"His polished, sometimes even poetic prose evokes a sense of curiosity and lament. In response to his family’s silence—and to the silence of a whole people still shellshocked by their grim treatment—Kalajian has become a professional storyteller and an excellent one at that." Kirkus Reviews

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Armenians should learn from the success of efforts to educate the world about the Holocaust

Why is there no  major film
 about the Armenian Genocide?
In my experience, Jewish people respond more strongly and with greater empathy to stories of our tragic history than any other non-Armenians. Many are well aware that Hitler was emboldened by the world's refusal to punish the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide.

Then why do some Armenians bristle at any mention of the Holocaust?

Their complaint boils down to this: We were slaughtered first, so why do they get all the attention? Implicit in this thinking is a fallacy: recognition of the Holocaust and recognition of the Armenian Genocide are not mutually exclusive.

The impression of an imbalance exists for a number of reasons, among them Israel's stubborn and shameful refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. But the most obvious reason is the volume and frequency of Holocaust references in the media. Armenians notice this more than most because we're so sensitive to the Genocide's relative lack of recognition.

Many of us, however, don't realize that today's Holocaust consciousness is the result of a long and sometimes complicated effort.

Like Armenians after the Genocide, many Jewish refugees focused on rebuilding their own lives after World War II rather than reliving their nightmare. Even many American Jews, conscious of antisemitism here at home, shied away from talking publicly about the tragic events in Europe.

Several developments after the war encouraged survivors to speak about what they'd experienced: The Nuremberg prosecution of war criminals documented and exposed the Nazis' crimes. Faced with the world's judgment, Germany renounced its past and began making reparations.

Finally, the creation of Israel lent survivors a sense of hope as well as purpose. Giving testimony about the death camps and other atrocities became a way to help ensure that the world would not allow a recurrence.

Even so, public consciousness was slow to awaken while much of the conversation remained muted. The Holocaust as an upper-case term didn't begin to come into popular use until the 1960s. Schindler's List, the first major Hollywood film to deal with the Holocaust graphically and at length, wasn't released until 1993.

Armenians have had more time to find their voice but they've had a much harder time making it heard.

The Western powers abandoned the Armenians after the Great War and quickly withdrew their attention and sympathy. Absent the sort of international pressure Germany experienced, Turkey has continued to deny history while continuing to receive military and economic support from America and its allies.

As a result of these disparate circumstances, Holocaust deniers are rightly dismissed as kooks while Genocide deniers receive cover from an American government that will not acknowledge the history documented in its own records.

These are undeniably serious obstacles, but they're not insurmountable—and that is the crucial point.

I understand why my father spoke so seldom and quietly about the horrors he experienced as a child, but I'm under no such compulsion. I'm blessed to live in a country where I can't be prosecuted for speaking the truth about the Armenian experience before, during and after the Genocide.

The hoodlums who committed that horror tried to erase me before I was born but they failed. No one stopped me from writing a book about my struggle to learn my history and embrace my identity. It may be too late to hear the stories of our parents and grandparents, but we can tell their stories as well as our own.

It's worth noting that the screenplay for Schindler's List was written by Steve Zaillian, an Armenian-American who won an Oscar for his efforts. So why has there been no such ambitious portrayal of the Armenian Genocide?

I know about the efforts over the years to keep Hollywood from making such a movie, but Hollywood is an anachronism. Today there are more ways then ever to tell a story visually and deliver it to an audience anywhere in the world.

Who could stop us if we were truly committed?

To me it's clear that we Armenians simply haven't told our story loudly enough or well enough or insistently enough to command the world's attention. Instead of resenting the effectiveness of writers, film producers and survivors who keep the Holocaust in view, we should admire and emulate them.

1 comment:

  1. Very valid. I will never forget, in high school in 1967, an English teacher explaining that for one hour she would depart from normal lessons to tell us the story of how she survived the Holocaust. It was a stirring account. She said she considered it her duty to tell each class about it. Up to then, she had never raised the subject and it was never mentioned again, but this single hour left a life long impression on every student. Small actions can mean a lot.

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