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Central California Life Magazine

First Modern Genocide: The Impact of 100 Years

Apr 21, 2015 09:26PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

First Modern Genocide

The Impact of 100 Years

by Monica Prinzing

Blood-red paint splattered dramatically across a large, white canvas quickly catches the eye. A closer look reveals words meticulously etched in black: Starvation. Massacres. Escaped. Annihilation of the Armenians…


For the artist, Hannah Kechloian, who is a mix of Swedish, English, Welch, Irish – and only one-quarter Armenian – the Armenian genocide is a family wound that runs deep. Soul deep.

It wasn't until the 23-year-old college student became a teenager that she understood why.

“I knew there was genocide and it affected my dad, but I didn't know the full story.”Hannah said, referring to Simon Kechloian. “It was a painful topic.”

Most historians consider the tragedies of 1915 during World War I the first modern genocide, obliterating one of civilization’s oldest cultures and scattering men, women and children into diaspora around the globe.

The Turkish government attributes the mayhem of that period to the unfortunate consequences of internal conflicts and war – not genocide.

As activities marking the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide continue internationally, this ongoing denial from Turkey, say Armenians, profoundly affects their ability to heal, and wrongly encourages ethnic cleansing throughout the world.

“It is important that the Armenian genocide be fully integrated into human history,” said Richard Hovannisian, an historian and professor emeritus at University of California, Los Angeles, known internationally as the pioneer of Armenian studies. “It was a calamity that belongs not only to a single people but also to the entire world as it shaped many subsequent events and raises critical issues relating to the prevention and punishment of crimes against humanity.”

Recurring family stories

Armenian genocide family stories are each unique, yet hauntingly the same. Accounts abound of ruthless impalement, rape, death marches through the Syrian and Iraqi deserts, mass graves, executions, burning villages, primitive gas chambers in caves, orphaned children…

“Only the names and faces change,” said Rosie Bedrosian, former principal of the Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School in Clovis.

“You could make a movie out of each one,” said radiologist Dr. Hagop Tookoian, who is believed to have brought the first computed tomography technology to Fresno.

Simon’s grandfather, also named Simon Kechloian, was saving money at a factory job in Connecticut when upon hearing of the mass killings he returned to discover nearly every member of his large family murdered. His twin sisters jumped to their deaths into a river to escape suffering.

“He lost everything,” Simon, age 63, said. “Filled with rage, he joined a revolutionary band that raided Turkish villages to defend the Armenian people.”

An Armenian officer in the Russian army battling the Ottoman Turks befriended Simon’s grandfather. Soon the grandfather married the officer’s sister, Mary, and the newlyweds and Mary’s younger sister attempted passage to America to start a new life. Their arduous voyage ended in a refugee camp in Yokohama, Japan, before entering the U.S. through a San Francisco port and settling in the San Joaquin Valley.

Reminiscent of their lost homeland with its fertile soil, striking mountains and warm climate, the Valley became a cherished haven to many Armenians to rebuild their lives and restore their shattered hearts.

Will to survive

Determined to succeed, Armenians turned to theircultural values for support. “Armenians’ emphasis on faith, family, education and work ethicis what has helped us to survive and prosper,” Fresno County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said.

William Saroyan, the Pulitzer Prize and Oscar winner famous for his stories about growing up impoverished as the son of Armenian immigrants in Fresno, wrote, “Merely to survive is to keep the hope greatness, accuracy, and the grace alive.”

Local officials estimate about one in 10 people – or 50,000 – living in the Valley are full or part Armenian, many of them business owners, doctors, lawyers, entertainers, teachers, farmers and civil leaders.

“Armenians would work other people’s farms, and then within five, 10 years, they’d own their own,” said Chuck Poochigian, justice of the California Court of Appeal who, along with his wife, Debbie, is a descendant of Armenian genocide survivors.

Such was the case for Simon and Mary. Arriving penniless, they worked diligently until eventually purchasing a 50-acre parcel south of Fresno. They planted grapes for production, peaches, apricots and vegetables to sell at the fresh market to support their growing family of four children.

Similar to other minority populations, Armenians experienced significant discrimination. Often referred to as the “Fresno Indians,” Armenians were not allowed, for example, to own property or live in certain parts of Fresno, even well into the 1970s.

Nevertheless, Armenians maintained their customs while adapting to their new surroundings, from making learning English a priority, to sometimes modifying their names to sound less ethnic.

Identity struggles

Growing up in the 1930s, Simon’s father, Garabed “Gary” Kechloian, coped with prejudice along with his father’s outspoken recollections of the genocide by distancing himself from his own “Armenian-ness.”

“My emotions were in limbo,” Garabed, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran, said. “I didn’t join Armenian organizations or embrace the Armenian culture.”

Now 90 years old, the Visalia resident keeps active as a part-time security guard. Although Garabed still speaks Armenian, his decision early on to detach from that part of himself has continued for a lifetime.

Simon experienced the opposite. Years spent visiting Garabed’s parents with his twin brother and working summers in their vineyards instilled a deep-seated connection to his Armenian roots.

But Simon felt conflicted. On one hand, he learned from his grandparents the value of hard work, family, farming and Armenian culture. On the other, he vividly recalls gruesome descriptions of murder and torture committed by the Ottoman Turks to exterminate Armenians and efforts to fight back that his spirited grandfather told him as a little boy, leaving an indelible dark hole in his being well until adulthood.

“My grandfather was an amazing warrior,” Simon, a Fresno native, said. “He had rage because of the slaughter and genocide he lived with his entire life. But I had become a vessel for his hatred that I now was left to process and get rid of for him, my grandmother, and all of their lost family members.”

Hushed anguish

Simon’s grandfather and grandmother lived until ages 95 and 81, respectively, but died before Hannah was born. Raised in Ashland, Oregon, Hannah saw her grandfather, Garabed, on holidays but Simon sheltered her from the details of what their Armenian ancestors endured.

“I didn't want her to internalize the same stories like I did,” said Simon, a successful commercial real estate broker and grape grower/farmer who lives in Ashland.

A high school assignment inspired Hannah to create a performance art piece reflecting the influence of her ancestors, opening the door to a life-changing, father-daughter conversation and the chance to reconcile four generations of hushed anguish.

Then age 16, Hannah heard the specifics for the first time about one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century and her family’s place in history. Shocked by her new knowledge, she started splashing red paint.

“I saw the painting as an opportunity to help my dad and his family let the pain go,” the aspiring schoolteacher recalled of her project at Oxbow School founded by winemaker Robert Mondavi in Napa, California.

Hannah intended to burn the artwork with her father as a symbolic gesture of purification but Simon asked her not to destroy it. In commemoration of the centennial, he offered the painting titled “Conflagration” (a destructive fire), to the Armenian Museum of Fresno as an expression of Hannah’s great-grandparents’ tribulations.

“What’s interesting is Hannah is only part Armenian,” said Varoujan Der Simonian, the museum’s executive director, admiring the painting hanging outside his office. “It shows how deep this issue goes through the generations.”

A difficult subject

While Simon remembers his grandparents discussing the genocide as young as 5 years old, many Armenian families avoid the subject, even in their own homes.

“It’s often too painful for people – telling the story means having to relive it,” said Bedrosian, whose husband, Bryan Bedrosian, is ranch manager at National Raisin Company, a family business in Fowler that has expanded into the country’s largest independent raisin processor.

Dr. Tookoian knows this about his own parents who lost their family during the “Great Calamity.”

“Mom would say, ‘I haven’t seen a lot but your dad has,’ but we never had a dialogue about it,” he recalled growing up in Detroit, Michigan, one of several American cities where large groups of Armenians relocated. “Sometimes dad would play very sad songs by himself on his clarinet. Maybe that was his way of expressing his grief.”

This past year, Dr. Tookoian at age 82 finally uncovered the details when he translated his late father’s memoirs and learned how he made his way to Boston, Massachusetts, when he was only 15. Dr. Tookoian’s mother escaped the ill fate of her parents when a Kurdish family took her in as a little girl before later moving to an orphanage with other Armenian children.

“The purpose of the centennial is to memorialize the murdered Armenians and recognize those who persevered,” Dr. Tookoian said, leaning back in his office chair. “That’s more important than hating.”

Turkish denial

A subject many Armenians do talk about openly is the Republic of Turkey’s unwavering denial its former regime committed an Armenian genocide. Until recently, discussing the topic, or to “insult Turkishness,” was punishable under Turkish law.

“The genocide affects all Armenians, whether directly affected by the genocide or not,” Abraham Terian, an internationally acclaimed scholar in Classical Armenian and Hellenistic Judaism, said. “For Turkey not to recognize it only perpetuates the genocide.”

“We are proud to be Americans but we have an obligation to our ancestors not to forget,” Debbie Poochigian said. “No one would say forget about the Holocaust or slavery.”

Today, more than 20 countries as well as The International Association of Genocide Scholars, recognize the events of 1915 as genocide. On the eve of the 99th anniversary, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (then prime minister) made international headlines when he offered condolences to the Armenian community over the “shared pain” all people in the region experienced. While Erdogan stopped short of stating genocide, some Armenians viewed his message as a positive step.

Days later on Bloomberg TV’s Charlie Rose show, Erdogan rejected characterizing the deaths of Armenians as genocide. If that happened, he said, Armenians wouldn’t be living in Turkey today, and Turkey wouldn’t turn a blind eye to such a “crime against humanity.”

“More of the same lies,” Der Simonian said.

A ‘human issue’

Akin to double murder, denial – the eighth and final stage of genocide – destroys the victims psychologically while negating the memory of their slain relatives. “It’s not just an Armenian issue, it’s a human issue,” Der Simonian said.

Hovannisian, whose Fresno-native son, Raffi Hovannisian, became the first Foreign Minister of the Republic of Armenia and founded the opposition party, concedes that for victims to heal, it is essential the world know the truth of their suffering.

“This factor applies first and foremost to the perpetrator regime, as conciliation and ultimate forgiveness must be preceded by confession and contrition,” Hovannisian, born in Tulare to Armenian genocide survivors, said. “To date, the perpetrator has steadfastly refused to do either and continues to illegally possess the economic and cultural wealth and historic patrimony of the Armenian people.”

“Denial implies permission to commit unspeakable acts to remedy differences,” Der Simonian said. “Look at Rwanda, Darfur and what’s happening in the Middle East.”

“If you deny one genocide, you deny all genocides,” Jack Nusan Porter, a child of Holocaust survivors and a genocide studies scholar, reportedly said.

Isabel Bayrakdarian, Grammy Award-nominated opera singer, with a degree in biomedical engineering, said although the genocide killed families like those of her grandparents “who ended up orphaned and scarred for life from the atrocities they witnessed,” Armenians’ unbreakable spirit lives on.

“The fact that 100 years later, we as Armenian people still exist, thrive, build, pray, love, laugh, sing, and speak our language, is the ultimate testament of the human spirit to rise above evil and follow goodness and light,” Bayrakdarian, a Lebanon native who lives part-time in Fresno near family, said.

Hye Movement, a group composed of local Armenian youth organizations, agrees. “We want to raise awareness about the genocide by showing the world love through social campaigns to promote positivity, spark change and prevent like atrocities,” said founder Tamar Karkazian.

To honor Armenians killed in the genocide, for instance, the group’s “1.5 for 1.5” effort is calling on the community to collectively pledge and record 1.5 million acts of kindness ranging from helping a neighbor to donating to a women’s shelter.

Other Hye (“Armenian”) M efforts include a Heart to Heart project featuring people’s descriptions of what the genocide means to them, and a collection drive that provided clothing and toys to the less fortunate in Armenia and the Valley.

“This is our grassroots way of helping people understand the importance of acknowledging genocide and the power of turning a negative into a positive,” Karkazian, director of media relations, Complete Marketing Solutions, said.

Early recognition

Post-WWII, the United States Congress has refrained from formally recognizing the events of 1915 as genocide, largely due to concern over damaging diplomatic relations with its NATO ally Turkey.

“But the U.S. already has recognized it,” emphasized Terian, an emeritus professor of Armenian theology and patristics at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary in New Rochelle, New York.“Events in Armenia were well-documented. President Woodrow Wilson had a plan to restore Armenia. He drew a map bigger than Armenia today.”

Other notables like Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, journalist H.L.  Mencken, and U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., widely addressed the brutalities. In 1915 alone, The New York Times published 145 stories about the massacres of Armenians. The American charity, Near East Relief, distributed $117 million in unprecedented, lifesaving aid to genocide victims in affected regions.

The tragedy influenced Raphael Lemkin, the legal scholar of Polish-Jewish origin who in 1943 coined the term genocide – a deliberate, systematic campaign to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, and after the Armenians, Hitler took action,” Lemkin stated in a rare, 1949 CBS television interview.

“When you hear it from the lips of the survivors, there is no denying it,” said Chuck Poochigian, who repeatedly introduced resolutions while serving in the California State Legislature to commemorate the Armenian genocide.

Armenians experiencing the cruelties sought help from relatives and friends living abroad, including those who settled in the Valley. In May, the Armenian Museum of Fresno will publish “The Cry of the Tormented,” a unique collection of more than 300 “letters from home.” Translated for the first time in different languages, including English, Spanish and Russian, “the letters provide insight and detailed descriptions of what our ancestors suffered,” Der Simonian said.

In an exclusive excerpt, one of the letters begins “My Dear Brother” from Satenik, the recipient’s sister, in Der Zor, considered the “Auschwitz” of the Armenian genocide where hundreds of thousands died during death marches into the heart of the Syrian desert.

“Close to 170 male adults were snatched from our ill-fated caravan, blindfolded and put to death,” the letter reads. “I am the only survivor in our family. I witnessed one by one how viciously they got killed, perished from torture and hunger. I will face the same destiny and fate. What was our nation’s dream and what are we facing now?”

Armenian legacy

Armenians’ preoccupation with Turkish denial has become intertwined with Armenian identity, according to Terian, a Jerusalem native.

“We are so focused on the genocide we tend to forget our national heritage,” Terian explained in his Fresno living room. “Our ancient manuscripts, which are primarily religious-based, are Armenia’s true identity.”

Located in the highlands surrounding the Biblical mountains of Ararat, Armenia dates back to antiquity. In 301 AD, St. Gregory the Illuminator led the small kingdom to become the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion. The then newly built cathedral, the mother church in Etchmiadzin, remains the seat of the Catholicos, religious leader of all Armenians.

In 405 AD, St. Mesrop Mashtots invented the Armenian alphabet, marking the beginning of classical Armenian literature and securing a distinct nation. The Bible was the first book written in Armenian letters. The collection of thousands of manuscripts that followed relating to history, religion, art, science and other topics, became one of Armenia’s most precious treasures, demonstrating a highly developed culture, spiritual values and excellence.

“It is simply in the nature of Armenian to study, to learn, to question, to speculate, to discover, to invent, to revise, to restore, to preserve, to make, and to give,” Saroyan wrote.

A relatively few specially trained scholars continue to unravel these sacred writings’ secrets and knowledge. “If I had 10 lifetimes, I’d still barely scratch the surface,” Terian said.

Throughout the centuries, noble and common people alike have risked their lives to save the manuscripts from aggressors but thousands of these documents perished. “Their destruction is a loss not only for the Armenian people but also for humanity,” Terian said.

About half of the 25,000 ancient Armenian manuscripts that “miraculously remain” are preserved at The Matenadaran in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, Terian said.  One of the richest depositories in the world, The Matenadaran holds many translations of ancient foreign texts into the classical Armenian language, some existing as the only original source.

“We don’t have the monopoly on our Armenian food and dance,” Terian said, noting other cultures feature similar versions. “We do have the monopoly on our ancient Armenian manuscripts. This is our legacy.”

A healing journey

While Simon considers Turkey’s acknowledgement of the genocide crucial, he longed to heal. Prior to Hannah’s painting, he began an introspective journey to free himself from the shackles of his grandfather’s pain. His final step involved traveling to Armenia to see the country and honor his ancestors who died during the genocide.

“I knew my life purpose was to break the cycle, to create forgiveness and move beyond the hatred,” Simon said.

Simon’s healing process culminated with a requiem mass at Etchmiadzin on Nov. 1, 2006 – the “Day of the Dead.” Father Armen Devejian, an Armenian-American with ties to Fresno who was working with the Catholicos, facilitated the tradition in which families may request prayers for deceased loved ones’ souls.

“It was very powerful,” Simon said. “It has taken many years of processing and reflection to overcome the emotions of such a tragedy – finally.”

Simon’s trip didn’t end there. Retracing his grandfather’s past, he visited Russia next before facing his greatest fear: Turkey.

During a weeklong stint in Istanbul, Simon spent his first night in one of the world’s largest cities as a guest in an ornate mansion. Immersing himself in the culture, he drank wine with more than two dozen intellectual Turks, visited sultan palaces, walked the cosmopolitan streets and ate Turkish food.

“Simon is courageous,” Der Simonian said. “He went to the heart – literally. He confronted the beast.”

“I feel so much lighter, at peace, balanced,” Simon said confidently.

Supportive of her father, Hannah added, “Acknowledgement from Turkey is important, but we need to find other ways to heal.”

Forgiveness and justice

For many people, forgiving the unrepentant can be difficult, if not impossible.

“If you don’t ask for forgiveness, why should I give it to you?” Der Simonian asked rhetorically. “Turkey committed a crime. They should accept that and make reparations accordingly.”

For Simon, forgiveness is a form of self-preservation: “If you don’t forgive, it will eventually destroy you – like a cancer.”

How to achieve justice is another dilemma. “Armenians aren’t demanding all their land back, but Turkey could show goodwill,” Terian said. “Returning Mt. Ararat to the Republic of Armenia would be a good start.”

The national symbol that dominates Yerevan’s skyline lies within Turkish borders near the abandoned ancient Armenian city of Ani, with no direct access allowed. “Ararat is for us what the Western Wall is for the Jewish people,” Terian said. “The Jewish people were restless until they got it back.”

Following the genocide, Turkey continued the horror by methodically eradicating numerous historic Armenian sites within Turkey and revising historical accounts, according to Terian. “In the past decade, Turkey has made some concessions but not enough to make a dent,” Terian said. “Given our present situation, we Armenians have become content with tokens – tokens of Armenian-ness.”

Creating a positive future

“I love Armenian people — all of them,” Saroyan wrote. “I love them because they are a part of the enormous human race, which of course I find simultaneously beautiful and vulnerable.”

As Armenians unite for Remembrance Day to honor the past while celebrating their survival and contributions to civilization, the obvious question becomes, “What’s next?”

Going forward, Terian advised the nearly 10 million Armenians worldwide to reduce partisanship and pull together for a common purpose: “The more fragmented we are the less chance we have to survive.”

While much work remains to improve relations between Turkey and Armenia,

Hovannisian sees signs of hope: “Fortunately, there is a small but growing number of Turkish scholars, intellectuals, and members of civil society that has begun to challenge the false state narrative of the events beginning in 1915. Their commitment to truth is opening new avenues for investigation and hopefully ultimate conciliation with the Armenian people.”

Healing individually and collectively is integral to creating a positive future. For Simon, his traumatized soul feels whole, the broken pieces previously consumed with anger restored.

“Armenians – humans – have this unbelievable ability to survive,” Simon said intently. “It’s in our DNA. The best justice is success. We overcome suffering by continuing on and making our lives count. Our relatives did.”

The strength and beauty of his Armenian heritage fill Simon’s being, content in the thought that what began as his own healing journey brought peace to his murdered ancestors and his daughter’s future.

At the museum, an old photograph depicts Armenian men who returned to fight for their families during the genocide. With a slight smile, Der Simonian points to a figure he recently learned the identity of: Simon’s grandfather. Ironically, the photo hangs just feet across from Hannah’s painting, the warrior great-grandfather she never met looking on.

Monica Prinzing is a full-time writer in the medical field. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she enjoys freelancing on various topics.

Cover photo by Kelly Petersen

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Historic photos courtesy of Armenian Museum of Fresno