‘Our Medium is Art, the Book, the Violin…’


 

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOCHUM, Germany — What do Germans know about Armenians? The answer will vary from city to city and from one social layer to another. But surely overall it can be said, they do not know enough.

Many initiatives are underway in Germany in preparation for the 2015 centenary of the Genocide, which will be commemorated in major cities where there is a considerable Armenian community, among them Berlin and Cologne, for example. Solemn ceremonies will be held on April 24, flanked by a number of conferences, seminars and lectures. Instead of focusing solely on the Genocide, organizers in Bochum have chosen to highlight Armenian culture, as it has developed over thousands of years. And they have already begun.

The Armenian Cultural Autumn opened in mid-August and concluded on November 15. Azat Ordukhanyan, head of the Armenian Academic Society, collaborated with Heide Rieck, a poet and novelist who is spokeswoman of the Bochum Writers, to design a program introducing various facets of Armenian culture, in music, dance, lectures, book presentations and round table discussions.

“We want to show,“ Ordukhanyan explained, “that we are still alive, that we make music and are creative, that we work and produce. We want to present our culture.“ Ordukhanyan, who served as head of the Central Council of Armenians from 2010 to 2004, has dedicated his energies to revitalizing the Armenian Academic Society, the oldest such institution, founded in 1860 in Leipzig, later based in Berlin and since 2001 in Bochum. Rieck, who has treated difficult themes of political and social violence, related to the Holocaust and forced laborers, for example, has in recent years explored the Armenian issue. She was instrumental in organizing a production of “Anne’s Silence,‘ a play by prize-winning German-Turkish playwright Dogan Akhanli. Last summer she traveled to Armenia with an Armenian author, and together they have translated works of Armenian poets into German, from 1915 as well as contemporaries. Their aim is to acquaint the German reading public with Armenian literature.

The Armenian Cultural Autumn began with a bang: a performance by the renowned Geghart Armenian Folk Dance ensemble. Their appearance in Bochum before a capacity crowd (more chairs had to be brought in) was their only stop in Germany during a European wide tour. The ensemble of 30 dancers and musicians guided their enthusiastic audience through centuries of folk music and dance, the men with a style described as martial and the women – with their long braids – swaying in graceful movements. For each dance they donned different traditional costumes appropriate to the period and the region of origin. Accompanying them were musicians playing doduks and zurna, drums, kanouns and an accordian.  Responsible for the artistic direction was choreographer Prof. Albert Kiziryan.

On August 30, the focus shifted to hotly debated political issues in a colloquium with “Armenian Women Scientists in Germany.“ The themes they addressed were “From the Diaspora to the Diaspora: The Identity of a Nation and the Dialogue among various Armenians in Germany,“ as well as “Armenians‘ Interests represented in Germany in comparison to the USA regarding the Genocide in the Ottoman Empire.“ Two Armenian women authors presented their work: Hasmik Matinyan with her study of the image of Hosni Mubarak in the German press, and Ofelya Sargsyan with “Pleading for Armenia’s Accession to the European Union.“

Although the Genocide was not the central theme of the cultural series, it figured in several events. On September 9, Ted Greenfield delivered a lecture on the life and work of his grandfather, Dr. James Greenfield (1870-1939), who was the first Armenian ambassador in Germany, serving in 1918-1920. His grandson reported on the destiny of the family history in Persia, Armenia and Germany.  Then on September 23, Dr. Martin Hagop Deranian’s book, “President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug,“  was presented, a moving tale of the famous rug woven by Armenian orphans and given to then-President Coolidge.

On October 23, it was Franz Werfel’s epic, The 40 Days of Musa Dagh, which took center stage. A former German judge, Paul Kimmeskamp, delivered readings of the dramatic struggle to resist. But it was not only a literary tribute; Kimmeskamp had visited Armenia in 2012 with colleagues and on return had participated in discussion of 1915. Following his readings, an exchange took place regarding the  inclusion of the Armenian Genocide in classroom teaching in Germany, a hot issue. Numerous teachers and principals attending voiced their agreement to adding this historical chapter to their school curricula. Ordukhanyan commented, “In essence, we raised the issue of the Armenian Genocide for German intellectuals so that we could introduce the topic in school textbooks.“ He said that more than three teachers had approached him, offering to introduce this into their classrooms. Furthermore, he had reached agreement with two schools representing over 1,000 students, to provide instruction utilizing materials he would make available to them. This is an extrmeely important development in light of the fact that, to date, only one German federal state, Berlin-Brandenburg, has included this topic in history textbooks. Since that decision in 2005, there have been a number of initiatives, especially in the last 2 years to demand inclusion of the issue in other federal states.

In November Rieck and Ordukhanyan joined forces with the German Shakespeare Society, which was holding its annual conference, this year on the 450th birthday of the poet. The Shakespeare Society had chosen to feature the theme of violence in the plays, and the Armenian program reflected the same in an evening of readings from literary works. The Genocide was one of many expressions of violence illustrated. Akhanli presented his book, The Judges of the Last Judgment, the first novel in Turkish to address it. Following dramatic readings from his work by Bea Ehlers-Kerbekian, this author had the opportunity to select passages from my book on Armenia, Iraq and Palestine, again read by Ehlers-Kerbekian.  A Kurdish poet, Hussein Habash, read some of his works in German and Kurdish, followed by Jay Monika Walther, a German Jewish author who read from her own work. Concert pianist Armine Ghuloyan offered an impressive musical accompaniment with works by Komitas and Khachaturian.

The Bochum Armenian Cultural Autumn concluded with a concert on November 15, featuring pianist Ghuloyan, saxophonist Albert Avakyan and singer Gohar Mkrtchyan. Rieck read some of her German translations of Armenian poets. Next year, Ordukhanyan and his collaborators plan an Armenian Cultural Spring, during which he hopes above all to feature the life of Armenians today. In this context he plans to organize a stele with the image of a book, to be situated in some public place. “We do not want a monument“ representing the past, he was quoted as saying; “the book is a symbol of the present and the future.“

Doubtless the Genocide will play a role in the Bochum events planned for next year. But the stress will be on survival. As Ordukhanyan put it, “The perpetrators did not succeed in exterminating us. We are still here and we are singing and dancing…. Our medium is culture, art, the book, the violin, the dove of peace, and dance.”