Back on April 24, President Biden signed a proclamation declaring the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Turkey to be genocide.
At first glance, this seemed a bit late — the bloodshed in question occurred between 1915 and 1917. Obviously, there is no one left to punish for this act and no chance that the U.S. would make this pronouncement the basis for any sort of military action.
Nevertheless, for the people of Armenia — and the vast Armenian diaspora beyond — this was a clear case of better late than never. In fact, Armenia has reentered the world spotlight over the past few years because of an armed dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan.
Dawn Lajeunesse is an Upstate New York author with Armenian roots. She is currently working on a historical novel about the Armenian community in Albany and keeps a close eye on current events, so she seemed the ideal person to ask about Biden’s action.
What’s the point, after so many years?
Anyone raised in an Armenian family – particularly first and second-generation Armenian Americans – heard the stories from parents, grandparents, and other relatives, and saw the scars, emotional and physical. You hear stories of night terrors and hoarding. Residual fear that speaking Armenian in the wrong company could result in the cutting out of tongues, as happened in Turkey. Those who lived through the horrors were certain the Turks could appear at any time, even in America. I spoke with one woman whose father-in-law, a child during the genocide, still had nightmares of the Turks coming to get him. I believe the unwillingness of American leaders to fully acknowledge what happened, to call it what it was, struck fear in those who went through it that their new country would not protect them from their old country. The public acknowledgment by a U.S. President, though too late to allay the fears of those early Armenian refugees—since few are still alive—the recognition of the Armenian Genocide matters deeply to the surviving family members.
From Biden’s perspective, why now?
When President Biden was a senator, he expressed strong support for recognition of the Armenian Genocide, as did most of his senatorial colleagues in both political parties. So this would not be a recent impulse. He’s also heavily influenced by former President Obama. You may recall that then-candidate Obama in 2008 promised Armenian Americans he would recognize the Armenian Genocide as such if he won the presidential election. Alas, he won and promptly broke his promise, swayed by the same politics that prevented all his predecessors from officially calling the killing of 1.5 million Armenians a genocide.
What Biden’s recognition of the genocide may or may not do to Turkish-American relations is yet to be seen. My guess is, when Biden and Erdogan meet as planned in June out of the public eye, Biden may downplay the significance of the terminology. I could be wrong, but Turkey is a NATO ally, and that has been heavily influential in Turkish-American relations for decades. Further, the U.S continues to supply arms to Azerbaijan, and the State Department has ignored 6 urgent Armenian caucus priorities. So Biden’s verbal recognition of the Armenian Genocide could be just window-dressing since clearly America still is not willing to help present-day Armenians.
Are there still issues between Armenians and Turks? Why?
Short answer: yes.
The Turks had a long history of hatred of Armenians, going back centuries. Part of the hatred stemmed from the Armenians being devout Christians. Armenians trace their ancestry to the landing of Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat. In the early 300’s AD, the country of Armenia was the first to adopt Christianity as the state religion. Christianity played a powerful role in Armenian history from that point on. Turkish people, for the most part, are Moslems, and Moslems are taught from an early age that Islam is the only legitimate religion. Some interpret the teaching of the Quran that non-Moslems must be converted or killed.
Armenians in the 1800s and 1900s also excelled in business and professions, adding jealousy to religious opposition. There are a few Armenians left in modern Turkey, but they keep a low profile, and some have converted to Islam.
Are these still issues in the 21st century? The longterm animosity toward Armenians by Turks is evident in the Turkish support and assistance to Azerbaijan in its recent and past battles with Armenians. Turkish literature—and even official records– have, for the most part, been cleansed of anything that referenced Turkey as the culprits in the demise of the Armenians. Rather, they tell stories of Armenian uprisings and Turkish forces defending the sovereignty of their own country.
Tell me a little about your book, and the impetus behind it.
The reality of the end of an era for the church where I grew up hit me hard. There was so much history, both personally and for the church itself—114 years. I decided initially to capture that history in a book, but as I began my research, I ran up against numerous obstacles to a pure history. The earliest church records were written in what I assumed was Armenian, but no Armenian (including a contact in present-day Armenia) could translate it. Then I remembered that 19th and early 20th century Armenians were punished for speaking Armenian, so I thought maybe it was Turkish. But that, too, was a dead end. A friend connected me with a Middle Eastern linguistics specialist who determined it to be a combination of Arabic, Turkish and Armenian, and finding a specialist who could translate hundreds of pages would be monumentally expensive.
There were a few church members alive who were old enough to tell stories, and I had some wonderful conversations with them. I finally reached the conclusion that I would not be able to write an accurate, purely factual, history of the church, but I could create a historical fiction about the founders—their struggles to come to America and then their struggles to adapt to their new home while forming and holding together a congregation of strong-willed Armenians.
Is there a close bond between Americans with Armenian ancestry? If so, how is that expressed?
Certainly, there is a bond between Armenians with shared history and experiences. Recently the Armenian church where I grew up closed due to lack of participation and support. But the members had a shared history, even if they had drifted away from the church, so when a final closure service was planned, the turnout and support were overwhelming. People who hadn’t been to the church in decades gathered to share memories and reconnect. Some of that church’s members made the transition to one of the two Armenian Orthodox churches in the area. A group who preferred to stay with a Protestant church joined a local church together.
But on a wider scale is where the bond can be seen clearly. An Armenian friend shared a story of talking with another sunbather poolside at a Caribbean resort. When last names were shared, the casual bond cemented – two Armenians can’t come together without an instant connection. Another story I love involved travelers who, when they discovered they were both Armenians, one ended up bringing the other home for dinner. If you wade through a list of attendees at an event, those with names ending in “ian” tended to migrate together.
Armenians are social animals. They find a way to come together. I saw a recent Facebook post where—separated by the pandemic rules—two Armenian women neighbors created a 6-foot plywood “table” which they laid across their balcony railings, covered it with a tablecloth, and shared their own Armenian feast!
How has your association with Armenian churches around Albany influenced your writing on the subject?
Until recently, there were three Armenian churches in the Albany area — two Orthodox churches and one protestant (where my family attended). The differences between Orthodox and protestant Armenians are touched on briefly in my novel. Outside the Capital Region, the next closest Protestant churches are in Massachusetts, New York City, and Canada.
My writing focus has been on the Protestant (Evangelical) church experience, because it’s what I know personally. The Orthodox churches dominated in the old country and outnumber Armenian Evangelical churches in America. But Armenians are Armenians first. I volunteered at one of the Orthodox churches to help with their annual festival, and we blended as Armenians more than we were separated by church affiliation.
Still, my closest connections (other than extended family) are with former members of my childhood church and neighbors in my Armenian childhood neighborhood. They have contributed stories of their own families’ experiences and have become personal friends.
Dawn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.