Emory Report

April 6, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 27

'Forgotten' genocide looms
large for survivors, descendants

Comparisons between the Holocaust and the 1915 Armenian genocide are almost automatic. But the 20th century's first genocide, in which a million Armenian citizens of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire died in mass deportations and massacres, has in a sense not ended, said Walter Kalaidjian, Emory professor of 20th century American literature and a recipient of a University Research Committee grant to study the ongoing trauma of the Armenian experience.

Imagine the consequences to Jews if Germany had never acknowledged it had carried out the Holocaust. "The question is, where does that trauma go?" Kalaidjian asked. "The psychic impact of the unlistened-to story is as devastating to the survivor as the event itself," Kalaidjian said. More than eight decades later, the Turkish government does not acknowledge the genocide took place and, Kalaidjian said, "has gone out of its way to undermine scholarship" on this well-documented event.

The link between Kalaidjian's role as an English professor and the Armenian genocide is his research into what he calls "literature of extreme experience." He is interested in trauma the genocide caused, how that trauma was transmitted from generation to generation and, finally, how it is reflected in the literature of third-generation Armenian-Americans.

"Part of the effect is not only the transmission of trauma but the missed encounter with one's culture in the diaspora through the pressure of assimilation," Kalaidjian said. He cited Peter Balakian's memoir, Black Dog of Fate, which contrasts the extreme experience of the genocide and the trauma of the near universal denial of the event with the pressure to assimilate into suburban American life.

"Without the kind of commemoration rituals and memorial sites that you have with the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide has persisted as a disruptive memory-one that is incommensurable with everyday life in the United States," he said, adding, "The inability to mourn a trauma in the public sphere gets acted out symptomatically in other forms. It's that repetition of the unknown that I explore in a literary context."

With the URC grant, Kalaidjian reviewed videotaped testimonies of survivors of the genocide last year. He selected 80 tapes for acquisition that will become part of Woodruff Library Special Collections. The tapes will arrive at Emory later this spring. A few already have, and Kalaidjian has used them to supplement readings for lectures he gave Violence Studies students and a graduate-level seminar on genocide.

Most of the eyewitnesses interviewed in the late 1980s were children when the genocide occurred. The clarity of their testimonies surprised Kalaidjian. "The most vivid accounts came from those who were between the ages of 5 and 10," he said. The stories survivors tell give access to truths that the bare facts of genocide do not. "Some of the stories are rooted in cultural contexts that are otherwise hard to imagine without the testimony," Kalaidjian said.

One Armenian family was saved when the matriarch of a Turkish family hid them because her husband was the "milk brother" of the Armenian family-his mother had been a wet nurse to the father of the Armenian family.

In addition to the atmosphere of indifference and denial, survivors of the Armenian genocide were hampered by the lack of a vocabulary with which to tell their stories. This comes through in the videos, Kalaidjian said, pointing out that the word "genocide" wasn't even coined until the 1940s, and until then there was no public discourse on the phenomenon of state-sponsored mass murder.

The Armenian genocide was the first in a century of mass murders that took tens of millions of lives. That remains the disturbing paradox of the 20th century, which saw more people living better than at any time in history, Kalaidjian said. "Genocide is not a phenomenon that belongs to the distant past. It's an event that only emerges with the new forces of social modernism, systems of technology and a rapid information exchange that are prerequisites for organizing industrial mass murder," he said.

"The paradox is, it accompanies these sophisticated advances that are the source of our optimism," Kalaidjian said. "Genocide is the unthought-of underside of the so-called progress we've witnessed in the 20th century."

-David Holzel

Editor's note: This month marks the 83rd year since the Armenian deportations began.

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