Last night, as Bill and I were enjoying the cool evening sundown in our backyard, I suddenly remembered what I had wanted to write about yesterday. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of connections between people, events, and other things I’ve run into, like books, videos, and music. A few days ago, we had a memorial for a guy I knew in the Peace Corps. My former colleague and I served in Armenia, which has been in the news in recent years as the people there try to get the Armenian Genocide recognized by the international community. I am now living in Germany, where people have been trying to make amends for the Holocaust, which took place during World War II.
The other day, I was watching YouTube videos and happened to see one about The Holocaust. It was very well done and informative. I’ve read a lot of books about people who survived The Holocaust, and I’ve watched many videos about the experiences of people during that time. But, for some reason, this particular video made me think more about what happened than the others had. Or maybe this idea popped up because I have been talking to people I knew in Armenia, and Armenia is more on my mind than usual. It occurred to me that I’ve lived in Armenia, where people are descended from victims of genocide. And now I live in Germany, where I am surrounded by people whose ancestors had a part in committing genocide. It definitely offers a unique perspective. Or, at least I think it does.
Before I lived in Armenia, I had never heard of the Armenian Genocide. In fact, I barely knew anything about Armenia. The only reason I’d even heard of it was because my fourth grade teacher was of Armenian descent and told us a little bit about his heritage. At that time, Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, so as a nine year old, I never thought I would ever get to visit there, let alone live there. My teacher did not speak about the Genocide. He told us about how Armenians were Christians and that most people’s last names end in “ian”. He said Armenians were very proud of being Christians, hence the “ian” at the end of their names. Now I know that’s factually incorrect, but it sounded good to me when I was nine.
I also remember my Armenian fourth grade teacher played Jesus Christ: Superstar for us. I didn’t hear that music again until I moved to Armenia in 1995, where it was everywhere. People in Armenia LOVED Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical. I even bought a bootleg cassette of the album and quickly became familiar with it. Andrew Lloyd Webber was very popular in the 80s and 90s, anyway, so I don’t know if Armenians always loved that show or it just became popular during their sudden independence in the 90s. Bill and I finally saw a production of it in Washington, DC in 2004.
The Armenian Genocide, which occurred from 1915-1917, resulted in the mass murder of over one million ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks. The murders were achieved through death marches into the Syrian desert and mass executions. Many Armenian women and children were forced to convert to Islam. When I was in Armenia, I worked in a school in Yerevan that was named after a famous Genocide victim and poet, Ruben Sevak. I see that it’s now an elementary school, but when I was teaching there, there were students of all ages, and I taught kids who ranged in age from 7 to 16 years old. During my first months at that school, Ruben Sevak’s daughter, Shamiram, who was then in her 80s and lived in France, came to Yerevan. She attended a party thrown for her at my school. I tried to keep up with all the toasts and got very, very drunk. That was probably the drunkest I’ve ever been in my life!
While searching for Ruben Sevak’s daughter’s name, I found this fascinating blog post about Sevak and his family. I learned that Ruben Sevak (Sevak translates to “black eyes”) was actually a pseudonym. His real name was Roupen Chilingirian, and he was born in a city called Silivri, located about 37 miles from the city now known as Istanbul, but then called Constantinople. His family was wealthy, and Ruben was well educated. He became a physician, having studied in exclusive schools, including medical school at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He met his wife in Switzerland, Helene (Jannie) Apell. Big surprise– she was from a German military family! Their respective families objected to their romantic affair, but Ruben and “Jannie” finally got married in Lausanne, and later had a religious ceremony at the Armenian Church of Paris. The young couple had a son named Levon in 1912, and then their daughter, Shamiram, was born in 1914.
Ruben Sevak became politically active, joining the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. He was a prolific writer, and his works were published in literary journals and newspapers. He wrote a book of poetry in 1909. It was titled The Red Book, and the works within it recalled the Adana massacre— an event in which Armenian Christians were killed by Ottoman Muslims. He planned to write more poetry and political works in more books. He would never get the chance to fulfill that dream. Clearly, Sevak’s writings were threatening to the Ottoman Turks. He was one of the million people killed during the Armenian Genocide, having been conscripted in 1914 and serving as a military doctor in Turkey. In June 1915, Sevak was arrested, and though his wife and her parents tried valiantly to save his life, even involving the German government, their efforts would be in vain. Ruben Sevak was murdered on August 26, 1915.
If you’d like to know more about Ruben Sevak, I highly recommend following this link to the blog post I mentioned earlier. I wish I had known this story when I worked in the school named for Ruben Sevak. It actually blows my mind that I was once in the same room with one of Ruben Sevak’s direct descendants. I’m sure she’s gone now, but how amazing is it that she visited the school where I worked in 1995? What are the odds that I, an American from a small town in Virginia, would one day work in a country that was once part of a larger country that was pretty much off limits to Americans until 1991? And then I would attend a party held in honor of the daughter of a famous poet and doctor who was murdered in the Armenian Genocide? Fate is an incredible thing.
I had heard of the Holocaust when I was growing up, but to be honest, I think it was because I had seen a made for television movie calling Playing For Time. That film aired in 1980, and my parents let me watch it, even though I was 8 years old. I remember the movie starred Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Alexander. It was about young Jewish women in a death camp who were musicians tasked with playing music for arriving prisoners and entertaining Nazi bigwigs. I’m not sure I totally understood the film as I watched it. I do remember thinking it was interesting and I never forgot it, but the horror of what it was about didn’t dawn on me until years later. And I honestly don’t remember learning about what actually went on during World War II when I was in school. Of course, that was many years ago. Maybe I’m mistaken. But it seems like there was so much that had to be covered during those years that we didn’t spend a long time talking about one specific incident in history. U.S. schools, at least in the 80s, covered world history in ninth or tenth grade, U.S. history in eleventh grade, and Government in twelfth grade. Prior to that, we had civics in eighth grade and social studies in seventh grade and below. I’m not even sure if learning about the Holocaust was considered age appropriate in those days.
So there I was a few days ago, watching the above video about the Holocaust, which had popped up randomly in my YouTube queue. I listened as the narrators described the conditions the Holocaust victims encountered as they arrived at Auschwitz. I tried to imagine the terror and extreme horror of it on some level. I thought to myself that I probably wouldn’t have survived, if I had been among the unfortunate people who went to Auschwitz or the other death camps. Hearing about it and seeing the footage is one thing, but actually living through that– watching friends and loved ones being marched off to be executed, freezing in filthy, inadequate clothes and shoes, starving while being worked to death, getting deathly ill or badly hurt and being forced to keep working… being treated as worse than the lowest form of life. It’s just so hard to reconcile that reality with what I’ve seen in Germany, having now spent about nine years of my life in this country. It amazes me that such decent people can be reduced to treating other human beings the way Holocaust victims were treated. I can’t imagine sinking so low… and yet so many ordinary people did.
It suddenly dawned on me that I have now lived in a country whose citizens were systematically exterminated by Ottoman Turks. And I have also lived in a country whose citizens systematically exterminated Jewish people, as well as political prisoners, Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and anyone else Hitler didn’t like. I read that Adolf Hitler was actually inspired by the Armenian Genocide when he came up with his “Final Solution”.
Then I thought of our present day situation. I read that Donald Trump is being encouraged to run for president again. He “handily won” a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. I have mentioned before that I see some similarities between Trump and Hitler. No, he’s not yet having people rounded up and sent to concentration camps to be murdered, although some people have compared the situation at the southern border of the United States to the Holocaust. I’m not sure I would go that far, as many of the people in that situation weren’t necessarily rounded up from their homes and forced to march to detention centers. And I don’t think there’s really anything that quite compares to the absolute sickness and sheer awfulness of the Holocaust. At least not yet.
The similarities I do see between Trump and Hitler have to do with the way both men worked a crowd, as well as some of the historical events in Germany that led to Hitler’s rise to power, and the actual things that both men say– which are things that most narcissistic types say. The narrator in the above video describes how Germans were caught up in fear, poverty, and bigotry. The public were frustrated and looking for scapegoats on which to blame Germany’s depressed economy. Hitler exploited people’s fears, humiliation, anger, and ignorance to get common citizens to accept him as the only person who could make Germany great again. Elections were suppressed, and soon Hitler became a tyrant who murdered millions of innocent people. If you listen to Trump’s speeches and compare them to Hitler’s speeches, you hear a lot of the same kind of stuff. No, they aren’t exactly alike, and they never will be. But I do see similarities that disturb me, and I am not the only one.
I have watched from afar as people in my country have become more and more radicalized and unreasonable. I have seen a lot violence and heard a lot of disturbing rhetoric. I believe a lot of Americans think of Trump as their savior. They ignore the many disturbing signs of his extreme narcissism, as well as the obvious efforts of Republicans to suppress votes from people who won’t vote for them. People are very polarized and some have forgotten their basic sense of decency and compassion. I actually worry less that Trump will be re-elected than someone younger, smarter, more charismatic, healthier, and crueler might be waiting in the wings, ready to take over when Trump inevitably meets his end. I have noticed a lot of vocal Republicans who are rallying disenfranchised and ignorant people to support them in their quest to reclaim power.
Maybe I shouldn’t be writing blog posts like this one. Maybe I will end up being rounded up and killed. I’m sure the people who perished in the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust had no clue that one day, they would face the horrors they faced. But I can’t help but think of Spaniard George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” So I hope and pray that enough of my fellow Americans open their eyes and demand decency and compassion in our leadership.
If you’re supporting a politician who is beloved by the KKK or Neo-Nazi groups, you may want to re-evaluate your choices. Do you really want to be lumped in a group of people who are driven to hate and kill others? Isn’t it better if we come together in peace and moderation? Is money and power really worth more than other people’s lives? Think about it… and all of the exceptional people who have died because of extremism and the desire for power, money, racism, and religion.
So ends today’s blog sermon… Gotta take Arran and Noyzi for a walk before the rain starts again.