HOUSTON—A crowd gathered at the Holocaust Museum Houston on Saturday, March 14, for an emersion into a fascinating lecture on Raphael Lemkin, the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and cultural destruction.
Tamara Savage, Director of the Holocaust Museum Houston introduced Balakian, the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University, who has made the genocide a key part of his life’s work as an award-winning writer, poet and genocide expert.
Balakian started by praising the history of Jewish rescue, witness, and intellectual work on the Armenian Genocide. From Ambassador Henry Morgenthau to Raphael Lemkin, to Franz Werfel and into the modern era of Jewish scholars working on and standing up for the Armenian Genocide discourse, Balakian noted that “the role Jews have played in bearing witness to and later defining the Turkish genocide of the Armenians has been profound.”
It was Lemkin who became the father of the U.N. genocide convention of 1948. It was Lemkin who coined the phrase “Armenian genocide” in the 1940s. As a graduate student he challenged his professor after learning about the Turkish massacres of the Armenians: “How can it be that if one man kills another he is charged with murder, but if a whole nation-state kills more than a million people they are allowed to do it without any consequences?” And this moment ended up changing his career path.
Among Lemkin’s many layers of his understanding of genocide as a crime is the concept that the destruction of culture is also a vitally important aspect of the genocidal process. At the core of every group identity is also culture and the cultural institutions that codify group identity.
The official number of dead in the Holocaust, according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum is 5.1 million. In the Armenian case, Lemkin put the death toll at 1.2 million. The epicenter of killing was in 1915 and 1916. About two-thirds of the Armenian population perished.
Balakian discussed some definitions of culture as essential to the identity of any ethnic group. And he analyzed some of the tactics of Turkish assault on Armenian culture in 1915. He discussed the destruction of about 4,500 churches and schools; the killing of culture producers: writers, teachers, editors, clergy, journalists on April 24 and after throughout Turkey; and the forced conversion of Armenians to Islam as a way of eradicating ethnic identity and absorbing Armenians into the Turkish nation.
Balakian discussed the city of Ani among many Churches in eastern Turkey as an example for the politicization of historical monuments and preservation in a post-genocidal context. Ani, which Balakian suggested might be seen as the equivalent of Florence for Italy, was the medieval capital of the Armenian Bagratid kingdom in the 10th and 11th centuries and is today on the Turkish-Armenian boarder was celebrated for the artistry of its churches and other structures. The city was abandoned in the seventeenth century and has since been subjected to earthquakes and destruction that have left it in ruins.
Balakian referred to Grigoris Balakian’s “The Ruins of Ani” to suggest that scholars might now see the erosion and falsification of Ani by the Turkish government today through a post-colonial lens. During his presentation, Balakian emphasized the connection that Armenians have to eastern Turkey but also the experiences of exile and loss because of what he called the ‘lock out syndrome’ which is the result of Ankara’s policy of disallowing even proper identification on the signage of the historic Armenian churches.
In response to a question from the audience about the US government’s refusal to go on official record about the Armenian genocide, Balakian noted that the State Department remains afraid of standing up to Turkish coercion and pressure, and this seems to be a failure of ethical courage. Twenty-two countries have passed a resolution of recognition of the Armenian Genocide including Poland, Sweden, France, Greece, and Switzerland.
Vreij Kolandjian thanked Professor Balakian for his lecture which underlines the importance of Genocide as a chain of never ending violence and destruction and thanked the Holocaust Museum Houston for emphasizing the importance of the Armenian Genocide by hosting two lectures and one exhibition on the topic three months in a row.