The Armenian Weekly
April 2011 Magazine
“But does it really matter if one kind of bird goes extinct?” I asked my friend, Chris, a college classmate, bird enthusiast, and aspiring veterinarian. “No animal should ever go extinct,” he responded with a fiercely passionate tone and an impatient glint in his eyes. I was in my second year of college and had given little thought to the complete loss of a species, whether the result of negligence or intention or both. A smarter person wouldn’t so readily admit the ignorance of their youth, but I’ve lost interest in pretending that I’m anything except what I have been and what I am.
A few years later I found myself in Armenia, where one of the first words I learned was tseghasbanoutyoun. To kill off a tribe. What Raphel Lemkin termed genocide. It was referenced on a daily basis. To me, it seemed like something horrible that had happened, but something that had little relevance to me. Over time, I learned how fresh the wounds were. How the legacy of genocide was woven into every Armenian family’s story. How the political and economic realities of today were influenced by that loss. And how it matters to all of us, no matter when it happened.
For someone like me, it takes time to absorb the possibility that people knowingly and willingly commit true evil. I was raised with an idyllic sense of belonging, support from the community, and promise of great things to come. Farms were separated by a mile and more, but still earned the designation of neighbors. The achievements of children were regularly highlighted in the county newspaper. And I attended music camp each summer in the International Peace Garden that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border.
My childhood wasn’t perfect, but I’m grateful. My frame of reference was decidedly positive. Even with my knowledge of the Viking raids on Ireland, the oppressive religious and political conditions of my ancestors’ early 19th-century Norway, and the treatment of Native Americans in what we now call the Midwestern United States, I was not prepared to comprehend the notions of forced starvation, death marches, and mass drownings that are part of the history of the Armenian Genocide.
A year or two after I returned to the U.S. from Armenia, I called on a donor to the organization where I was working. She’d agreed to meet with me if I would show her children pictures of my time in Armenia. I paged through my collection of visual memories and recounted some of my experiences there. As I came to the end of the book, I saw that I had included a number of photos from a tour of Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. I wanted to quickly shut the book, but at that point her seven-year-old son was completely absorbed.
The boy pointed at the stark image of the gas chamber disguised as a shower room where people were gassed en masse and asked what it was. He was so like myself years ago. A child who had advocates for his wellbeing and no knowledge of adversity. I looked nervously between the image, his beautiful wide eyes, and his mother’s face. She nodded solemnly, silently giving me permission to explain. As I haltingly described what had occurred in that room, how people were callously and systematically put to death, his face crumpled in horror. I was overcome with a wave of guilt: I had robbed him of his innocence. He might have lived another five or more blissful years had I not turned that page.
But maybe it’s for the best, I tell myself today. Maybe it will help him see the world more clearly in all its glory and misery. Maybe it will teach him to love more intensely and without reservation. Maybe it will inspire him to work to make hate a thing of the past.