Massachusetts State House Hosts Armenian Genocide 101st Anniversary Commemoration; Governor Baker, Senator Markey, Speaker DeLeo, Ambassador Flynn Speak
By Aram Arkun
BOSTON — The Armenian community of the Boston area and many prominent government representatives from Massachusetts came together for the 101st anniversary commemoration of the Armenian Genocide at the Massachusetts State House on April 22. As many as 275 people filled the House Chamber. Massachusetts State Rep. Jonathan Hecht of Watertown and Cambridge served as the master of ceremonies for a nearly two-hour program of music, awards and speeches.
The commemoration began with the procession of elected officials and clergy led by Homenetmen scouts. After an invocation in Armenian by Monsignor Andon Atamian of Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Cross, state Rep. John Lawn of Watertown (standing in for Rep. David Rogers whose mother was sick in Philadelphia) led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the children of St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School sang America the Beautiful and Mer hayrenik, the Armenian national anthem.
Hecht summed up the goal of the program after first recalling the centennial commemoration last year. He said, “seeing that huge crowd, and that see of American and Armenian flags, was one of the most moving and powerful experiences of my public life. This year we are back in the House Chamber with a continued, indeed, a strengthened commitment, to honor the victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide, to demand recognition and justice for the Genocidal crimes committed by the Ottoman Empire, to dedicate ourselves to prevent the recurrence of genocide anywhere in the world, and to celebrate the remarkable triumph and spirit of the Armenian people.”
Before handing over the podium, Hecht praised Speaker Robert A. DeLeo for his enormous assistance with holding the commemoration in the State House and for personally participating every single year.
DeLeo said that he was introduced to the Armenian Genocide through leaders like his predecessor George Keverian. He referred to Peter Balakian’s book, The Burning Tigris, which informed him about American aid to Armenians during World War I, and his encounter with Armenian Heritage Park architect Donald Tellalian. Like the symbolism of the sculpture there, DeLeo said, he hoped that events such as the State House commemoration will allow people throughout the world to fully recognize the atrocities which befell the Armenians as genocide, as that would allow “a new phase of healing.”
DeLeo concluded, “While we remember those who perished, we must vow to carry on their legacy, to ensure that the world never forgets. As humans, as Americans, we must ensure that human spirit outshines inhumanity. Today’s commemoration will help us renew that commitment.”
Sen. Edward Markey, a strong and vocal supporter of recognition of the Armenian Genocide, spoke next. As a US Representative, he represented Waltham, Belmont and Watertown, the heart of the Armenian-American community, and, he said, “Thus far, in my life, I have never met an unsuccessful Armenian-American in our country. Our job is to help to insure that there are no unsuccessful Armenians in Armenia. We are here to continue this effort, to make sure that we give the support to Armenia which they need even today.” He added, to great applause, that the US should immediately condemn the recent upsurge in aggression by Azerbaijanis against Armenians in Nagorno Karabagh. A robust monitoring program by a trusted legitimate third party should be put into place, he said.
After mentioning that last year Pope Francis referred to the Armenian Genocide as the first genocide of the 20th century, he said that all of us should heed the pope’s words, as “it is always the right time to tell the truth about what happened in Armenia.” The senator called for fighting denial, and this process must begin with President Barak Obama.
Markey said, “This year is his final opportunity as president to do the right thing and call the Armenian Genocide what it was.” He exclaimed, “The United States must be the moral leader of the world if we expect the rest of the world to follow our leadership.”
Markey turned very blunt in his opposition to paid advertising and denial, saying, “We are here today to say that we will never let it happen again, because there is one clear truth about this issue: The Armenians are right and Turkey is wrong.” He said that in particular, he would never stop working on this subject in the Senate until a resolution was passed unambiguously affirming the Genocide.
Markey frequently became lyric in his apparently extemporaneous speech. He said that the Armenian people in the US have a particular responsibility to speak out, since “We are the privileged, who carry on the lives not lived, the voices not heard, the dreams not realized, that is what the Armenian people in America represent, those voices that were never heard.” Markey spoke words of praise about “that great man,” George Keverian, who educated so many about the Armenian experience.
State Rep. David K. Muradian, Jr., serving the communities of Grafton, Northbridge and Upton in the Ninth Worcester District, read the proclamation by Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito marking April 24, 2016 as Armenian Martyrs Day. The proclamation stated that the “mass genocide of the Armenian population,” with more than half the Armenian population killed in the Ottoman Turkish empire, was “repulsive and abhorrent in civilized society,” and “our thoughts offered in memory of the Armenian martyrs of 1915 will serve to remind everyone that persecution, torture and killing must cease forever.”
Lalig Musserian, chair of the Armenian Genocide Commemoration Planning Committee which organized the State House program, presented Joint Massachusetts Senate and House Resolutions recognizing three entities for their work on behalf of the Armenian community. Dusty Rhodes and her team at Conventures were recognized for their efforts planning the Armenian Genocide centennial events and the recent visit of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. Conventures Director of Special Projects David Balfour joined Rhodes on the stage.
The Knights of Vartan Ararat Lodge No. 1 was recognized for its support for numerous Armenian events on a local, national and international level when called upon. Among other things, it consistently underwrote transportation costs for the State House Armenian Genocide commemoration and provided volunteers to ensure its success, as well as supported the Armenian Heritage Park. Present Ararat Lodge Commander Armen Bogossian, and two former Grand Commanders, including Haig Deranian, represented the Knights.
The Armenian Genocide Education Committee of Merrimack Valley, founded in 2008, was recognized for efforts to educate students in the Merrimack Valley area in public schools about the Armenian Genocide. Tom Vartabedian, Dro Kanayan and Dr. Ara Jeknavorian were present to receive the commendation.
Muradian introduced the keynote speaker, Ambassador Raymond Leo Flynn. First, however, Muradian declared, “We will not ever forget out history, and it is incumbent upon us to never let the world forget, either. But, it is also incumbent upon us to highlight our successes. Try as it might, the Turkish government failed. We are succeeding, and no one is going to stop us from being proud Armenians.”
Muradian pointed out that Flynn had been a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1971 to 1979, mayor of Boston from 1984 to 1993, and US ambassador to the Vatican from 1993 to 1997. He said, “Ambassador Raymond Flynn has long been a friend of the Armenian community.” Flynn raised millions of dollars for medical aid and assistance for victims of the 1988 Armenian earthquake and helped organize a humanitarian tour to Armenia.
Flynn reminisced that in his childhood he grew up with a number of Armenian Americans in Boston neighborhoods who were family friends and became familiar with Armenian culture. He said, “This was a culture we came to respect and understand.” He read studies about Armenia, and learned from George Keverian. Flynn said he was proud that he was able to raise money for aid from many non-Armenians as well as Armenians for the Armenian earthquake victims.
He stressed the power of one voice, and the importance of each person in the struggle against injustice in the world. He related an anecdote about a retired telephone worker setting in motion a movement to rectify an injustice in the US.
On a different level, Flynn said, “I have never been more proud to be a Catholic than I was when Pope Francis called the atrocities of 1915 Genocide — that opened up the door!” This happened, he continued, because of people who refused to forget about the past.
He pointed out that genocide continues to take place in the world. The killings of Christians in the Middle East is one example. Armenians must continue to bring their story to the public’s attention in a grassroots movement for freedom and justice today, he added.
Rep. James Miceli introduced the musical program presented by the Zankagner Performing Arts Ensemble, with Artistic Director Hasmik Konjoyan, and a moving performance by Emily Gasparian on violin and her mother Jasmin Atabekyan on piano. Miceli proudly stated that he was Armenian on his mother’s side.
Dr. Jack Keverian then announced that the Keverian family was organizing an annual scholarship program in memory of former Massachusetts Speaker George Keverian. Jack, brother of the late Speaker, said that the family intends to create an award “that will be truly inspiration in a world…that must never forget that certain basic principles of humanity and justice are critical to the survival of our society and civilization.”
Keverian said that in his family, the Armenian Genocide and the Great Depression were “the most important events that shaped our lives,” though they happened either before or just after the Keverian children were born. Even as a high school valedictorian, Keverian said, his brother George had identified his core beliefs. As a politician, George became known as “the speaker who believed in democracy,” and one who “helped countless people in need…without expecting anything in return.”
He also was the one to institute the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide at the State House 31 years ago.
State Sen. Will Brownsberger introduced Gov. Charlie Baker. The governor initially directed part of his speech to the many children in the audience. He said that there are some people who refuse to acknowledge history, and the terrible things that were done to Armenians 101 years ago. It is important to honor and recognize that history, he said.
Turning to the broader audience, Baker said, “The Armenian community has been an incredible asset, culturally, economically, and in almost every way that I can think of, to the rich tapestry that is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And we are honored and pleased that so many people from the Armenian community chose to make Massachusetts their home.” He described the recent visit of the president of Armenia to the State House, with a special ceremonial reception followed by lunch in the State House. He said, “It was a glorious day, and we were thrilled to have him here.”
The governor ended with the following very touching and heartening words: “I just want you to know, speaking on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the people of Massachusetts, that we are truly grateful for everything the Armenian community has done for the people here in Massachusetts and for the culture and the community that is Massachusetts, and we will always, always have your back.”
Before leaving, he went over to speak with the lone Armenian Genocide survivor at the event, Asdghig “Starrie” Alemian, 106 years old, and asked what she was thinking of today. He then told the audience that she said it was her parents, and that this shows the personal nature of genocide. It affects families and individuals, who lose their loved ones.
Afterwards, Brownsberger thanked the participants and organizers of the event. Fr. Mikael Der Kosrofian of Soorp Asdvadzadzin Armenian Apostolic Church, gave the benediction and closing prayers.
The event officially was hosted by Senator Brownsberger and Representatives Hecht, Rogers, Lawn, Muradian, and Miceli. The presence of members of the consular corps, leaders of human rights groups, and a number of other Massachusetts officials gave added gravity and community support to the occasion. The following were publicly recognized: State Rep. Kevin Honan of Brighton; State Rep. James Kelcourse of Amesbury; State Rep. Joseph W. McGonagle, Jr., of Everett; Massachusetts Councilor Marilyn Devaney; Watertown Town Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli and Town Councilor Lisa Feltner; Vice Chair of the Belmont Board of Selectman Sami Baghdady and Selectman Jim Williams; Canadian consul general David Alward; Honorary Consul of Poland Marek Leśniewski-Laas; Acting Consul General of Germany Helmut Landen; Consul General of France Valéry Freland; Honorary Council of Chile Dr. Philip Charles; Amy Grunder, representative of the Massachusetts Immigrants and Refugee Advocacy Coalition; Robert Trestan of the Anti-Defamation League; and Eric Cohen from the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur.
After the formal event concluded, a reception was held at the Grand Staircase at which Kanayan and Deranian offered thanks informally for the Joint Senate and House Resolutions to their organizations. Filmmaker Roger Hagopian screened a video, “Armenia: Survival of a Nation,” which he created especially for this event.