Like many grandmothers, mine had an assortment of keepsakes she displayed around her, mostly in cheap frames she bought at Woolworth’s. There was a Norman Rockwell cover from the Saturday Evening Post magazine, I remember. A bit of lace artfully crafted before arthritis rendered such tasks impossible. And a small, 2x3 inch frame with these handwritten words:
“The world is like a mirror, reflecting what you do. And if you face it smiling, it smiles right back at you.”
Extraordinary words, I believe, for a woman who had survived the first genocide of the 20th century.
My grandmother, the youngest daughter of an Armenian family living in Turkey, was one of two sisters to survive what she referred to as “the atrocities” of 1915, when 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The descendants of those victims – and Armenians around the world – commemorate the Armenian Genocide every year on April 24 – the day the Ottoman government arrested and murdered hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, initiating the brutal massacres that would spread across the country.
Our grandmother survived – thanks to the heroic efforts of American missionaries and Henry Morgenthau, Sr., U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. We are fortunate to have her story preserved in an oral history dictated to her by a relative before she died. It is a harrowing tale, complete with caravans, kidnapping, and an 11th hour rescue by American missionaries who followed in pursuit, waving a telegram from Ambassador Morgenthau that placed the kidnapped Armenian girls under his protection.
Her relatives were less fortunate. They were among those sent on a death march into the Syrian Desert. My grandmother never knew where her own beloved mother, Maritza, took her last step before she fell, or where her bones were scattered.
For Armenian communities around the world, April 24 is not just a way of honoring the dead. It is also an opportunity to vent their anger against the Turkish government, which to this day denies global accusations of genocide, and insists that the slaughter of 70 percent of the Ottoman Armenian population is nothing more than fake news. Turkey uses its geopolitical importance to pressure other governments not to recognize the events of 1915 as a genocide. It wasn’t until the 1990s – three-quarters of a century after “the atrocities” – that a flood of governments started to recognize the Armenian Genocide. The United States Congress finally joined them in December 2019.
I don’t know if my grandmother ever attended an April 24 event commemorating the Armenian Genocide. If she had, I never knew about it. If she – like many survivors – was consumed by hatred for the Turks, she did not share that with me, either. I marvel when I think about the evenness of her stories. There was one involving a Turkish neighbor who grabbed his rifle and sat vigil in front of their home to protect the women and children gathered inside from violent bands of outlaws outside spilling Armenian blood. Yet, while she described the place of her birth, “the old country,” with a definite fondness, she had no desire to set foot on Turkish soil ever again. Not as long as they denied what they had done to her people.
For me, for many, this day is personal. I honor it by honoring my grandmother, amazed at her remarkable ability to stare atrocity in the face, and come out on the other side. Smiling, and expecting goodness from the world.