Today is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
As the world grieves the loss of thousands of Ukrainians due to Vladimir Putin’s brutal campaign of war crimes, atrocities and genocide, here is some historical perspective.
My father’s parents were from Wysokie, a town in eastern Poland, a country in Central Europe in between two neighbors, Russia and Germany. Throughout history, Russia and Germany (Prussia) ravaged, divided and occupied Poland’s territory.
In 1913 my grandparents decided to leave Wysokie for a new life in America. Perhaps they’d had enough of Poland’s aggressive neighbors.
Henry and Sarah disembarked from the S.S. Kroonland, an ocean liner that cruised between New York and Antwerp, onto Ellis Island in July 1913.
This is where immigrants entered the United States, near a great statue, which welcomed them with these words:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send them, the homeless, to me.
Henry and Sarah settled in New York City, started a family and Henry founded a travel agency on Broome Street in lower Manhattan’s east side.
As Henry read the news, he had a premonition that bad things would happen to friends and family left behind in Wysokie. Most of the people Henry left behind were Jewish. (Henry and Sarah were Jewish, by heritage, but did not practice any religious faith.)
As Henry watched the rise of Nazism in Germany, he wrote letters to friends and relatives in Wysokie begging them to leave Poland and start a new life in America, whose Constitution assures freedom of religion.
Nazism is an ideology based largely on racism, anti-Semitism and hatred.
Henry offered friends and relatives free transportation, through his travel agency, to leave Poland. But Wysokie’s Jews were enterprising and had built a decent existence for themselves, so they mostly remained.
In 1937 Wysokie fell victim to a pogrom.
A pogrom is an organized attack on persons of a particular ethnic group. The particular ethnic group targeted was Jews. Many houses belonging to Jews were looted and trashed and destroyed, and many Jews were injured.
On September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and started World War II. Nine days later, German soldiers arrived in Wysokie and set much of the town on fire, just because they could.
The Germans rounded-up Wysokie’s Jewish men from age 17 upwards and herded them to a Catholic Church and refused them food and drink for three days. On the fourth day, the Germans marched their herd of Jews to Zambrow, a city 20 miles east, to work as slaves. They shot dead all Jews who walked too slowly and could not keep up with them.
Perhaps overcome by his prophetic premonition, my grandfather Henry suffered a heart attack and died, at age 58, three weeks after World War II started. Henry had three sons of military age—and he most surely believed they would be drafted and sent to war, perhaps his worst nightmare. (They were sent to war—and all three returned, limbs intact.)
A few days after Henry died, Germany negotiated a deal with Russia to divide Poland (again).
Under Russian rule, Wysokie’s Jews were allowed to return to their town. They rebuilt Wysokie, though their community had dwindled—through organized murder—from 2,500 to 1,100 Jews.
When Germany and Russia went to war two years later, German soldiers seized Wysokie again, on June 23rd, 1941. This time the Germans did not kid around. They did not march Wysokie’s Jews to Zambrow and shoot some of them dead for walking too slow. Instead, in late August, the Germans created a ghetto in Wysokie.
A ghetto is a segregated neighborhood whose inhabitants are squeezed together in cramped conditions. Wysokie’s ghetto comprised of three streets surrounded by a barrier of barbed wire.
German soldiers marched Jews from other towns into Wysokie’s ghetto. Soon, 20,000 Jews were squeezed so tight they could hardly breathe.
When winter arrived, German soldiers marched Jews into the forest to chop down trees for firewood. In return, Jews were allowed to keep tree roots to boil as soup so that they had something to eat.
A year passed.
On November 1st, 1942, 300 empty wagons, borrowed by Polish police from local farmers, arrived in Wysokie. Next day, all Jews were summoned to the main square and ordered to climb aboard the wagons.
A crowd of Polish people stood by, armed with garden tools. They did not stand by to defend Jews. They stood by to steal all the possessions Jews were forced to leave behind.
Three hundred wagons of weeping Jews rolled to Zambrow.
In Zambrow, Wysokie’s Jews joined 17,500 Jews from other nearby towns in conditions more cramped than Wysokie’s ghetto. The Germans provided each Jew one quart of water and one slice of bread, daily. About 100 persons—mostly children and the elderly—died, daily.
The arrival of a new year did not bring celebration. Two weeks into 1943, the Germans murdered any Jew who suffered ill health. Jews who could still stand were marched to Chizev train station. Along the way, people who hated Jews beat them, gauntlet-style.
It was winter, and very cold. Many Jews froze to death before reaching the trains.
Those were the lucky ones.
However bad my grandfather’s premonition, Henry could not have foreseen the horror of the Holocaust.
On January 17th, Wysokie’s Jews were forced to board trains that rolled them to Auschwitz, a German concentration and extermination camp in southern Poland. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, women and children and the elderly were separated from their husbands, fathers and sons and led to a building where they were ordered to undress. Naked, they were guided into a special chamber, and the door screwed shut behind them.
They were not told what would happen next.
Inside the special chamber they were introduced to Zyklon B.
Zyklon B is a poison made with cyanide. It was created to kill insects.
Zyklon B pellets were dropped into the special chamber, creating a poison gas.
The Jews inside shouted and screamed for 20 minutes as their mouths foamed and their ears oozed blood.
Then all were dead.
Young Jewish men were spared because the German army needed slave labor.
Auschwitz had a motto: Arbeit macht frei (“Work brings hope”). This motto was a hoax.
There was much work, but little hope. After working as hard as they could, many young Jewish men were also sent to the special chamber—to an agonizing death by Zyklon B poison gas.
A dictator named Adolf Hitler had ordered this genocide against Jews.
“Who, after all,” Adolf said in 1939, “speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The “Armenian Question”
A quarter-century before the start of World War II, my maternal grandmother, Adrine Kalfayan, was a young teenager in Trebizond, a city in northeastern Turkey on the Black Sea.
In 1915 Turkey was part of the Ottoman Empire.
My grandmother was Armenian.
Through the 1800s and early 1900s, Armenians were treated as second-class citizens in their own historical homeland. This was because Armenians were Christian, and Moslem Turks outnumbered Armenians, ten-to-one.
The Armenian nation was first to recognize Christianity as a religion, in the year 301.
Armenia’s homeland, Anatolia, had been absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, which was then a world power.
The Ottoman Empire’s rulers did not like progress. But without progress, the Ottoman Empire’s army could not compete with armies in Europe, where progress was welcomed, especially to modernize armies. And so, the Ottoman Empire fell apart in the late 1800s as Greek, Serb and Romanian armies fought against Turks to win independence from their oppressive empire.
Armenians did not seek independence from Turks. They sought equality. For instance, Armenians were not allowed to vote in the Ottoman Empire. And, as Christians, they were forced to pay more tax than Moslems.
In 1895, instead of allowing Armenians to vote in elections and making tax equal for all people, the Ottoman Empire’s leader, Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, created a special army to murder 100,000 Armenians.
For sure, this special army reduced the Armenian minority if Armenians would ever win the right to vote. (But perhaps Sultan Abdul-Hamid II forgot it would also result in fewer premium taxpayers.)
For reasons that had nothing to do with Armenians, a group of Turks forced a constitutional government on the Sultan in 1908. This group was known as Young Turks.
A constitutional government meant that Young Turks would share power with the Sultan.
Young Turks believed in modernizing their country. They claimed to believe in equality and justice.
Although Armenians supported Young Turks and their progressive thinking, what Young Turks really meant was equality and justice for all Moslems, not Christian Armenians.
In 1913, Young Turks overthrew Sultan Abdul-Hamid II as ruler.
Three Young Turks—Mehmet Talaat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmed Djemal—became the empire’s new rulers. Quickly, Mehmet, Ismail and Ahmed became bossier than the Sultan they had overthrown for being too bossy.
This trio wanted to create a new Turkish empire with one religion. Their religion. And they wanted to take over countries to the east. In between Turkey and countries to the east lay Armenia’s homeland—and two million Christian Armenians.
This did not matter to Young Turks. And it did not bode well for Armenians.
The Young Turk trio whipped up religious hatred against Christians. Perhaps they were jealous that Armenians had always been progressive and open to new ideas. And that Armenians were smart and enterprising, educated and skilled, and therefore wealthy compared to most Turks. This was because the Sultan had discouraged learning. Instead, the Sultan encouraged his subjects to be ignorant, unskilled peasants so that they would be stupid and loyal to him.
In 1914, the start of World War I created a cover for Young Turks to answer their “Armenian Question.”
This was not a real question. It was a figure of speech for wanting Armenians to vanish.
The Turks sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary during World War I.
While Germany and Austria-Hungary fought France and Great Britain on European battlefields, Young Turks laid the groundwork for Armenians to vanish.
At that time, 40,000 Armenians served in the Turkish army. These Armenian soldiers were relieved of their weapons, put to work as slave labor, and eventually shot dead.
Meanwhile, Young Turks ordered all other Armenians to surrender their weapons.
It is never a good sign when a government orders its citizens to surrender their weapons. This is why the founders of the United States of America granted Americans the right to bear arms. They did this so Americans would be able to defend themselves against a bossy government—and also rise up and overthrow government if its leaders ever became too bossy.
But back to Armenians, who never should have surrendered their weapons, but did.
Armenians began to vanish 107 years ago today. On that date April 24th, 1915, about 300 prominent Armenians were rounded up by Turks and imprisoned, tortured, and shot or hanged.
Young Turks needed help to ensure that all Armenians in Turkey would vanish. So, they encouraged other ethnic tribes, such as the Kurds, to kill Armenians and steal their possessions.
Young Turks also created a special organization to help Armenians vanish. This organization was named “Special Organization.” It comprised of criminals who were released from prison in exchange for their willingness to kill Armenians. These criminals were also encouraged to rape Armenian women, including young girls, and turn them into sex slaves. And they were allowed to keep everything they could steal from Armenians.
A favorite Turkish vanishing trick was to march, march, march thousands of Armenians up mountains and over cliffs into a river, which turned red from Armenian blood. Another Turkish vanishing trick was to march, march, march thousands of Armenians into the hot desert, without water, so they would fry to death.
In all, Young Turks made about 1,500,000 Armenians vanish.
My grandmother Adrine and her family were among 500,000 Armenians who did not vanish.
The Kalfayan family left Trebizond by boat in June 1915. They were on the last boat to leave Trebizond before the Young Turks and the Kurds massacred all of Trebizond’s 14,000 Armenians.
The Kalfayans sailed to Istanbul, Turkey’s capital, which was then called Constantinople, where they had lived before moving to Trebizond.
Adrine’s father, Azarik Kalfayan, designed rugs for Sultan Abdul-Hamid II.
In 1895 Abdul-Hamid II had rewarded Azarik with a Certificate of Personal Satisfaction, signed by the Sultan. Twenty years later, Azarik used his Certificate of Personal Satisfaction as a Get-out-of-genocide-alivecard for himself and his family.
But the wide-scale brutal murder of Armenians scarred Azarik’s family psychologically. Five decades later, when Adrine temporarily suffered mental illness, she believed Young Turks were tracking her movements and wanted to make her vanish.
Back to World War I. It did not go well for the Ottoman Empire. Along with Germany, the Ottoman Empire lost, and the Allied powers occupied Constantinople.
Before troops of the Allied powers arrived, the Young Turk trio did their own vanishing act.
Aided by Germans (the irony), Mehmet escaped by submarine to Germany.
Ismail also fled to Germany. Ahmed also bolted to Germany.
Armenians hunted Mehmet and Ahmed—and assassinated them within four years. Ismail was last to die, killed in battle by an Armenian.
Years later, Adolf Hitler of Germany should have paid attention to what happened to Mehmet, Djemal and Ismail. Instead, Adolf tried to solve the “Jewish Question.”
Again, this was not a real question, but a figure of speech for wanting Jews to vanish.
Adolf tried to solve his “question” the same as Mehmet, Ismail and Ahmed tried to solve their “question.” And, as a consequence, Adolf also met an early end.
Later, Germany accepted responsibility for their genocidal Holocaust of Jews.
But Turkey has never acknowledged their genocidal massacre of Armenians. Instead, Turks deny that they wanted Armenians to vanish. In addition, Turks try to silence anyone that publishes information about their genocide against Armenians, as if genocide can be swept under a magic carpet.
Sometimes it takes a while, but truth always prevails.
Never forget those who make war on innocent people; always ensure their crimes are exposed and punished.