells Heide Rieck on the telephone about her childhood. Once she had arrived in Germany, she dared to recover her Armenian family name as well as her grandmother’s first name. “When I was 18,” she said, “I married an Armenian, who had lived in Germany five years” and explained that as a “hidden Armenian” it was important to marry in her own ethnic group.
Many immigrant Armenians followed this practice as a means of preserving their culture, after having lost their own language and traditions. Her own mother sang songs to her in Kurdish and told stories about her own mother, who had been so traumatized as a child that people later considered insane.
Though Lusin had never spoken Armenian, and used Turkish in school, in Germany she had decided to learn Armenian, to be able to “sing to my grandchildren in Armenian.” She promised Rieck she would submit a piece for the anthology, since “our story belongs in schoolbooks,” so history will not be repeated. “In the end we are all human beings. We should live in peace.”
The second selection came from this author, and also told the tale of loss. As members of a group of Armenians from America, we travelled with Armen Aroyan on one of his countless pilgrimages to the Old Country. Looking for the villages of our parents, Mashgerd and Tsack, we found their names had been changed, but, like the “hidden Armenians,” their identity could be recognized.
Despite the official government policy of denial, which includes the imposition of superimposed names and descriptions, “the stones cry out” in reality, and ancient Armenian churches and other monuments declare their heritage to the knowing eye. By the same token, if officialdom denies the past, those villagers whose ancestors had been resettled there from the Balkans, had no problem telling us what they knew and remembering the last Armenians who lived in their midst.
Tessa Hofmann read selections from Anastasia Kasapidou-Dick’s story, who was born in Greece as the fourth child of a Pontic Greek survivor. The Pontic Greeks, at least those who had survived the genocide, lost their lands and homes in the forced population transfer sealed by the Lausanne Treaty in 1923. Anastasia’s grandparents had been transferred from Pontos to Platania. In the evenings they would gather together in “Parakathi” and she would sit opposite the storytellers, those who, like her grandmother, knew the history of the Pontos.
“They talked about how they lived in peace with one another and with the Turks, and how this idyll ended.” Forced labor gangs, escape, the “Great War,” political machinations and civil war, dictatorship and exile — all these tragic experiences were episodes in the storytellers’ tales. In the “Parakathi” they came together as if they were the chorus in an ancient theatre play.
“The chorus mourned the catastrophes that made up their lives,” she wrote. The narrators told their sad and tragic tales to the next generation, to leave this legacy for the future. A Greek song that followed lamented the lost fatherland, whose memory lived on in the heart.
Abdulmesih BarAbraham, an Assyrian who has lived in Germany since 1967, has published accounts of their history, diaspora and human rights. The selection, read by Ani Serobyan, recounted his memories of life as an adolescent in Midyat, the religious center and seat of the Bishopric of the Orthodox church, as well as trade center of southeastern Turkey.
There, in the city that had a Christian majority population up to the 1970s, any reference, even in the church, to the genocide was forbidden; if victims were remembered, it was as members of the community of Christian martyrs. No books containing references to the genocide were available. As witnesses to the past there were, however, the ruined churches and monasteries, and facades of houses riddled with bullets.
Otherwise, there were the “countless, invisible scars in the hearts and souls of the survivors,” and these were the subject of dirges sung by his mother and grandmother to their children, songs about the Sayfo, the catastrophe. It was only with the immigration to Europe in the 1960s that Assyrians in his parents’ generation managed to overcome their fears and blocks, and began to talk about the genocide.
The reading ended with a contribution by Ali Ertem, who came in 1961 to Germany from his native land Turkey. His story is emblematic for many Turks who first learned about the genocide only after moving to a European country.
In his native village where there were no schools, he received early instruction from a sister, and later studied in Ankara. By chance he learned of employment opportunities in Germany and with luck succeeded in qualifying for training.
During a training course in electrotechnics in Bochum, he experienced “the most important phase in my life.” At the Ruhr university where he also attended courses, he heard one day from an Armenian student about the charges of genocide and was deeply shaken. “What suffering my forefathers were to have inflicted on Armenians in 1915!
I experienced this as a profound insult.” He never thought that such an accusation would shape the course of his life, and actually become a vehicle of his salvation. Struggling with pain, shame, empathy and mourning, Ertem decided to search the truth, to do the research to find out about the genocide.
Studies followed as he read works by Johannes Lepsius, Jakob Künzler, Vahakn Dadrian, Franz Werfel, Tessa Hofmann, Wolfgang Gust and many others, sought contact with intellectuals, attended commemorations. In the course of his 20 years of study, he came to the conclusion that he had no right to accept judgments from others on subjects that he himself had not personally investigated. “I had to learn,” he concluded, “that Turkish government officials and educational institutions officially lie.”
Discovery in the Classroom
Ali Ertem’s experience is not unique. Dogan Akhanlı and Taner Akçam are two well-known intellectuals from Turkey who came to Germany and here embarked on scholarly investigations into a subject that in their former homeland had been banned from public discussion, not to mention educational institutions.
Although, as mentioned, the 2016 Bundestag resolution called for introducing genocide studies into school curricula in Germany, very little progress in this direction has been made. It is at the federal state level that Germans decide on what is presented in the classroom. As Hofmann has reported, of the 16 German federal states, two-thirds now allow for genocide lessons, but many educators and school officials hesitate, out of fear. Her proposal is to campaign for such instruction to become obligatory, and to prepare teaching materials for classroom use.
The new book edited by Rieck and Ordukhanyan is made to order. For advanced study of the genocide, its historical and ideological background, its organization and personalities, scholars rightly go to the archives, to study official government documents and establish the incontrovertible facts.
For youngsters in school, it is not only the facts and figures that matter, but the confrontation with a human tragedy, mediated through the highly personal stories of discrete individuals, especially those who experienced it as children, or received the traumatic memory through generational transmission. In the anthology there are 27 true stories of persons from five nations, each told in as a unique experience, each different, and yet all partaking of a shared destiny.
“This book rescues the ‘prototype of genocides of the 20th century’ from oblivion, in that grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the victims dare to tell the story of inextinguishable memories in a breathtaking manner.” This is the view of Arno Lohmann, former Director of the Evangelical City Academy in Bochum.
“It is not an easy book,” he goes on. “One cannot simply narrate what is gruesome. But for precisely this reason, the book is brilliant, courageous and at the same time encouraging, because it dares to name the impossible by name — and thereby to open the way to hope and freedom. The book is an unmistakable call to peace and must be available in schools, universities and adult education.”