This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak in New York City’s Times Square, during the 99th Armenian Genocide Commemoration, co-sponsored there every year by two Armenian fraternal, charitable organizations — The Knights of Vartan and the Daughters of Vartan, of which I am currently national chairman.
Although I’ve given talks to a variety of groups over the years, this was the first time I spoke in front of thousands, literally; with live radio and web broadcasts around the world; alongside senators, congress and city council members; in one of the most recognized public places in America; about one of the most intense issues of my lifetime: the Armenian Genocide — the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire to cleanse its nation of any non-Turkish influence, commemorated the week of April 24 every year.
Talk about the Armenian Genocide to any Armenian you meet, and you will learn that they lost a relative, or perhaps several, in the genocide. You’ll see their face and tone of voice change — you’ll see or even feel the sense of a wound being reopened or re-injured, yet to be healed.
Talk to a Turkish person, and likely they will either claim the Armenian Genocide never happened, or that it was a mere subset skirmish of World War One’s bigger battles. Only now, so many decades later, are some Turkish intellectuals acknowledging the truth — and sometimes getting jailed for it.
The truth is that the Armenian Genocide occurred. It was the first genocide of the 20th Century and the systematic campaign that Hitler cited and studied when preparing for the Jewish Holocaust (“Who, after all, remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” he said to his advisors). And yet despite extensive genocide documentation from Turkish, German and US governments, missionaries, journalists and diplomats in the Ottoman Empire at the time, Turkey has yet to formally acknowledge the Armenian Genocide occurred, at their hand.
What is it like speaking on such a public stage, about something so difficult, that’s been part of your personal and community history for so long? How far do you go? How much do you balance the past-centered frustration and the need/desire to look forward with hope and redemption? How bold do you get, knowing that some crazy in the crowd could be lobbing a bomb at you at any time for what you believe?
All these things raced through my mind as I stood there on the podium yesterday, in front of 2,000 people, in a closed off area between 43rd and 44th Street, near where the New Year’s Eve ball drops every December 31.