Former Political Prisoner and Turkish Academic Talks Candidly about the Armenian Genocide With Survivor and Documentarian
ENCINO—“I don’t want to be silenced. I want to tell the truth while I live,” Dr. Taner Akçam, a former political prisoner in his native Turkey and one of the first Turkish academics to acknowledge and openly discuss the Armenian Genocide, told a group of more than 300 mostly Jews and Armenians, who came together at Valley Beth Shalom for an evening of fascinating film and deep discussion about the Armenian Genocide organized by Jewish World Watch.
Akçam, a scholar and author of “A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility,” traveled to Los Angeles from Worcester, MA, to join with documentary filmmaker Dr. J. Michael Hagopian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, to tell stories of survival, courage, conscience and compassion regarding the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and its long and complicated history. The two men, who have known each other for 20 years, are among the world’s leading authorities on the history of genocide.
The group was joined by Jewish World Watch founder Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate, Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, and Armenian Consul General Grigor Hovhannisyan, as well as clergy from the Armenian and Jewish communities.
Akçam focused much of his talk on the “founding legends” of the Turkish state, explaining the “myths” now protected by laws of the land. The fourth legend is: “The Armenian Genocide is a complete lie. It never happened.” Akçam said that until the year 2000 there was no law in the Turkish penal code protecting this legend, because until recently, “absolutely no one in Turkey questioned it.” However, in the year 2000 the Turkish government passed the “infamous Article 301,” making it a crime to talk about the Armenian Genocide as ‘genocide’.”
“The most important reason [for the continued denial of the Armenian genocide] is that we [Turks] have a lack of historic conscience,” Akçam explained to the audience. “If a community has to recognize that its founding fathers, instead of being heroes, have been perpetrators, who violated the cultural premises of their own identity, reference to the past is indeed traumatic. The community can cope with the fundamental contradiction between identity claims and recognition only by a collective schizophrenia, by denial, by decoupling or withdrawal.
“As long as the act of perpetration is not consciously accounted for, all peculiarities of this event will live on in the unconscious,” he added.
Hagopian, an award-winning filmmaker, co-founder of the Armenian Film Foundation, and JWW’s first “I Witness” Award recipient in 2007, screened “The River Ran Red,” the final cinematic chapter in his “Witnesses” trilogy, which chronicles the death marches of the Armenians to the Euphrates through haunting eyewitness testimony. The two other films in the trilogy are “Germany and the Secret Genocide” and “Voices from the Lake,” which was screened at Valley Beth Shalom in 2007.
“These were to become films that someday might be used in a world court to prosecute the Armenian Genocide,” Hagopian told the captivated audience, adding that if the crimes committed against Armenians were ever to be prosecuted, there would be no survivor voices left, creating a need for his films and archives for eyewitness testimony. Hagopian has filmed nearly 400 testimonies of Armenian Genocide survivors and witnesses between 1968 and 2004. Rabbi Schulweis said that although he had not seen Hagopian’s documentary before Thursday night, “I know it. As a Jew, I know it. I know its bones, I know its scars, I know its wounds, I know its people.
“We both know what it’s like to be locked in a chamber in which no sound is allowed to escape,” he continued. Addressing the question of some Jews: “What does the Genocide have to do with our Holocaust,” Schulweis answered: “We will not play the sorrowful game of one-downsmanship. No one’s blood is redder than the rest.
“We must leave here not with a broken heart, but with a spine that is stiffened. The important thing is that we understand, with all our might, never again!” Schulweis said.
About Jewish World Watch
Jewish World Watch, a Los Angeles-based human rights organization, is a coalition of 64 synagogues working together to combat genocide and other egregious violations of human rights worldwide. Since its founding five years ago, JWW has achieved significant success within its three mission goals: education, advocacy and humanitarian relief, having allocated almost $4 million in direct assistance to the people of Darfur. www.jewishworldwatch.org.