How to Download a Genocide
Rediscovering my Armenian-ness and a lost heritage with the technologies of remembrance.
The Chorbajian family in Fresno, 1908. From left to right: Dirhouie "Medsmir" Chorbajian, my great-grandfather Albert Kalem, his older sister Bessie; his father, Haroutiun H. Chorbajian; his younger sister Agnes; and his mother, Araxie (Hakemian) Chorbajian
My grandfather credits Dirhouie "Medsmir" Chorbajian with the fact that our family exists at all. She was the one who, after receiving word of the slaughter of tens of thousands of Armenians in Turkey between 1894 and 1896, in what would be named the Hamidian massacres after the sultan who ordered them, urged her husband to emigrate to the United States. According to family lore, Medsmir, my great-great-great grandmother, was blunt: "It is time for us to leave."
She proved persuasive, and the Chorbajian family moved to Massachusetts, and then on to Fresno, California. Less than twenty years later, one and a half million Armenians, among them her friends, peers, and relatives, were systematically deported and killed by the agents of the Ottoman Empire. My ancestors escaped the first and least-remembered genocide of the twenty-first century, which, for a long time, escaped my understanding, too.
If my great grandfather Albert had not changed his last name, from Chorbajian to "Merchant," which he said was a direct translation, on the day before he wed his Anglo-American bride, it would be stamped on my birth certificate. It would be my byline. I would be Brian Chorbajian. My name would announce my familial legacy, winding back to a Middle Eastern people once nearly wiped entirely from the earth. I would have grown up, in some sense, Armenian.
But it doesn't, and I didn't. I emerged a thoroughly white suburbanite with a thoroughly Anglicized moniker. As a kid, I knew nothing of the cultural history of Armenians or the atrocity that drove my forebears to seek refuge in the United States. Throughout high school, I probably couldn't have pointed to Armenia on a map.
Only now, thanks to my grandfather and some powerful new technologies of remembrance that are helping to shed light on the Armenian plight, am I beginning to come to grips with the heritage that begat, then transformed my name.
This April marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide. On April 24th, 1915, the Turkish government executed some 200 Armenian intellectual leaders in Constantinople, in what scholars now refer to as a "decapitation strike" meant to hobble the whole people. Thus began the genocide in earnest; the brutal, organized effort to empty Anatolia of its entire Armenian population, through a process the state referred to only as "deportation."
Two million Armenians were forced from their homes, and sent marching through the desert, their final destination grim camps clearly not intended for long-term occupation. One and a half million Armenians died in the process; many from starvation (they often went unfed), many from exhaustion (the old and the young alike marched for days on end), many from disease (cholera ravaged the camps), and many directly at the hands of Turkish officials (shootings, hangings, rape, even decapitation were not uncommon).
The US government still refuses to recognize the state-ordained mass exterminations that began in 1915 as a genocide, despite a mountain of supporting evidence and coalescing international agreement—because, to this day, Turkey, a NATO ally, denies that any systematic killing took place at all, and chalks the event up to the cloudy ambiguities of war. The generations-spanning erasure of 'Chorbajian' from my own identity, it can seem at times, dovetails with the decades-spanning erasure of 'Armenian genocide' from the American cultural fabric.
In late March, 2015, I was on the phone with my 84-year-old grandfather, Alan Merchant, who has been recovering from a difficult surgery. We'd fallen into a long conversation about history, and got to talking about our ancestry, when he repeated the anecdote about Medsmir, which means "grandmother" in Armenian.
"If it weren't for her, I guess we wouldn't be here," he said. There are plenty of occasions on any family tree where you can point to a branch and wonder, if they didn't do x, would we even… But there are fewer where you can say that, if they didn't do this, in all likelihood, our family would have been eradicated along with most of an entire race. My grandfather then mentioned the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the genocide, and that was that. The anecdote, paired with the sudden realization that I'd more or less been ignoring, or at the very least, sequestering away to the attic of unpleasant thoughts, 100 years of my own history, made me queasy. I felt like I'd betrayed something, but wasn't sure what. I resolved to fill in the gaps.
Google 'Armenian Genocide' in the US, and you'll find that geopolitics have been swept away, and the truth is laid out in hyperlinks.
I turned first, of course, to Google.
I spent the next several Sunday afternoon hours on YouTube, on Armenia's online genocide museum, on Wikipedia. I passed the evening with indexed survivor testimonies, sprawling image archives, grainy digitized video; in the desert sweep of the killing fields, with the hanged bodies, the slain poets, and children half-buried in dust. I was reminded again of a history that I had learned of before, but long failed to internalize.
The web, for its part, was keeping pace with my kindled curiosity. So often, when the internet is heralded as a democratizer of knowledge, the words ring hollow when put under scrutiny. But in the case of the Armenian genocide, it's true. Google the term in the US, and you'll find that geopolitics have been swept away, and the truth is laid out in hyperlinks. Unlike the US's craven official stance, or the media's tendency in the latter half of the 20th century to reduce the genocide question to he said/she said, the search results paint an accurate representation of the current scholarship—that there is no doubt that what occurred was, under the UN definition of the term, a capital-G genocide.
The first hit is a Wikipedia entry that labels the event a genocide clearly and unequivocally (the US version does, anyway, the Turkish language entry is more generous to the Ottomans) and the second is to Armenian-Genocide.org, run by the Armenian National Institute. The New York Times' overview is prominently listed, and it's brief but thorough and cutting. Meanwhile, social media is increasingly filled with calls for recognition: Kim Kardashian, perhaps the world's most famous Armenian, has been using Twitter to bring the genocide to the attention of her 31 million followers. And Reddit, which was founded by the Armenian-American Alexis Ohanian, goes to extra lengths to educate its users about the atrocity. All told, as accessed from the US, everyday search engines (Bing is good here too) and web forums allow users to access an impressive information archeology through which to discover, or remember, a pivotal but whitewashed moment in history, online.
Andrew Jones, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, argued in a 2003 paper that "if we are to fully appreciate the nature of collective remembrance we need to acknowledge the active participation of the material world in eliciting remembrance." Today, that material world through which we forge collective memory is of course dominated by screens, servers, and bits. Jones was talking about classical artifacts and monuments when he pointed out that "technological production is allied to the creation of collective memories," but it also applies to how the web is so instrumental in preserving, archiving, and organizing information about the past. There are few more ubiquitous totems of collective memory than Wikipedia, after all, that shape how we remember facts and histories.
Recalling data is one thing; actively relating to the past is another. And that's where a digital library that allows users to come face to face with those who experienced the genocide first hand comes in. The University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation is currently undertaking an effort to digitize the largest collection of genocide survivor testimonies in existence. The esteemed filmmaker and founder of the Armenian Film Foundation, the late Michael Hagopian, bequeathed the foundation, which already hosts the largest archive of Jewish holocaust survivor testimonies, hundreds of raw, unedited interviews with Armenian genocide survivors.
Hrag Yedalian, himself an Armenian filmmaker, is now overseeing the effort to organize, index, and make searchable those testimonies as part of the Visual History Archive. Yedalian's grandfather was a genocide survivor, and just two years old when the atrocities began.
"I grew up with my grandfather, and it was fascinating to hear his stories, though at the time, I wasn't really interested in collecting facts and details," Yedalian told me, "and it really left a mark on me, knowing that this could happen." Beginning on April 24th, 60 full interviews are available online, fully searchable by segment and keyword. Yedalian gave me access to the archives beforehand, so that I could spend some time with the survivors.
"We try to identify what people would look for; geographic terms, terms like 'killings,' 'drownings,' 'mass killings,' 'mass deportations,' 'forced marches,' dozens of different terms," Yedelian said. "It's really unique in the Armenian community, really it's unprecedented. It's the only one that's indexed and publicly accessible."
It is a powerful resource. There are stories from survivors who lost their entire families, whose fathers were forced to dig their own graves, whose mothers succumbed to cholera before their eyes, in their own words.
"The Turkish government conscripted all Armenians who had sea experience to move Turkish families to the east shore of Lake Van," the survivor Richard Ashton told Hagopian in 1977. "My father was one of these men. After they had used their services, they made them dig rectangular graves, and shot them, 15 or 20 to each grave." One man, wounded but buried alive, dug himself out and returned home to share the story.
The web makes it all but impossible for a searcher to legitimately deny the Armenian genocide.
Details in other accounts are crushingly banal; families who stole fruit from their own vineyards to survive, or who refrained from taking an apple for the road because they thought they'd be returning the next day, and it wasn't quite ripe yet. Details in others are simply crushing: Stories of women who fled under the cover of night to drown themselves in a nearby lake, sadly predictable anecdotes of rape and assault, and recollections of children left to rot on the side of the road.
It is the details that give life to the long-lost tragedy. When Ashton's mother was on her deathbed, she left him with some final words: "'Always live as though I were with you and approved'," Asthon told the filmmaker, stone-faced. "And then she died."
Watching these stories is unsettling, animating. This is what would have happened to the Chorbajians, the pre-Merchants, if they had not fled, and what did happen to the Chorbajians who did not.
"My family didn't talk too much about it," my grandfather told me over another long chat. "The thing that I remember is that my father told us that they recognized that things were not going well during the Hamidian massacres."
In the last decade of the 1800s, the Ottoman Empire was reeling from a disastrous war effort in the Balkans, had just lost most of its territory in Europe, and feared further dissent from its minority populations. The Empire's long-oppressed Armenian population—who couldn't vote and had fewer religious and property rights than Turks—had in recent decades begun agitating for better treatment. Their protests against unfair taxation is believed to have caused the Hamidian massacres that sent my ancestors fleeing to the US.
To elucidate the situation in Ottoman Turkey at the time, he emailed our family a "digital single" recently made available by another literature digitization project. Frederick Davis Greene, a missionary to Armenia, recounted the massacres that predated the 1915 genocide in his book, Armenian Massacres and Turkish Tyranny, published in 1896, and digitized in 2007 by the Internet Archive, and now available for sale on Amazon for $0.99. Here's the account of just one of the many gruesome massacres Greene detailed in the book:
"A number of able-bodied young Armenians were captured, bound, covered with brushwood and burned alive. A number of Armenians, variously estimated, but less than a hundred, surrendered themselves and pled for mercy. Many of them were shot down on the spot and the remainder were dispatched with sword and bayonet. A lot of women, variously estimated from 60 to 160 in number were shut up in a church, and the soldiers were 'let loose' among them. Many of them were outraged to death and the remainder dispatched with sword and bayonet… Children were placed in a row, one behind another, and a bullet fired down the line, apparently to see how many could be dispatched with one bullet. Infants and small children were piled one on the other and their heads struck off."
It was then that Medsmir led the Chorbajians first to New England, then to Fresno, California. "So they missed the major genocide," my grandfather said. "There were five of them that left. My uncle, the family that came over, my dad's mother and father, and his father's mother and father. They must have gotten into Boston Harbor, that's where dad was born: in Melrose, Massachusetts. He was the first of our family to be born here."
"They escaped the major part of it," my grandfather said. "My cousin once tried to trace a family tree for the Hekemian side; that would be my grandmother's family. He kept coming to several of the males—massacred, massacred, massacred—so it was an incomplete lineage. Those were my grandmother's ancestors that were left behind."
Those who made it out began the decades-long process of Americanization.
"Dad and his generation were so proud to be Americans," my grandfather said. "He couldn't tolerate anyone who didn't think that America was a great country; it had offered the family freedom. My dad's generation wanted to become Americanized more than they wanted to hang onto their Armenian roots. This was called acculturation." It also, perhaps, helped contribute to the genocide's drift in the collective memory.
"I was quite proud of my Armenian-ness," my grandfather said, "but we didn't think too much about the genocide, because it didn't affect the family directly. It was sad, tragic—a very big part of history." My father, too, says he's proud of being Armenian; "It's very real to me," he told me recently. He says he told me and my brother about the genocide when we were young, but spared us the grislier details. "There's angst in there, and a little anger at the Turkish genocide for hiding it, for denying it now."
See, despite the internet's accurate archeology of the event, this big part of history has, until very recently, been ironed over. There was a time when, as Peter Balakian points out in his major book on the Armenian genocide, The Burning Tigris, that the tragedy was the greatest foreign human rights concern in the nation. American reporters documented the atrocities unfolding in Turkey, the stories were routinely headline news, and progressive groups provided aid and called for intervention. The plight of "starving Armenians," as the common phrase went, was exceedingly well known.
But immediately after the genocide was over, in the smolder of the World War, Turkey emerged as an important strategic ally against communist Russia. Though directing aid to the remnants of Armenia and condemning Turkey for its genocide were immensely popular goals among the public—in its immediate aftermath, Congress considered a bill to officially declare the genocide every single year—such pushes were routinely vetoed. Over time, the genocide question fell into stasis—where it has remained, for political reasons, to this day.
In subsequent decades, with another harrowing genocide emerging from WWII, Armenia's wound, still open, faded from view. One hundred years later, without a proper definition around which to cement monuments or name holidays or produce movies—see how the myriad Holocaust movies rallied our sympathies and bolstered our collective memory—a haze has shrouded the atrocity and obscured blame. Turkey, so far, has won. Our detachment from the genocide feeds the disavowal of the Chorbajians of the world, alive and dead.
"The fact that it isn't taught in school, that it rarely comes up in media—there's an additional angst, the further away we get from our Armenian migration, the less a part of our identity it is, certainly," my father said.
I'm starting to understand something about the power in naming. And I feel the latent power in the fact that more technologies of remembrance are putting those names closer to our fingertips. Here, at least, the web makes it all but impossible for a searcher to legitimately deny the Armenian genocide. Digital archiving efforts are making it easier than ever to hear the truth from the survivor's mouths—Yedalian tells me they're making a tool that will allow anyone to easily create digital documentaries out of the raw materials they provide on the site.
New experiments promise even further inroads. The popular Armenian-American metal band System of a Down is touring explicitly to promote genocide recognition, with its #WakeUptheSoulsTour, and the members have made an interactive heat map that details all of the places that officially recognize the genocide. Armenia's Genocide Museum is experimenting with virtual tours, which, although crude right now, embody a spirit of experimentation and outreach that promises to expand the reach of our collective memory.
For me, personally, it was technologies not unlike these, paired with the patient knowledge of my family, that helped me take on a responsibility that I, and so many, have shirked, to recognize the harsh contours of the past, and give credit to those who helped guide us through it. As a participant in a culture still hobbled by genocide denial, I have been complicit in the disavowal of this vast heritage. We have stranded the Armenian people on the far foggy shores of remembrance, and together, we remain stuck in a purgatory. As Medsmir would have said, "It is time for us to leave."