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Armenians race against time for stories of their devastation

Friday, April 20, 2007
BY RUSSELL BEN-ALI
Star-Ledger Staff


Hagop Bahtiarian recalls the frantic grab he made for his father's coat: a terrified 5-year-old clutching his dad during an arrest by police of the Ottoman Empire 92 years ago.

The elder Bahtiarian was jailed in 1915 and later killed, in the early days of a period that would prove devastating for Bahtiarian's family and other Armenians. As a people, they were rousted from their homes and expelled from Ottoman territory now part of Turkey.

Between 1915 and 1923, an estimated 1.5million Armenians were killed or died of starvation and illness while in detention or in forced marches into the Syrian desert during a campaign many historians call the Armenian Genocide.

"These are things that are so hard for a kid to take," said Bahtiarian, 97, a retired watchmaker who settled in Bergen County and now lives in the Armenian Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Emerson. "But it hurts so much that it's impossible to forget it. My father never came back. How can you not remember?"

Historians are counting on vivid memories of survivors like Bahtiarian as they try to document the oral histories of the Armenian calamity while there is still time.

"If they're going to remember anything, they've got to be close to 100 years old," said Samuel Azadian of Hamburg, New Jersey, who founded the Armenian Genocide Commemoration in 1985.

The Armenian community has struggled for decades to promote broader recognition of its losses, with the Turkish government strongly resistant to the notion that ethnic cleansing was at work. This Sunday in Times Square, thousands of Armenians are expected to rally at 2 p.m.

"Unfortunately, our community did not do the things that the Jewish community has done in chronicling the Holocaust," said Azadian, a former deputy commissioner for New York City highways. "Remember, there was not the technological methods available that there are today. Who even had tape recorders back in 1920?"

The killings were well chronicled by publications including the New York Times. In the years since, some relatives have attempted to record and videotape personal histories of survivors.

Azadian, 80, said he wishes he had done more to document his own family history through his mother, who during the genocide lost four children before he was born.

"I regret to this day that I didn't sit down with a tape recorder and interview my mother," Azadian said. "Her memories just kept haunting her and haunting her."

The memories are troubling for Anahid Boghosian, 98, who also lives in the Armenian nursing home. "Annie" was a child forced into exile; her travels took her to Syria, Cuba, Revere, Mass., and then Cliffside Park in Bergen County.

"My father had gone to Istanbul to look for work," said Boghosian, hands trembling as she tried to recall the events during an interview at the nursing home. "He was never heard from again."


'WHAT'S THE USE?'

The stories she once told her daughters, Thelma Sarajian and Helen Kenajian of Cliffside Park, are difficult to recall these days, even with their aid and encouragement.

Sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing home conference room with her daughters and the reporter interviewing her, she struggled with her emotions. "Why do you people wait so late?" she asked. "It's all in the ashes. What's the use? What's the use?"

Around the world, Armenians generally remember the start of the killings with a commemoration on April 24, the date in 1915 when Armenian political, intellectual and other leaders were rounded up and eliminated.

On Sunday, advocates will call on the U.S. government to recognize the Armenian genocide, as some Western countries have. They also will remember Hrant Dink, the prominent Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor who was gunned down outside his Istanbul office in January. Dink often chronicled the Turkish government's treatment of the Armenian minority in his weekly.

They also will push for the passage of House Resolution 160, introduced in January by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Although the resolution is largely symbolic, it is strongly opposed by the Turkish government. It is also opposed by the Bush administration, which recognizes the Armenian deaths as a historic tragedy but declines to call it genocide or accuse Turkey, its NATO ally, of participating.

The Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, has long denied initiating a campaign to eliminate or expel from the Ottoman Empire the Armenian people, who represent one of the world's oldest Christian communities. In the past, Turkey has attributed the Armenian deaths to the bedlam surrounding World War I, as the old Ottoman Empire unraveled and collapsed.

The government contends many Turks were casualties of this period, too, killed by Armenians who aligned themselves with Russian troops and might have had plans to take over land in the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire.

Those contentions have inspired Armenian-Americans to work harder to interview survivors.

"Their stories touch our hearts," said Dennis R. Papazian of Woodcliff Lake in Bergen County, who is the founding director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan at Dearborn. Beginning in the 1970s, some 55 years after the genocide began, Papazian began amassing hundreds of oral, and, later, video recordings of survivor stories.

Such work is vital, Azadian said, to thwarting future acts of genocide.

"It's a horrible blot on mankind -- Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia," he said of genocide. "That's why we do what we do."