By David Kupelian
When my father was three years old, he was sentenced to a brutal death, along with his mother and infant sister, by the Turkish government. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Armenians, they were earmarked to be herded into the Syrian desert where they would die of starvation, disease, or worse — torture and death at the hands of brutal soldiers or hordes of roving bandits.
It was 1915, and the grisly and premeditated genocide of the Armenian people was at its peak. The Armenians in that area that were not butchered outright — the men were often killed immediately — were herded together and deported by force into the Derzor, the Syrian desert east of Aleppo, to perish. My father’s father, a doctor, had been pressed into the Turkish army against his will, to head a medical regiment.
“One of my earliest recollections, I was not quite three years old at the time,” my father, Vahey Kupelian, told me a year before he died in 1988, “the wagon we were in had tipped over, my hand was broken and bloody, and mother was looking for my infant sister who had rolled away. The next thing I remember after that, mother was on a horse, holding my baby sister, and had me sitting behind her, saying, ‘Hold on tight, or the Turks will get you!”
The three of them took off, and ended up in Aleppo, which was one of the gateways to the desert deportation and certain death.
Once they arrived, my grandmother asked around to find out who was in charge. She managed to bluff her way into getting an audience with the governor general of Aleppo. Since her husband was in the service of the Turkish army — albeit by force — she boldly said to the governor general, “I demand my rights as the wife of a Turkish army officer!”
“What are those rights?” he countered.
“I want commissary privileges and two orderlies,” she answered.
In this way, through sheer chutzpah, my grandmother Mary Kupelian managed to fast-talk her way out of certain death, not only saving her own life and those of her son and daughter, but also the lives of her husband’s two brothers, whom she immediately deputized as “orderlies.” The group managed to sneak several other family members out of harm’s way, and my grandmother kept them all from starving by obtaining food from the commissary. Thus was my family spared, although little Adolphina, my father’s infant sister, was unable to survive the harshness of those times, and died shortly thereafter.
As for my grandfather — after an unusually bloody battle between the Turks and the British, he and the other doctors, all Armenians, had just finished tending to the Turkish wounded as best they could. Immediately after this, a squadron of Turkish gunmen came and killed them all, including my grandfather.
In all, one and a half million Armenians perished in those years, at the hands of the Turkish regime.
Yet to this day the government of Turkey denies that any genocide ever took place — despite thousands of eyewitness accounts, despite the over 24,000 documents compiled from the U.S. National Archives of State Department records from 1910 to 1929 detailing the extermination of the Armenians. Despite the New York Times’ over 194 articles from 1913 through 1922 outlining the hideous manner in which Armenians died in Turkey.
The U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, Henry Morgenthau, tried desperately to stop the slaughter, and said that the treatment of the Armenians by the Turks “surpasses the most beastly and diabolical cruelties ever before perpetrated or imagined in the history of the world.”
“One day I was discussing these proceedings with a responsible Turkish official,” Morgenthau later wrote, “who was describing the tortures inflicted. He made no secret of the fact that the government had instigated them, and, like all Turks of the official classes, he enthusiastically approved this treatment of the detested race. This official told me that all these details were matters of nightly discussion at the headquarters of the Union and Progress Committee.”
The former ambassador continued, “Each new method of inflicting pain was hailed as a splendid discovery, and the regular attendants were constantly ransacking their brains in the effort to devise some new torment. He told me that they even delved into the records of the Spanish Inquisition and other historic institutions of torture and adopted all the suggestions found there.”
I will not recount the unspeakable things the Turks did to the Armenians, but rest assured they exceed the darkest and foulest imaginings of your mind.
This barbaric and massive extermination of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman and Turkish military and paramilitary forces effectively eliminated the presence of the Armenian population from Turkey. After inhabiting the Armenian highlands for three thousand years, this ancient people, historically the first Christian nation, was driven from its historic homeland and forced into exile. Like the modern state of Israel, modern Armenia had a new birth after the breakup of the Soviet empire.
Today, the entire Turkish government and establishment is, on a national scale, reminiscent of the Nazi war criminals who turn up now and again, living in middle America, 70-something, working as a shop foreman somewhere, tending their flower gardens, smiling to their neighbors and living a “normal” life — their beastly past neatly buried in the dark corners of their mind — and perhaps the minds of a few Nazi-hunters.
A troubled nation, Turkey can pretend to be a civilized nation among other civilized nations, but its every move, every policy, its strategic cooperation with NATO and the West, is designed — like the former Nazi tending his garden, smiling at his neighbors — to bury forever the truth of the ferocious crimes it committed.
There is no room in official Turkey today for recognition of the Armenian holocaust. The hatred is still there. Indeed, after the devastating earthquake that decimated Armenia in 1988, Turkey blockaded aid to Armenia, delaying trains so long that food and medicines went bad.
And just last month a group of computer hackers calling themselves the “Green Revenge Group” hijacked the Armenian National Institute’s website and redirected visitors to a propaganda site denying the Armenian holocaust ever happened.
The ANI website features comprehensive documentation of the Turkish genocide against the Armenian people, including historic documents, records of international affirmation, bibliographies and a unique collection of documentary photographs.
ANI’s Board of Governors Chairman Robert A. Kaloosdian called it “a stark reminder that deniers will resort to any means to cloud, obscure and erase the memory of the Armenian Genocide.”
But all of us deniers need our enablers, don’t we? Helping the Turkish government live in this state of perpetual denial of its past crimes is the United States government. After freely acknowledging the reality of the Armenian holocaust for decades — just as the U.S. has always recognized the Jewish holocaust — the U.S. government has changed its tune in recent years.
The U.S. and NATO have decided that since Turkey is strategically important, located as it is on the edge of the Middle East, our ability to locate military bases there and rely on Turkish cooperation is more important than truth. So we now soften our condemnation of Turkey, often referring to the “alleged” and “disputed” Armenian holocaust.
Living in denial, Turkey is a fragile country today, full of internal conflict — between secularists and fundamentalists, between Kurds and Turks. Its economy is weak. If the U.S. did not prop it up, it would probably collapse.
Is there any hope?
Yes, I believe there is. Sometimes good things happen. It may be my imagination, but there are signs.
“With the people of Israel watching, I bow in humility before those murdered, before those who don’t have graves where I could ask them for forgiveness.” So spoke German President Johannes Rau in an historic address to the Israeli Parliament earlier this week.
“I am asking for forgiveness for what Germans have done, for myself and my generation, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, whose future I would like to see alongside the children of Israel.”
Although the Germans have, of course, openly acknowledged the Jewish holocaust for decades, Rau’s poignant address before the Knesset was profoundly important. Indeed, one of the finest, most inspiring things a human being can do in this deeply imperfect world is to apologize — sincerely, completely and without guile, for past wrongdoing. It is, all by itself, healing.
Confession is good for the soul, says the Good Book. If Turkey would openly confess its great sins, as Germany did after World War II and as its new president did on Wednesday, Turkey also would have a chance to heal not only itself and its national soul, but also the thousands of descendents of those massacred Armenians. It’s the least they can do.
When it comes right down to it, there are only two kinds of people in this world. Not black and white, rich and poor, free and unfree, faithful and infidel, or Christian and pagan. I’m talking about getting down to the level that God really cares about:
“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” — Hebrews 4:12
The intents of the heart. There are people who, when confronted with their error, can sincerely acknowledge it and apologize. And then there are people who, when confronted with their wrongdoing, deny it, deny it even to the death. On the spiritual level, these are the two types of people who populate this planet.
Sincere, honest apology is the very epitome of moral courage, and evidence of a secret faith in divine providence.
About once every generation a leader emerges who can rise above the muck. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was one. He rose above the ancient cultural and religious hatred of his people for the Jews, and in the end embraced Menachem Begin and Israel as a man of peace.
May Turkey raise up such a leader. One man could lead that nation — or at least all the decent souls in that nation, and every land has its share — to national repentance and healing.
Turkey has suffered for centuries under a dark, cruel and inhuman culture. Today’s Turks are not responsible for the atrocities committed by their ancestors — they weren’t even alive then. But today’s Turks are responsible, as individuals and as a nation, for confronting the harsh reality of their nation’s past, admitting it to the world, and apologizing to the Armenians — not only for the horrors of the genocide, but for having denied it ever since.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5:43-45
OK, I’ll tell you what. I will not only pray for Turkey, but I will ask every Armenian reading these words, and all believers as well, to pray for Turkey, that a leader might truly lead that dark nation into the light — a painful journey indeed, but one that leads ultimately to true humanity and redemption.
Prof. Ronald G. Suny has announced a major conference on the Armenian Genocide in which a number of Turkish scholars will participate, at the University of Chicago on March 17-19. Most Armenians are skeptical, saying it’s foolishness to talk seriously about the genocide with Turkish scholars, whose sole aim for decades has been obfuscation, historical revisionism and outright denial. Yet Prof. Suny apparently is determined to facilitate a truthful dialogue with Turkish and Armenian scholars. Although he may be naïve, as some Armenians suggest, or falsely optimistic as others believe, he is making an effort, a beginning, in what could be a long road toward national redemption for Turkey. Godspeed.