By Benjamin Kweskin
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler said a few days before invading Poland in 1939. The implication was that after the annihilation of Jews, Poles, Slavs, Roma, Communists and other “undesirables,” they would be all but forgotten — and the international community could not do anything about it.
To ensure the memory of the genocide that killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923, the Breman Museum joined with the Armenian community of metro Atlanta to host a commemoration of centennial of the genocide’s start.
The interfaith commemoration was co-sponsored by Hemshech, the Armenian Assembly of America, Interfaith Community Initiatives and the Georgia Coalition to Prevent Genocide. A diplomatic contingent offered respects on behalf of France, Cyprus and Greece.
The invited clergy included the Rev. Creflo Dollar of World Changers Church International, whose short speech received polite applause.
Worldwide, Armenians commemorated April 24 with the motto “I remember and demand,” reflecting their collective demand for the international community to recognize what happened to their ancestors as genocide. April 24, 1915, was the day 250 Armenian leaders were paraded in the middle of Istanbul and publicly slaughtered, setting the stage for worse atrocities. In Armenian, the genocide is referred to as Medz Yeghern, the Great Crime.
The local Armenian community held the commemoration April 23 to avoid a conflict with Shabbat the next night.
“Our main motivation is to draw attention and bring to the forefront the events of 100 years ago,” said Robert Sarkissian, a member of the Armenian community. “Every Armenian is related to a victim — my own grandfather was the only one of 12 siblings to survive.”
Several local Turkish people and organizations reportedly tried to get the Armenian community and the Breman to cancel the commemoration. Security at the Breman thus was higher than usual, but the expected protesters did not appear.
While the Atlanta Armenian population has only several hundred families, the Turkish population is much larger and includes Honorary Consul Mona Sunshine, a member of the Jewish community.
Turkey does not recognize the forced deportations, collective killings and ethnic cleansing of Armenians as genocide but instead as the unfortunate results of war. Including other Christians and minorities, the Ottomans killed 2 million civilians in that eight-year period.
“We must make people accountable, or it will happen again,” said a representative to the Greek bishop of Atlanta.
The Armenian and Jewish communities were well-represented at the event. Liliane Kshensky Baxter, the director of the Breman’s Weinberg Center for Holocaust Education and a main organizer of the program, reported a “good, positive energy among those in attendance.”
Rabbi David Spinrad of The Temple was scheduled to speak, but instead Dr. Ron Rosen concluded the commemoration by saying Kaddish “for all victims of genocides.”
Armenians lobby in Georgia and beyond for a more inclusive genocide curriculum that encompasses the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and others. National Armenian organizations are pressing U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, to formally acknowledge the genocide.
As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama promised to recognize the genocide, but, although 43 states recognize the genocide, the federal government has not followed suit and risked angering NATO ally Turkey. Israel also has not officially recognized the genocide; roughly 20 countries have.
Emory University professor Juliette Stepanian-Apkarian shared her grandmothers’ tribulations. The local Armenian Church choir interspersed three beautiful, stirring religious songs within the ceremony.
At 7:15 p.m. Van Kassabian initiated a moment of silence to coincide with bells sounding in Armenia to honor the victims, and the sound of church bells chimed hauntingly from the stage.
Many speakers referenced similarities between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust and between the fates of the Armenians and Jews in the 20th century. A feeling of defiance rose through the somber mood: Armenians are thriving in diaspora communities and have an independent country.
The Armenian Church chose to canonize the 1.5 million victims, making them saints. The visiting Armenian priest Aren Jebejian said, “We will ask them to intercede on our behalf as we do other saints.”
This story was updated to reflect that Rabbi David Spinrad did not attend.