Aramean Day of Remembrance in Berlin


Mor Philoxenus Mattias Nayis

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — If the Armenians were the ones who suffered the greatest losses in the 1915 genocide, they were not alone. Other Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire were targeted, among them the Arameans, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks. Since 2015, the date June 15 has been designated as Remembrance Day in Germany for the Arameans, the East and West Syrian Christians, and this year members of the community, joined by Armenians and others, commemorated the victims in Berlin. In the afternoon, participants gathered at the Evangelical Luisenkirchof cemetery, at the site of a memorial in honor of the 3 million Christians who died between 1912 and 1922. The three altars of remembrance are dedicated to the Armenians, the Arameans, Assyrians and Chaldeans, and the Greeks from Eastern Thrace, Asia Minor and Pontus.

In the evening a solemn ceremony was held in the French Cathedral, located in the historic Gendarmenmarkt in central Berlin. Following greetings by Josef Kaya, from the Foundation of Aramaic Studies, Prof. Dorothea Weltecke from the Research Center for Aramaic Studies of the Goethe University in Frankfurt spoke. She introduced a theme that was to be developed by later speakers: the German role in the genocide. The Germans were not only well aware of the events unfolding during the war, she said, but were complicit. In May 1915, the French, English and Russians had raised the alarm, and some Germans tried to prevent the atrocities but others took part. She called for an independent parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate the German role. The resolution passed on June 2, 2016 by the Bundestag (Parliament) recognizing the genocide was all well and good, she said, but did not go far enough.

Daniyel Demir, chairman of the National Association of Arameans in Germany, drew the parallels between the butchery wrought by the so-called Islamic State today and the genocide a century ago, when the Ottoman leadership under Talaat Pasha et al was committed to eliminate the Christian community from Turkey. Demir also applauded the passage of the Bundestag resolution, but lamented the fact that the German government had undermined its impact by saying it had no binding legal value. Expressing his “due respect to the Bundestag,” he urged the government to take steps with regard to the descendants of the victims.

Community of Survivors

Mor Philoxenus Mattias Nayis, Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Diocese in Germany, expressed his profound gratitude and respect for the fact that the Arameans have succeeded in maintaining their integrity as a people. He said 1915 was not the only time they had been persecuted. It is truly a wonder, he went on, that this community, which has neither its own land nor a state, has managed to survive; though expelled from their homeland and dispersed throughout the world, they have kept their faith and identity. Given this moral strength, he expressed his confidence that the schools and churches that have been destroyed again today will be rebuilt.

The members of the Aramean community displayed their special appreciation of the presence of an Armenian diplomat at the ceremony. Ashot Smbatyan, the Armenian ambassador in Berlin, himself honored to be present, spoke of the fraternal relations between the two peoples. Arameans and Armenians have much in common, he said, not only as victims of the genocide but as friends throughout hundreds of years before that. He recalled the presence of Aramean traditions in Armenia, pointing to manuscripts preserved in the Matenadaran. He also referenced the importance of works in Aramaic that were translated into Armenian. And he recalled the fourth-century bishop Jacob, said to have been the first to search for Noah’s Ark; though he climbed daily, and prayed, he never found the ark. But it is related that an angel sent by God gave him a piece of the wood of the ark, preserved in Echmiadzin.

Stressing the need to “commemorate, remember, warn,” Ambassador Smbatyan said the people of Turkey today are not guilty for the deeds committed by others, but they need to acknowledge the deeds of their forefathers. Many Turks are ready to do so but the political leadership is not. Recognition of the genocide, he said, is the precondition for reconciliation to take place. In 1915, it was not only Armenians but also Pontic Greeks, Assyrians and Arameans, a fact that has been expressly acknowledged in Armenia. In September 2015, a monument to the Arameans was unveiled in Yerevan. In conclusion, he noted that such symbols and dates of remembrance are important, not only for the victims but also for Europe today. The scenes we see today remind us of events of a century ago, he said, and quoted George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The Language of Christ

In this ecumenical ceremony, Dr. Markus Dröge, Bishop of the Evangelical Church, Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Oberlausitz, spoke for the Protestants. Aramaic was the language of Christ, he recalled, and quoted those words in the Bible that are still given in the original, in Luther’s German translation: “eli eli lama sabachthani?” (My God why hast thou forsaken me?)

Christ’s plea from the cross might well be uttered by Arameans, as their suffering is not universally known; the genocide against the Arameans, he said, is the least known of the atrocities of the 20th century. Turning to the current situation, Bishop Dröge noted that many survivors who fled to Syria and Iraq today are threatened again, this time by IS. In what he characterized as “an epochal event” that has not been fully grasped, the successors of the first Christians, those who speak the language of Christ, are threatened today. He called for more awareness of how dangerous the current situation is. “We Protestants know too little about the Orthodox Christians,” he noted, and suggested that the arrival of refugees here to Germany represents an opportunity to learn about them.

‘Destroying, Remembering, Commemorating’

One of the leading initiators of the event was Prof. Tessa Hofmann, a philologist and genocide researcher, who delivered the main address. The year 2015, when June 15 was designated a day of commemoration for the Arameans, “marked the centenary of the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians,” through a deliberate action lasting 19 months. Hofmann reviewed the process whereby April 24, 1915 was officially declared remembrance day in 1921, by Catholicos Gevorg V., noting that many Syrian Christians also recognized it, as their forefathers had been among the victims. Similarly, Syrian Christians in northwest Iran were massacred in 1914 and 1918. Whether or not they were singled out for elimination, or were “collateral damage” within the Armenian genocide, is a question she could not elaborate there, but the fact is that, despite their shared suffering in the war years, many Armenians were not aware of the Arameans’ plight. Thus the importance of a separate remembrance day. Against this backdrop, Hofmann found it appropriate to make some “basic considerations about remembrance, commemoration and related policy.”

In the genocide, the physical destruction of the people was followed by the destruction of the evidence, the attempt to eliminate the culture, especially by destroying the churches. After death, one lives on through memory, and to erase this memory is to kill again. Therefore descendants of survivors strive to counter the elimination of memory with a culture of remembrance, not only transmitting family histories from one generation to the next, but by establishing a collective memory. This, Hofmann said, serves not only as genocide prevention but has also unleashed creativity, as demonstrated in the rich genocide literature. Citing the phrase in the German constitution, that the dignity of the individual is inviolable, Hofmann emphasized that in genocide (including today) the perpetrator violates the dignity of the victim in every way imaginable, through slavery, torture, rape, etc., before finally extinguishing life itself.

The 2016 Bundestag resolution explicitly calls for teaching about genocide in schools, and it is the federal states that decide curriculum. If this was not merely symbolic, in Hofmann’s view, then the schools must take on this task, and expand teaching in genocide studies. In light of the influx of refugee communities, too, she called for “ethical orientation” to be offered. In this context she condemned the continued existence of “graves of honor” in Berlin cemeteries for genocide perpetrators. Instead, those who intervened to save people from genocide — the “Ottoman Oskar Schindlers” — are the ones to be remembered and honored. Finally, she highlighted the need to acknowledge the “enormous cultural achievements” of the Arameans, Armenians and Greeks of Asia Minor, especially through their translation works of the ancients. Preserving the languages of the region is part of this effort. This approach is what Hofmann views as crucial to a policy of remembrance.

The moving ceremony concluded with a recitation by Anne Osterloh and prayers by Mor Julius Hanna Aydin, with the participation of the choir of the Mar Jacob Syrian Orthodox Church. The entire evening was framed in music, with a new interpretation of Syrian hymns for a string quintet on the occasion of the commemoration and selected pieces from the Sayfo Symphony by Thomas Ücel.