Eighty-five years after the Armenian genocide
An Emory English professor studies the literature of third-generation survivors.
"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians" -Adolf Hitler, 1939, on the eve of the invasion of Poland
NEARLY A CENTURY ago, Mihran T. Kalaidjian, a passionate young Congregationalist minister in Nyack, New York, envisioned an enlightened Near Eastern state, a place where Christians, Muslims, and Jews could live as equals, contrasting and complementing one another like the deep red and brilliant yellow threads of a woolen kilim, the traditional flat-weave carpet of that region.
A Yale University graduate student of history, philosophy, and theology and an activist in the U.S. Armenian community, Kalaidjian had immigrated to the United States in 1904 from the Anatolian Plain in Turkey, then the domain of the vast but declining Ottoman Empire.
"The Turkish problem is a very complex one; it is not only a political one, but is racial and religious at the same time. What is, then, the future of Turkey" he asked in a 1906 essay in the journal Armenia.
More than two million Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire, concentrated in the eastern provinces and straddling the border of Tsarist Russia. As Christian subjects of an Islamic state, they had no legal rights, could not vote or serve in the military, and were heavily taxed. In 1909, the revolutionary Young Turks came into office with the motto "liberty, justice, equality, fraternity," ending centuries of autocratic rule under the Ottoman sultans and promising democratic reforms. The new government seemed to be the answer to the Armenians' prayers.
"I remember well both the uncanny thrill and poignancy of discovering my grandfather's publication while doing online database research on the Armenian genocide," says Walter B. Kalaidjian, professor of English at Emory and the grandson of Mihran Kalaidjian. "On the one hand, I felt a certain empowerment in picking up the thread of his writing and of his utopian commitment to a modern world order. On the other hand, I was struck by the irony of what the future of Turkey soon became for him and his entire extended family, community, and nation."
As the First World War raged throughout Europe in the spring of 1915 and the Turks waged expensive and bloody battles against the Allied Russians, the same government that originally had offered hope to the Armenians began a systematic deportation and elimination of nearly the entire Armenian population within its borders. Spurred by nationalism and pan-Turkism, the government accused Armenians of sympathizing with the Christian Tsarists, massacred some one million Armenians, looted and burned Armenian homes and villages, and forced hundreds of thousands of women, children, and elderly to leave their homes in death marches to the deserts of what is now Syria. A distraught Mihran Kalaidjian turned his efforts to relief and resettlement, traveling as a fundraiser and lecturer for the Near East Relief Society, which provided assistance to Armenian refugees fleeing Turkey.
The twentieth century's first genocide was well underway.
ECHOES OF THESE GRISLY IMAGES have recurred time and again over the decades, first during the Nazi Holocaust, then in the killing fields of Cambodia, and later in Rwanda and Guatemala, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Though Walter Kalaidjian says he had always been aware of the atrocities that shaped his grandfather's life, it took a barrage of media images from Africa and the Balkans to jolt him into turning his professional energies toward researching genocide in literature. In doing so, he discovered his grandfather's writings and an entire genre of literature whose scholarly depths have yet to be plumbed: the literature of third-generation Armenian-American survivors of the genocide.
"The story of the Armenian genocide has not had the same kind of impact on the popular imagination that the Holocaust has had. It's not a widely told story," says Kalaidjian, whose research until recently focused on twentieth-century American poetry and modernism. "History itself does not always provide an adequate medium for witnessing to extreme events. This is especially true in the Armenian case, where the occasions and rituals of commemorating and mourning the trauma of genocide have been repressed. So literature becomes the medium that records the human truths of the event and supplements the historical record."
Kalaidjian has pieced together accounts of what happened in Turkey all those years ago. This spring, he received a University Research Committee grant that enabled him to acquire fifty videotapes of firsthand survivor testimony. The tapes, from the Zoryan Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, became available in Emory's Special Collections Department this fall and joined a wide range of holdings in the areas of genocide and Holocaust studies.
The video testimonies, he says, provide an immediate and troubling encounter with the realities of genocide and mass industrial murder. "It's difficult material to work with. It's grim, it's horrific, it's eerie. [But] it provides an enormously illuminating context for reading the literature and understanding the persistence and transmission of the trauma of genocide across generations."
AS HE DISCUSSES he discusses the Armenian genocide from his office overlooking the Quad, Kalaidjian is clearly disconcerted.
Outside, students with spring fever toss Frisbees and avoid studying for final exams. Inside, Kalaidjian quietly recounts his discovery of an ethnic heritage that has been peripheral at most for his family since his grandfather died when he was three.
"It's easier to write about than to talk about," he says simply and frankly.
A lanky, bespectacled man with coarse, black hair salted with grey, Kalaidjian appears to be of Near Eastern descent. But his surname is the giveaway: the suffix "-ian" was given to Armenian subjects by the Ottomans long before the genocide. Like the Irish "O'-" and "Mc-" it means "son of."
In his literary and personal investigations, Kalaidjian has encountered a whole community of fellow Armenian-Americans, among them Peter Balakian and Dianna Der Hovanessian, poets whose work Kalaidjian is now studying and with whom he corresponds about the third-generation survivor experience. Der Hovanessian, president of the New England Poetry Club, is a visiting poet and guest lecturer at various universities; Balakian is an English professor at Colgate University.
Both Balakian and Der Hovanessian are Kalaidjian's age and, like him, grew up in suburban America during the 1950s and '60s, a life experience significantly different from that of their Armenian ancestors. The contrast between their lives as "normal" American teens in the 1950s--rooting for the Yankees, listening to rock and roll, sharing milkshakes with friends--and the atrocities their families faced has had a dramatic impact on the art of both Balakian and Der Hovanessian.
When these writers turned their poetic efforts toward the genocide, Kalaidjian says, their work virtually began to explode with dense, rich imagery that also seems to float, strangely unrooted, like the writers' own conflicted emotions.
"Peter's poems encode the experiences [of his grandparents and extended family in Turkey], interestingly enough, through floral imagery," says Kalaidjian. "He has these very sensuous images of floral motifs, almost like Georgia O'Keefe's huge floral canvases. Tulips and poppies. Fields of red tulips and poppies recur as icons of the killing fields of the genocide. [In other poems, there is] the glare of a certain quality of light, which is invasive."
Balakian described the effect of the genocide on his own poetry in his 1997 memoir, Black Dog of Fate. "The journey into history, into the Armenian genocide, was for me inseparable from poetry," he says. "Poetry was part of the journey and the excavation."
>From "The Field of Poppies"
Cypress spiral to the sky.
You want the red to cover
Copyright © 1983 by Peter Balakian. Reprinted with permission.
Photo | Circa 1915: Armenian women and children refugees gather on
the banks of the Euphrates River at Deir-el-Zor, a principle
deportation destination in what is today Syria. The refugees were
marching to Baghdad from their homes in Kharpert, the site of major
Photo | Four-year-old Vazken Boyajian (left), shown here in a 1915
portrait with his brother Garabed, was kidnapped on the
deportation route to Deir-el-Zor and never heard from again,
despite repeated attempts to locate him by the Red Cross and his
parents, who were deported to Baghdad.
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