The year 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. When Raphael Lemkin learned what had happened to the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey he created a word to describe it — “genocide.” In spite of the media blitz that occurred during World War I that depicted the “starving Armenians,” years later when I was growing up, no one had even heard of the Armenian genocide. I was asked if I was Jewish, Italian, Spanish, east Indian, native American, Lebanese, even Irish. When I said I am Armenian I often heard, “Is that somewhere near Romania?”
When Armenians first immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century they were told to check “oriental” or “other” when asked for their race. I still check the “other” box.
One reason for the invisibility of the Armenians — and the genocide that nearly annihilated them on their home turf — was the inconvenience of the Armenian Genocide. Since the Allies, including the United States, were far more interested in Mosul oil (Mosul had been a part of the Ottoman Empire) than they were in justice for the Armenians; once World War I was over, the United States did not press the Turkish government to bring to justice the architects of the Armenian Genocide.
The Ottoman leaders most responsible, who had been convicted of capital crimes, had been allowed to escape on a night boat across the Black Sea and were not extradited back to Turkey to face their punishment. Therefore, the Armenians planned and executed their own punishment for those responsible for the million and a half men, women, and children bayoneted, stabbed, shot, burned, drowned, dashed on rocks, starved, hanged, beheaded, disemboweled, or otherwise murdered by the Ottoman Turks.
For the first six years of my life my parents, brother and I lived in my maternal grandparents’ home in Syracuse, New York. The six of us were crammed into a small early 20th century frame house with a front porch and tiny back study that served as my bedroom. Aaron, my grandfather, spent most of his days in the red leather chair near the wooden radio he listened to every day, silently smoking his Camels with shaking fingers, perhaps from undiagnosed Parkinsons that would, years later, steal my mother’s smile and cause her shuffling gait.
But when I was three, four, five, this quiet man who wore a three-piece suit nearly every day of his life, who would have private sessions with countless visiting dignitaries and battle heroes, bounced me on his foreleg, carried me through the doorways on his shoulders like a queen, and took me outside at dusk to survey the peach, pear, and apple orchards and the grape arbor beyond our back door.
When my grandmother and I made our weekly trip to Abajian Cleaners three blocks down on South Avenue, I was the one to carry his wool coat, hugging it to my chest, saying, “I love my medz-hairig. I wish he would live forever.” My grandfather lived to 84, the last few years in mental and visual darkness, his eyesight failing, his prodigious brain’s neurons deadened from a series of strokes. Thinking me his wife as a young woman, he called me Eliza, took my hand in his, stroked it, and held it to his cheek. No one in our family knew until 25 years after his death that my grandfather was the bursar and logistical leader of the covert operation, known as Operation Nemesis, to assassinate the architects of the Armenian Genocide. Hidden in plain sight in his tiny office, the room I slept in as a small child, was a large collection of original letters written by the leaders and their agents.
Nemesis had three leaders – Armen Garo, the U.S. ambassador from the then short-lived independent Armenian Republic; Shahan Natalie, liaison to the group’s field commandos; and Aaron Sachaklian, in charge of funding and planning. Each one was educated and disciplined, and they ran an effective, international assassination squad. The letters include financial information, travel information, the financial and emotional costs of this work, and logistical details.
For example, they described how the Armenians found where the perpetrators were hiding: they bribed border officers and police officers to tell them when the Turks passed through. Natalie complained that undercover policeman wanted a monthly salary, that is, to be put on the payroll, which Natalie refused to do, preferring instead to pay for information offered. In a letter to Sachaklian Natalie wrote:
Let me say immediately that that undercover policeman has been told that the people on that list are wanted by the allies and we want to help them.
This is the unavoidable approach that I had to resort to in this rotten world. Let me see what I will do in Berlin.
And indeed he and his commandos did a great deal in Berlin. On March 15, 1921 Soghomon Tehlirian, with the assistance of Natalie and other agents, shot and killed Talaat Pasha, the prime architect of the Armenian Genocide. The tone of the letter from Armen Garo written on March 17, two days after the Talaat assassination, demonstrates the angst these men lived with every day and their reliance on only themselves for justice. The Republic of Armenia had recently lost its independence to Russia, and thousands of Armenians were killed or were starving: “During these heavy days when our people again are convulsing in the claws of death and when the leaders are occupied solely with their personal glory and their petty agendas, Shahan’s success is the only consoling event.”
Occasionally as I tried to imagine my quiet, gentle grandfather as an assassin, I could only shake my head in confusion. My turn-the-other-cheek upbringing was supposed to supersede the eye for an eye. But I couldn’t get past the pictures of piles of emaciated bodies with the satisfied Turks standing over them, and, clearly, neither could my grandfather. A couple of years ago I attended a talk given by Sister Helen Prejean who spoke of offering forgiveness even for those who committed capital crimes. I had the opportunity to discuss the Armenian dilemma with her. What does one do when confronted with those who commit evil acts and were never brought to justice and who do not admit that they — or their forbears — committed any crimes?
My admiration for my grandfather is mixed with a question: how did this gentle man manage this project? She replied that perhaps one can live within that ambiguity, even embrace it — that some acts are so heinous, genocide among them, that we might just have to. Her comment makes sense to me for now. Some crimes are so monstrous that we have to forgive ourselves for not being able to forgive and praise those whose acts offer the only justice yet seen.