By Walter Kalaidjian
For a century, the Armenian Genocide has remained an indelible black mark on the ledger of modernity. The systematic murder of over one million Armenians perpetrated by Ottoman Turkish authorities during World War I bequeathed a legacy of trauma whose delayed recognition has unfolded only gradually. In the classic formula of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the shock of an initiating event inaugurates but fails to contain or resolve all of its repercussions. The trauma of genocide stretches out over time to possess victims, bystanders, and perpetrators through a pattern of latency and repetition.
In the Armenian case, however, the symptoms of historical trauma are particularly acute and persist owing to Turkey’s longstanding campaign of state-sponsored genocide denial. For Jean Baudrillard, the post-trauma of Armenian genocide denial became a defining instance of the postmodern condition generally, marked as it is by the erosion of historical certainty: “We are like the Armenians,” he wryly noted in his 1990 essay “Necrospective,” “who wear themselves out trying to prove that they were massacred […] a proof that is unattainable, useless, yet in some sense vital.” More recently, on the occasion of the genocide’s centenary of 1915, Pope Francis cited the Armenian case as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Moreover, he added, in a pointed allusion to Turkey’s ongoing genocide denial, that “concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
At the centenary of the event last year, four books — two histories and two memoirs — revisit the scene of the Armenian genocide, bearing witness to its aftermath as it troubles our own moment. The journalist and historian Vicken Cheterian’s Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide adopts a rhetorical figure similar to the Pope’s as the title for its rigorous, historical study of genocide denial. Cheterian examines genocide’s aftereffects as they have befallen millions of Armenians both in diasporic communities around the globe and in the homelands of Turkey, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Similarly, Meline Toumani’s memoir There Was and There Was Not plays on the well-known formula that begins Armenian folk tales ( Gar u chgar) to suggest the ways in which memory denied and deferred unsettles historical certainty. In contrast to Cheterian, Toumani offers an intimate, autobiographical witnessing to the pathology of genocide denial as it upends archival records, thwarts recognition and restitution, and thereby frustrates the process of communal healing in the public sphere.
Reading Cheterian’s historical study against Toumani’s personal memoir makes for a provocative case study of the vicissitudes in narrating the Armenian genocide and its aftermath. Not surprisingly, both Cheterian and Toumani recount many of the same characters, events, and scenes that have, for many Armenians and scholars of Turkish genocide denial, become the well-worn Stations of the Cross. For example, both Cheterian and Toumani discuss Turkey’s erasure of Armenian cultural sites, place names, and property rights with particular attention to the UNESCO protected status of Akhtamar’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross and the compromised plot to restore it as a secular museum in 2007. Notably, among several other similarities, both revisit the controversy surrounding Sabiha Gokcen, the iconic Turkish aviator and namesake of the Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen International Airport, who in 2007 was revealed to be the adopted Armenian daughter of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Finally, both Cheterian and Toumani examine Hillary Clinton’s failed 2009 diplomatic efforts to help Turkey and Armenia reach a bilateral accord.
Putting the two works into conversation, however, reveals telling differences in approach, political emphasis, and personal encounter. Unlike Cheterian, who offers a fairly straightforward historical account, Toumani filters her personal narrative through a decidedly subjective lens. She begins with her childhood anxieties of attending summers at Camp Haiastan, founded by the Armenian Youth Federation and Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) that together make up the Hay Heghapokhagan Dashnaktsutyun (the Dashnak Party). There, she is exposed to an obsessive regimen of Armenian nationalism, genocide commemoration, and restitution demands. This strong agenda would lead her, paradoxically enough, to eschew the diasporic politics of genocide recognition. “To me,” she writes, recognition “came to mean that I could no longer stand to attend any Armenian gathering, because it seemed that whether it was a poetry reading, a concert, or even a sporting match, it was always, ultimately, about the genocide.” In a 2014 article in The Nation she argued that Armenians’ “obsession with 1915 was destroying us. Emotional logic seemed feeble; I thought I needed geopolitics to make the case. But the case, at its heart, was emotional.” In a subsequent New York Times piece on Gomidas, the Armenian musician and traumatized survivor of the events of 1915, the word “genocide” does not appear. “In truth,” she writes, “the choice was mine […] Genocide sounds clinical, like the textbook name for a chemical compound or a disease. […] Genocide sounds like lobbying and politics.”
Uneasy with the terminology of genocide herself, Toumani nevertheless derides the geopolitics of refusing to name the events of 1915 genocide as, for example, when Barack Obama disingenuously substitutes the euphemism Meds Yeghern or “great catastrophe” to avoid a Turkish state backlash. In the end, however, Toumani’s own ambivalence errs on the side of a somewhat narcissistic agenda of self-discovery and independent individualism: one that comes to defend, symptomatically perhaps, against the traumatizing force of 1915. “I went to Turkey and I wrote this book,” she concludes, “because I was trying understand how history, identity, my clan, and my feeling of obligation to it, had defined me, and I wanted to understand who I was outside of that obligation — who, if anyone.”
While Toumani’s memoir waffles on the geopolitics and psychic legacy of genocide denial, she nevertheless offers granular insights into the vicissitudes of revisiting contemporary Turkey from her subject position as an Armenian American. To her credit, she offers telling examples of the micro-aggressions visited on Armenians in everyday life where even mentioning one’s Armenian heritage brings on the routine comment of “Olsun,” or “so be it.” “Over and over,” as Toumani explains, “when I told people I was Armenian, they said simply, ‘Olsun.’ Olsun, we’ll manage. Olsun, it’s not your fault. Olsun, so you were born into a traitorous and unpleasant people, what can you do?” Likewise, she offers an insider’s perspective on the cultural contradictions shaping the Armenian narrative in Turkey, such as the comments on Hrant Dink’s assassination made on the TV show Popstar Alaturka by transsexual LGBT icon Bulent Ersoy (“I absolutely don’t accept that ‘We are all Armenian’ slogan. If it were only ‘We are all Hrant’ that would express our unity. But I am not Christian, so even if you tied me up I could never say that I am Armenian … I’m a Muslim girl and I will die a Muslim”), or the tensions that exploded between the Glendale diasporic and Istanbul Armenian basketball teams as they clashed on the court of the Vazgen Sargsyan Republican Stadium in Yerevan during the Pan-Armenian games of 2007. In such moments Toumani’s personal narrative offers fascinating insights into the everyday lives of Turks and Armenians in Turkey. But however illuminating and entertaining, her memoir is uneven, finally, on the diasporic politics of genocide recognition.
Equally troubling, she tends to mute the political turmoil and commitment of figures such as Hrant Dink and Taner Akçam. Compared with Cheterian’s painstaking historicism, Toumani backgrounds their political struggles inside Turkey in favor of narrating her own one-on-one exchanges with them. Dink, a longtime political activist and editor of the widely read bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos who was assassinated in 2007, is recollected as a family man who, she writes, “had read and appreciated the essay I had written in the Nation.” Not insignificantly, Toumani limits the details of Dink’s biography to growing up in an orphanage run by the Armenian Protestant church, meeting his future wife Rakel at a summer camp, and “decades later,” she writes, “pious Christians both, they helped rebuild the camp with their own hands. They had four children and a second grandchild was on the way.”
In Open Wounds, Cheterian goes beyond Toumani’s admiring account of Dink the family man to offer a detailed account of his commitments to the Tuzla church camp. He devotes considerable space to historicizing Turkish repressions of the camp’s leader Pastor Guzelian, including his 1979 arrest and torture. Equally important, Cheterian links Dink’s stance on the camp to his “other formative influence,” namely his political association with fellow students at the Tbrevank boarding school, which Cheterian describes as “a hotbed of socialist ideas and secret Communist societies.” Although Dink came to distance himself from such Maoist revolutionary-inspired organizations as the Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army of Turkey, he was nevertheless imprisoned after the September 1980 military coup and subjected to torture over a 45-day internment. Similarly, whereas Toumani mainly narrates the devastating effect Dink’s assassination had on her, Cheterian provides a well-documented account of the events and politics leading up to the assassination as well as the controversy surrounding the involvement of so- called Deep State’s actors such as Kemal Kerincsiz and Veli Kuçuk in the murder, otherwise attributed to a rogue band of ultra-nationalists. For her part, Toumani focuses on the arrest of Ogun Samast and somewhat vaguely alludes to “a network of people — including some with ties to Turkish intelligence and security forces — who were behind the assassination.”
Likewise, Toumani presents a rather casual account of Turkish scholar Taner Akçam who, in her words, “had fled Turkey in the 1970s after getting in trouble as a political activist.” Once again, Toumani’s point of identification seems rather self-centered, regarding Akçam’s alienation from fellow Turks as a mirror image of her own fraught relation to the diasporic Armenian community: “This was a kind of alienation I was testing out in my own life, not exactly by design,” she writes. Cheterian, however, provides us with a compelling biography of Akçam’s radical credentials reaching back to his early admiration of Deniz Gezmis, founder of the People’s Liberation Army of Turkey, Akçam’s editorship of the journal Devrimci Gençlik (Revolutionary Youth), his arrest and detainment in the Ankara central prison, his sentencing to 750 years in jail (later reduced under pressure from Amnesty International to an eight-year sentence), his eventual escape from Ankara prison by excavating a tunnel, leading to his eventual emigration via Aintab to Aleppo and finally Munich, where he was again arrested as an illegal immigrant and later achieved political asylum. Moreover, Cheterian details Akçam’s return to Syria, following the 1980 military crackdown on leftist activists. There, he organized the United Resistance Front Against Fascism with ties to Abdullah Oçalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Finally, Cheterian considers how Akçam’s research into the Armenian Genocide led him to focus less on revolutionary Marxism and more on the campaign for human rights within Turkey.
Cheterian’s nuanced historical research on the Armenian Genocide, however, is not immune from the trauma of the event as such. Indeed, he opens his book with a telling admission:
I never thought I would write a book on the Armenian Genocide. Simply reading about that history was unbearably painful. As a kid, while growing up in a country in war, I did not want to be associated with survivors of massacres. As an adult, even if I worked in conflict zones reporting and analysing wars and revolutions, I tried as much as possible to avoid reading and writing about the Genocide.
Unlike Toumani, however, Cheterian devotes himself not so much to his personal stake in the Armenian case, as to a communal commitment to assessing “the price we have collectively paid, and the consequences for providing impunity in a crime of such magnitude.”
Thus Open Wounds offers a readable summary of events leading up to 1915: the failure of Ottoman Empire reform efforts beginning with the Tanzimat declaration of 1839, the Imperial Reform Edict of 1856, the constitution of 1876, leading to the Hamidian massacres of 1894–’96, the Adana massacre of 1909, and the final solution of mass ethnic cleansing planned and executed by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). Similarly, he traces Armenia’s place within the Ottoman Empire reaching back to the early modern period, through the formation of the Social Democrat Hunchakian Party in 1887 and the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun, Armenian Revolutionary Federation of 1890, as well as the close ties initially between the Armenian intelligentsia and the leadership of the CUP who would later resolve to exterminate them. Cheterian pays sustained attention to the official Turkish narrative of the events of 1915, the Turkish Republic’s retrospective accounts of the massacres in the decades following, the state’s modern efforts to repress what was a widely reported story of the massacres in the early 20th century. In addition, he documents the persistence of Turkey’s “negation industry” aimed at denying and discrediting historical accounts of the genocide, and he recounts the perennial politics of genocide recognition and denial played out in the United States Congress and internationally. He also provides insightful glimpses into the “re-awakening” of memory work on the part of so-called “Crypto-Armenians,” descendants of genocide survivors within Turkey whose family legacies were erased as the price of their assimilation into the modern Turkish state.
Cheterian does not shy away from a more disturbing aspect of the genocide’s legacy where the quest for justice denied over generations spills over into the violence of reprisals, revenge, and terrorism on the part of such organizations as the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG). Both of these groups can trace their roots to the long-secreted post–World War I plot to assassinate the CUP leadership. Christened “Operation Nemesis” after the classical goddess of retributive justice, this plot also provides the basis for playwright and performer Eric Bogosian’s new book Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide. Bogosian recalls listening, as a child, to the stories of his grandfather who escaped the genocide by hiding in a wheat field with his mother while Turks burned their village to the ground. “My grandfather,” Bogosian recollects, “would instruct me, “‘If you ever meet a Turk, kill him.’”
Delivered part in jest and part in earnest, his grandfather’s desire for vengeance nevertheless left a childhood impression whose latency would stretch into Bogosian’s coming of age. Like other Armenian Americans of his generation such as Peter Balakian, Bogosian grew up in an ambivalent relation to his grandparents’ trauma of genocide survival. “I understood from a young age,” he writes,
that I was an “Armenian,” and this meant that my family, like countless other Armenian families, had lost loved ones at the hands of the Turks. […] Horrible things had happened back in “the old country,” but there was a disconnect between that carnage and my sweet existence as a suburban teenager […] As I began my career as an author and actor, I refrained from emphasizing my roots. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an exotic “ethnic” actor, and if I was going to write about the human condition, I would represent the world I knew, the leafy suburbs of New England and, later, the streets of New York City, not the harsh plains of Anatolia, of which I had no direct experience. The Armenian history that I had come to know through my grandfather’s stories was not my history.
The disavowed legacy of genocide comes to claim Bogosian nevertheless, some four decades later, when he reads about Talaat Pasha’s 1921 assassination by Soghomon Tehlirian. As Bogosian begins to sense a secret backstory to the official account of Tehlirian as a lone gunman, he begins to research the case for a screenplay tailor-made for a major Hollywood blockbuster. “I had finally found an Armenian subject,” he reflects, “that would challenge me as a writer and memorialize my beloved grandfather.”
Bogosian’s book is part history, part action narrative. It opens with a thumbnail sketch of “The Rise of Empire” that covers the major battles and religious tensions between the ancient Armenian homelands and the burgeoning Ottoman Empire from the first century AD through the 19th century; in chapter two, Bogosian turns to the rule of Abdul Hamid II and his resistance to the Tanzimat constitutional reform movement promulgated by the “Young Ottomans,” the precursors to the Young Turks, revisiting the tensions between Hamidiye Kurdish forces and the Turkish army leading up to the Massacres of Armenians in 1894, 1895, and 1896. However, in recounting the Dashnak Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s occupation of the Imperial Ottoman Bank, Bogosian the screenwriter comes to the fore, as his rhetoric nods toward the discursive conventions of the action genre. Narrating the subsequent impasse among the ARF occupiers, Sultan Abdul Hamid’s troops, and the British military — charged with securing the bank’s European assets — Bogosian notes that “Abdul Hamid blinked and stood down his guns. It was a three-way stand-off.” In this way, Eastern Turkey, he writes, was “not unlike America’s ‘wild West,’ rife with famine, disease, and lawlessness.” In these badlands, Bogosian admires the emerging Dashnak party as “a truly dangerous terrorist organization,” citing it in Part II’s opening chapter entitled “Tehlirian Goes to War” as a key precursor for the vendetta plotted by Operation Nemesis after 1915.
From here on out, Bogosian offers up a narrative of intrigue and vengeance worthy of a Mission: Impossible script. Along the way, Bogosian compares Tehlirian’s personal project of saving Armenian war orphans from forced conversion to Islam to Fethiye Cetin’s My Grandmother, also featured in the sections on Crypto-Armenian descendants in Cheterian and Toumani’s accounts of present-day Turkey. Following the 1918 Armistice of Mudros, Tehlirian becomes somewhat of an orphan himself, but one bent on payback: “If he could not find his mother or his family, Tehlirian would find revenge.” Arriving in Constantinople, “Tehlirian,” in Bogosian’s hyperbolic words, “was twenty-two years old and only weeks away from his first kill.” Bogosian refers here to Tehlirian’s “stalking” and shooting of Harutiun Megerdichian, a Turkish collaborator in the 1915 rounding up and murder of Armenian intellectuals. Bogosian’s cinematic narrative style crosscuts between Tehlirian’s “stalking” of Megerdichian on the mean streets of Constantinople and the broader history of the ARF’s international agenda to “clear the debt” of the CUP’s war crimes. Thus, under the auspices of the 1919 “Special Mission” (Hadug Kordz), conceived at Yerevan’s Ninth General Congress of the ARF, and “Operation Nemesis,” launched by the ARF’s affiliate group in Boston a year later, a “Special Fund” (Hadug Kumar) would be established to recruit, equip, and enable a “Special Corps” (Hadug Marmin) of killer elites to execute the planned assassinations of the CUP’s leaders, along with a host of other Turkish governors, police chiefs, and military commanders.
Weaving a tale worthy of Ian Fleming or John le Carre?, Bogosian traces Tehlirian’s passage to Paris, where he is summoned secretly by letter to book passage to New York and then Boston where he is vetted and admitted into an international “world of spies.” Tehlirian is presented with the photographs and recent itineraries of targets such as Talat, Enver, and Djemal, given the code name of “Simon Tavitian,” and dispatched back to Europe through Le Havre. Returning to Paris with a new passport and forged student identity papers, Tehlirian would arrive in Geneva to be briefed on a mission that would take him to Berlin in December 1920 “hunting for Talat.” “Like an eagle on a high perch,” Bogosian observes in Chapter 6: The Hunt, “Tehlirian searched for any sign of his prey,” eventually murdering his “quarry” months later in March 1921 in broad daylight on the Hardenbergstrasse. The historic parallels and ethical ironies linking the killings of the “Armenian hunters” and those of their Ottoman “victims” are not entirely lost on Bogosian. “Both the ARF and the CUP,” he writes
were underground organizations with no compunctions about deploying violence in order to achieve their goals. They were neither democratic nor entirely legal, dependent on secrecy and hierarchy for smooth operations. As a result, each recognized in the opposing party a shared code of violence and clandestine methodology. Raymond Ke?vorkian, the venerable historian of the Armenian Genocide, put it this way when he spoke with me in Paris: “You must understand. The Tashnags [Dashnaks] and the Ittihad, they were like lovers who now hated one another.”
One difference between the CUP and the ARF, of course, is that the former sought to hide its premeditated genocide from public view, while the latter staged its terrorism so as to focus world attention on Tehlirian’s trial. The ARF’s aim was to publicize the assassin as “an agent of retribution” for the CUP’s crimes against an entire people.
Bogosian employs the trial transcripts and prior scholarship of figures such as Tessa Hofmann in the manner of a courtroom thriller. He offers a gripping account of the judicial “tightrope” both Tehlirian and the German prosecution walked in negotiating, on the one hand, the immediate facts of the case and, on the other, the spectacle of genocide recognition that the trial put on view for an international audience. In the end, the ARF had it both ways, managing both to keep Operation Nemesis a secret while also placing in the public record detailed eyewitness testimony to the Armenian massacres by “star witnesses” such as Dr. Johannes Lepsius, General Otto Liman von Sanders, and Grigoris Balakian. Ultimately the judge and jury, influenced by the medical consensus view that Tehlirian was suffering from an unprecedented historical trauma and persuaded that his vengeance was just, acquitted Tehlirian of the killing.
In the final third of his book, Bogosian toggles back and forth between offering a reliable history of other Operation Nemesis assassins such as Arshavir Shiragian, Haroutiun Haroutiunian, Yervant Fundukian, Misak Torlakian, and Arshag Yezdanian and a sensationalist potboiler that invokes, by his own account, “the imagery of an action movie.”
In relating subsequent assassinations, the verbal character of Bogosian’s narrative becomes nearly obsessional as, for example, when he repeats the phrase “gunned down” three times in four pages, and characterizes killers such as Shiragian as “a born fighter,” “robust,” and “cocksure”: one who “relished the conflict” with “a more elegant killing technique.” Such charged rhetoric renders Bogosian’s attempts to otherwise gain historical distance on the violence of Armenian terrorism problematic. Bogosian stops short of condoning terrorist acts such as Gourgen Yanikian’s 1973 murder of two Turkish diplomats whom he lured to the Santa Barbara Biltmore Hotel under the pretense of returning a painting stolen from the Sultan’s palace a century earlier. But he also describes Yanikian’s followers, who formed the Gourgen Yanikian Group and later the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) in somewhat sympathetic and decidedly volatile terms: “Young men in southern California and Lebanon, furious that the tragedy of their murdered grandparents had been forgotten, found one another as their collective anger compressed into a powder keg of pent-up fury.” Bogosian documents the mayhem of the ASALA and its counterpart the Armenian Revolutionary Army, or Justice Commandos, in part planned and in part bungled as in the accidental Orly Airport bombing of 1983. He also notes the ASALA’s ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and heinous figures such as Abu Nidal, inspiration for the ultraviolent Fatah – The Revolutionary Council, better known as the Abu Nidal Organization. He admits that “murdering those who had had no direct hand in the tragedy [of genocide] was sickening” and politically, the ASALA’s terrorism had the political effect on Turkish diplomats of “stiffening a resolve never to admit to the ‘so-called genocide.’” Yet his study clearly traces the precedent for these more recent crimes back precisely to the violence of Operation Nemesis, whose assassins are lionized in heroic terms: “As holy warriors, they believed their domain to be spiritual, not political. Their job was to exact some fraction of justice.”
Parsing out the motives and rationales of such revenge killings, Bogosian ends up on somewhat dubious ethical grounds: “We live in a world, “ he concludes,
where we attempt to achieve consistency in rule of law. The concept of “law” demands it. Yet the men and women of Operation Nemesis did what governments could not. They were appealing to a higher, final justice. One that exists somewhere between heaven and earth.
To his credit, Bogosian offers up a readable report on Operation Nemesis and its legacy: one that is compelling and full of action-packed intrigue. Yet, especially now in our moment, we recognize such troubling idealizations of blood violence — somehow on the way toward “heaven” — as the common coin of the realm that would prop up terrorist states and their cells around the globe.
Bogosian’s fantasies of heroic retribution aside, the most arresting and authentic access we have to the events of 1915 remain the eyewitness accounts provided by the actual survivors of the Armenian genocide. These firsthand narratives are preserved in video testimony archives compiled by organizations such as the Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research and Documentation, or in the correspondence documents aggregated by, say, Viscount Bryce in his classic The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-16, or in the memoirs of figures such as Grigoris Balakian, Armen Anush, Shahen Derderian, American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, and many more. An indispensable addition to this archive is Karnig Panian’s Goodbye, Antoura: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide. Published at the centenary by Stanford University Press, Simon Beugekian’s new translation into English of Panian’s 1992 memoir, composed originally in Western Armenian, is framed by a historically precise introduction and afterword by Keith David Watenpaugh, co-director of the University of California Human Rights Collaboration.
Panian’s account of his entire extended family’s extermination — through deportation to the Syrian Desert region of Deir-al-Zor and the death camp outside Hama, followed by his sole survival and submission to forced Turkification at the notorious orphanage at Antoura — gains striking pertinence when read against similar legacies of child abduction and trafficking that define so many family narratives of the so-called Crypto-Armenians recounted by Cheterian and Toumani. As Watenpaugh astutely points out, Panian’s journey describes a less discussed, but nonetheless key criterion set out in Article 2, section E of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, namely: “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: […] Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” In this vein, the Antoura orphanage was originally planned by Djemal Pasha as part of the CUP’s nationalist regime that would erase the family histories of Christian Armenians and acculturate them to the language and identity of Ottoman Turks. As a modernist institution, Antoura became a misguided experiment in civic reform- minded pedagogy led by the American-educated Halide Edip Adivar. In Panian’s experience, however, the daily regimen exacted by the schoolmasters at Antoura were a far cry from the Montessori-based training Edip ostensibly espoused. More medieval than modern, discipline at Antoura was as vicious as it was brutal: boys who spoke Armenian or crossed themselves at prayer (including Panian himself) were beaten unconscious by tens and literally hundreds of bastinado lashings to the soles of their feet. Although not as severe as the death camps of Deir-al-Zor, starvation and disease were the other specters that presided over everyday life at Antoura. “In those days at Antoura,” Panian recalls, “it was so easy to die, and so hard to survive.”
In horrific details that rival those of Holocaust survivors like Tadeusz Borowski, Panian testifies to the inhuman terms of survival in Antoura. Scavenging, theft, and ultimately necro-cannibalism all take their toll on the souls of Antoura’s inmates:
The boys who stole vegetables from the fields sometimes brought back the bones of other dead orphans, which the jackals dug up from the shallow graves. The boys ground them into a powder and drank it with water. Our hunger made us desperate, and it dehumanized us […] We often didn’t know what kinds of bones we were taking back to the others, nor did we bother to figure it out. We had sunk that low.
Such grim scenes present Panian’s survival as a desperate and ironic fate having escaped Hama’s “apocalyptic vision” of thirst, starvation, and death that overtook in relentless succession his mother, sister, brother, grandparents, and friends. These and other innumerable losses and blows to Panian’s childhood humanity, lead him in retrospect to err understandably on the side of reparative narration — framing the imprint of trauma with, on the one hand, serene memories that idealize the remembered, Armenian community before the genocide and, on the other, heroic expectations for the careers of survivor peers going forward. Before 1915, life in the family’s cherry orchards of the Ottoman Empire are recollected as a “garden of Eden,” where Panian’s grandfather spent Sundays in church extolling “the glory of God.” Likewise, Panian remembers his mother as “the personification of love and joy.”
After the genocide, Panian is charged with the responsibility of living out by proxy the achievements otherwise denied to his classmates who did not survive. “We had to grow into respectable men,” he affirms, “and restore our nation’s honor […] Now, we had to work as hard as possible to rebuild our shattered lives.” Following the liberation of Antoura and his rescue by the Near East Relief, Karnig Panian spent the rest of his life striving to compensate for the ravages of Antoura. As vice principal and longtime educator at Djemaran, the Armenian Lyceum in Beirut, Panian became finally one of the “respectable men” whose careers were otherwise denied to thousands of orphans who did not outlast the genocide.
Published at the centenary, each of these four works makes an indispensable contribution to the archive of the Armenian genocide. But revisiting that archive, however necessary, does not lead finally to a reparative cure for the ills of the traumatic past, a past that remains, in Pope Francis’s figure, an open wound. Writing against the violence of distortion, disavowal, and genocide denial, Cheterian, Toumani, Bogosian, and Panian would discern truths that are authentic, definitive, and historically unassailable. Yet they also wrestle with the enigma, in Toumani’s formula, of “what was and was not”: what can be known and what remains radically unknowable in trauma’s aftermath. Possessed by revenants of vengeance or specters of unspeakable loss, each gives testimony to the returns of traumatic memory where history and memoir come together, but not as one.
(Walter Kalaidjian is professor and chair of the English Department at Emory University. This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)