Genocide Survivors Exemplify Human Resilience
This past weekend, the oldest residents of the New York Armenian Home in Flushing shared their memories as victims of the first organized genocide of the 20th century. The survivors recounted their memories of watching relatives being murdered before their then young eyes, forced marches through the Syrian desert, starvation and torture. They also recounted instances of how some of their Muslim neighbors sheltered the young victims and helped them get to safety in Lebanon, Syria and eventually the United States.
The genocidal acts that began in 1915 and continued until 1923 did not constitute the first or only occasion Armenian Christians were subject to persecution in a non-Christian nation. It was, however, the first time that a government made systematic, organized attempts to wipe out an entire indigenous population as a matter of policy. That government succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of those who planned and carried out the massacres. Prior to 1915, despite sporadic persecutions going back centuries, two million Armenians lived and worshiped in 2,000 churches in Turkish-controlled Armenia. After the genocide, 70,000 Armenians and 50 churches remained.
The lessons of the first organized, systematic genocidal act of the 20th century did not go unnoticed by succeeding generations. “Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler was quoted as asking in August 1939 as he prepared to undertake the systematic annihilation of six million Jews and another six million gypsies, homosexuals and other groups he deemed “racially undesirable”. The Holocaust was followed by the killing fields of Cambodia, “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia, Serbia and other Balkan states and the conflict between Rwandan minority Tutsi, who had controlled power for centuries, and the majority Hutu that broke out in 1994. The 21st century got off to a flying start as far as genocides were concerned, with conflicts in the region of Darfur in Sudan and Sri Lanka, an island nation off the southern coast of India. We know we have hit just the high spots; at this moment around the world, members of one ethnic group, nationality or tribe are trying assiduously to wipe another off the face of the earth.
We like to think that we as human beings are capable of improvement. Our species points with pride to our having developed from the humanoid fossils of Olduvai Gorge in Africa to the specimens we are today. Like a certain brand of paint, we humans cover the earth and, we like to think, have, in a good many instances, left it better than we found it. Sadly, though, sometimes there are those who decide that “improving” a particular corner of the world means eradicating other human beings.
The venerable residents at the New York Armenian Home who have retold their stories in anticipation of the commemoration of the 1915-1923 genocide deserve the world’s attention and respect. They and the other survivors of the monstrous crimes against humanity that pervaded the last century and the beginning years of this one in which we find ourselves make us realize once again that even as man is capable of indescribable evil, so too can mankind achieve immeasurable good. We are beings endowed with free will; it seems to us that in spite of the evil which sometimes threatens to overwhelm us, more often than not we choose the higher path, however strewn with obstacles it may be. Hope springs eternal, and like spring, we welcome it as rejuvenation of our weary hearts in which altruism and nobility still remain unconquered.