Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Day of Remembrance

Nearly forty years after her horrific experiences in the Syrian Desert, Vergeen had the blue tattoos on her face finally removed.  If anyone has lived through hell on this earth, surely it was she.  If evil is something real and palpable, surely she experienced and felt it.  The thirteen-year-old girl lost more than her innocence in 1915, and her story is similar to thousands of other hapless Armenians living in the heart of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Vergeen Kalendarian was growing up in Kayseri, a town in central Anatolia, when Turkish soldiers evacuated the area, forcing the Armenian occupants there and elsewhere on a death march.  Males of a fighting age had no hope in hell, though Turkish gendarmes, Kurdish death squads, and desert Arabs weren’t averse to slaughtering babies and children along the way.  One might avoid death by feigning a conversion to Islam, but there was no guarantee.  The pretty girls might escape murder as slaves or concubines in a harem.  Vergeen and her mother managed to stay alive, thanks largely to the life insurance policy that Vergeen’s father took out before he died of accidental blood poisoning a few years before the War.  Still, they were heading for slaughter without much chance of survival.  The only way around a gruesome death was to become the servant of Bedouins.  Vergeen didn’t really have much of a choice, as Bedouins abducted her and soon killed her mother.

Until her escape about a year later, Vergeen suffered rape at the hands of the sheik’s brother, ill-treatment by the man’s wife, and a life of drudgery and hateful looks.  She found refuge among kind strangers working at a Railroad Company involved in the Berlin-Bagdad line so important for German-Turkish relations in those days.  Later she worked as a nurse for a military hospital in Aleppo after a prospective marriage with a Syrian accountant with the railroad did not pan out.

At the end of 1920, Vergeen found herself an immigrant on Ellis Island in New York waiting for clearance to join her fianc√© who was then living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Armen Meghrouni had been her betrothed since she was eight years old, but war and genocide got in the way.  He had pursued business interests in the United States before he joined the U.S. military.  Now he was pursuing a law degree at Marquette University.  Worried about her tattooed chin and the sexual abuse she had experienced, Vergeen wondered if Armen would accept her.  Would she return forlorn to the Middle East?  Her step-uncle Parsegh in Cairo had warned her that she wouldn’t find refuge in America.  Would she have to face him?

As it turned out, her worries were all for naught.  “You don’t have to hide those marks from me,” Armen assured her, “I will always regard those marks as symbols of your valor and honor.”  Though all of her family members were now dead, the young woman found an ersatz home in America.  She became Virginia Meghrouni and ultimately settled in Pasadena, California until she died in 1975.  She had asked her best friend’s daughter to edit and publish her story: Vergeen: A Survivor of the Armenian Genocide (1996).

Today is April 24, a controversial date.  It need not be.  For years our legislative branch has been debating the verbiage of the “Armenian Genocide Resolution” so that on this day each year the President of the United States can recognize the 1915 slaughter as a bone fide genocide committed by Ottoman Turks.  The controversy involves the Republic of Turkey, a strategic partner of the United States, adamantly denying that what happened in 1915 was a genocide.  Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code in fact makes such a claim a jailable offense, as novelists, historians, journalists, and others have discovered.  Turkey has been an ally of the United States for decades, even if the relationship has been strained since the Iraq War, and the Republic plays a key role in the region.  Defense contracts and military bases are at stake should U.S. legislators sign off on any statement that uses the word genocide and specifies the perpetrators.  However, such diplomatic niceties are lost on the descendants of those who like Vergeen’s family were looted, abducted, raped, sadistically tortured, murdered, and left to starve in the Syrian Desert.

Additionally, the U.S. government finds itself in the peculiar position of denying the first large-scale humanitarian efforts in its history, as the American government and private charity groups came to the aid of “starving Armenians” a century ago.  As Michael Bobelian writes in his book Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice (Simon & Schuster, 2009): “The Armenian issue always placed the American government in a bind, pitting its inveterate streaks of realpolitik and humanitarianism against each other.”  Former Senator Bob Dole, who fought the good fight in the 1990s, gets the last word: “Maybe we can redeem ourselves a bit today by letting the world know that we do not always support the rich and the powerful and those with the most lobbyists.  Sometimes we judge right from wrong.”