Armenians started using the word ‘genocide’ in 1945, Khatchig Mouradian shows
Armenian newspaper archives have the evidence
Published: Friday June 26, 2009
Minneapolis - In a telling scene – in the most literal sense – of Peter Balakian's Black Dog of Fate, Aunt Gladys finally breaks decades of family silence about 1915, revealing that her mother, Balakian's grandmother Nafina, addressed the Armenian General Benevolent Union at the 25th anniversary commemoration. "We didn't use the term genocide then," Aunt Gladys explains, "we said ‘the massacres'."
The emotional audience response to her mother's speech made a deep impression on the young girl. It was 1940, FDR's America, not "a world where people went public about such things," Aunt Gladys recalls. "The events of the past were not only too painful, they were beyond words."
FDR's America, and the world, were about to learn a new word, coined in the aftermath of the Holocaust by jurist Raphael Lemkin and defined in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. The extermination campaigns of the two world wars were linked not only by Hitler's famous question – "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" – but also, on several occasions, by Lemkin himself. "One million Armenians died," he wrote, "but a law against the murder of peoples was written with the ink of their blood and the spirit of their sufferings" ("Dr. Lemkin, Father of Genocide Convention, Reviews Work Relating to Turkish Massacres," Hairenik Weekly, January 1, 1959).
A groundbreaking presentation
The Armenians' struggle to grasp and name the catastrophe that had befallen them; their adoption, as early as 1945, of this new word, genocide; and the recent appropriation of an older term, Medz Yeghern, by world leaders and Turkish apologizers, were the topics of a groundbreaking presentation by Khachador (Khatchig) Mouradian at the University of Minnesota on June 17.
With quotes from Armenian newspapers of the 1940s and 1950s, Mr. Mouradian, the editor of the Armenian Weekly, highlighted the ethnic press of the day as a valuable but largely overlooked research source on the Genocide Convention, Raphael Lemkin, and the evolution of Armenian discourse on 1915. Featured in his talk were articles in English from the Boston-based Hairenik Weekly (the former name of the Armenian Weekly) and in Armenian from Haratch (Paris) as well as Aztag, the Lebanese-Armenian daily of which Mr. Mouradian was an editor from 2000 to 2007.
Welcoming the audience of about 60 to the seventh Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Lecture, Ohanessian Chairholder Eric Weitz paid memorial tribute to philanthropist Arsham Ohanessian as well as his sister, the late concert pianist Beatrice Ohanessian, and Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies director Stephen Feinstein, the latter two having died in 2008. While introducing the speaker, Prof. Weitz announced that Mr. Mouradian will be Taner Akçam's first doctoral student at Clark University. Prof. Akçam, formerly of the University of Minnesota, was named to an endowed chair of Armenian Genocide studies last year.
In the beginning, most Armenian survivors spoke of the aksor (dispossession) or chart (massacre), words that had also been used for earlier persecutions, such as the Adana conflagration of 1909, Mr. Mouradian said. Thus, implicitly, they located their immediate personal experience within a continuous historical narrative of Armenian suffering.
In contrast, the decimated intelligentsia sought to comprehend the unprecedented scale of the great (medz) disaster, using such expressions as yeghern or aghed, ‘catastrophe'; voghperkutiun, ‘tragedy'; voghchagez, ‘holocaust'; nahadagutiun, ‘martyrdom'; nakhjir or sbant, ‘massacre'; potorig, ‘storm'; and sev vojir, ‘black crime'.
From yeghern to genocide
Of all these, "Medz Yeghern became the word of choice," said Mr. Mouradian, noting that this ancient expression of calamity, which appears several times in the Armenian Bible, has been in continuous use from the fifth century to the present but became capitalized only in specific reference to 1915.
Countering the claim, popular in Turkish media and academic circles, that Armenians have used the word genocide only since the 1980s, Mr. Mouradian cited examples from the Armenian press even before the U.N. Convention was approved. On December 9, 1945, just two months after the Nuremberg defendants were indicted for "genocide," Haratch became the first paper to introduce the new expression to Armenian readers.
"We read these lines, we follow the Nuremberg trials, and our mind instinctively wanders to a far away world, where ‘war crimes' took place 30 years ago," wrote Haratch editor Shavarsh Misakian. "Where were the jurists and judges back then?" he added. "Had they not discovered the word, or was the blood-thirsty monster so powerful or unreachable that they could not punish it?" ("Génocide," Dec. 9, 1945).
"It is small comfort to tell already exterminated peoples that they shall no longer be subjected to the horrors of wanton destruction," declared the Hairenik Weekly, adding: "The Armenians were robbed of their historic provinces, they sacrificed a cool million and a half human lives, and another million were made expatriates. In compensation for this colossal wrong the United Nations offers them a ‘Genocide'. The Genocide is hardly the cure for Armenian wounds" ("Genocide," Jan. 30, 1947).