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Centennial of genocide sharpens grief for local Armenians

Zevart Hagopian’s photos show her parents, survivors of the killings.
Zevart Hagopian’s photos show her parents, survivors of the killings.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)

Tamar Hajian was raised on her grandparents' memories of the mass killings of Armenians during World War I, the executions and death marches that Armenians call the "great crime." Her grandmother went door-to-door in search of orphans, making the sign of the cross in a show of kinship.

"This is so embedded in you growing up," said Hajian, a retired attorney who lives in Needham.

Personal accounts of what is widely known as the Armenian Genocide have been passed through the generations, relatives say. This week, Armenians will mark the centennial of the genocide, gathering to remember the 1.5 million victims and renewing calls for formal acknowledgment by the Turkish government that the killings were a crime.

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In the Boston area, home to the country's second-largest Armenian community, with some 30,000 residents, the anniversary at once sharpens long-held grief while bringing renewed hope for accountability and resolution.

The Turkish government has long denied that a genocide took place, saying the death toll is exaggerated and that many Armenians died from starvation or disease amid the upheaval of the war. But the consensus of historians is that the Turkish government set out to eliminate the Armenian Christian minority, and that three out of four Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed.

Descendants of Armenian survivors describe the lack of universal recognition as an open wound, a lingering outrage that denies justice and healing, even a century on. As they pay tribute to the victims and honor the legacy of Armenian survivors who were driven from their homeland, they remain hopeful that Turkey will one day accept responsibility for its crimes, and that the massacres will one day be called by their rightful name.

"Turkey cannot continue to create the myth that nothing happened," Hajian said.

When World War I broke out, Turkish leaders targeted the Christian Armenian population under the pretext that they would cooperate with the Russian enemy.

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Earlier this month, Pope Francis described the mass killings as the "first genocide of the 20th century" and called for international acknowledgment. "Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it," he said.

In a sharp response, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican, and Turkey's prime minister said the pope had joined an "evil front" plotting against his country.

A photo dated 1915 purportedly shows soldiers standing over skulls of people from the Armenian village of Sheyxalan, on the Caucasus front during World War I.
A photo dated 1915 purportedly shows soldiers standing over skulls of people from the Armenian village of Sheyxalan, on the Caucasus front during World War I.(ARMENIAN GENOCIDE MUSEUM INSTITUTES via AFP/Getty Images)

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the comments showed that Francis is "under the influence of the Armenian narrative which persists to derive enmity from history."

The United States has resisted pressure to recognize the genocide, unwilling to offend its important Turkish ally.

While running for president in 2008, Barack Obama pledged to recognize the genocide but has not done so, and the administration said Wednesday that he would not take the step at centennial observances.

In and around Boston, many Armenian-Americans are the children or grandchildren of genocide survivors and are taught their history from a young age.

Zevart Hagopian, 78, said her parents were just 15 when the massacres began and were forced from their village into the Syrian desert. Nearly everyone they were with died along the way, but her parents somehow survived.

Hagopian said her parents never spoke about what happened, wanting to spare their children the horrors of the ordeal, and betrayed no trace of bitterness. But Hagopian recalled going to church as a child every April 24 — the day in 1915 of the first mass arrests of Armenian community leaders and intellectuals by Ottoman Turks — and hearing survivors describe what they had been through, and whom they had lost.

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Everyone sat on the ground in a small metal building, sharing their stories, she said. Some recalled how they couldn't drink from the Euphrates River because of all the bodies.

"You would listen, and you would cry," she said from her Waltham home.

As the centennial neared, Hagopian's family has worn pins with a picture of her parents to honor their legacy. They hope the attention around the anniversary will shine more light on the truth of the genocide.

"The world is waking up," she said.

Hagopian said her parents sacrificed everything for their children and gave them a clear moral code.

"You don't ever lie," her parents would say, "because that is the beginning of all evils."

Late in her life, Hagopian's mother began carrying a half-sandwich in her pocket, as if she might have to flee at a moment's notice. The trauma of the forced evacuation had never fully left her, Hagopian said.

"The fear came back," she said.

Centennial observances begin Thursday evening at Trinity Church in Copley Square with a memorial prayer service, organized by the Massachusetts Council of Churches in cooperation with the Armenian Clergy of Massachusetts.

On Friday, a ceremony will be held at the State House, followed by a procession to the Armenian Heritage Park on the Greenway, where Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and former governor Deval Patrick are expected to speak.

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Anthony Barsamian, cochairman of the Massachusetts Committee to Commemorate the Armenian Genocide, said the observances are bringing a new focus on an enduring wrong.

"It's a wound that's not been healed," he said. "The world is different now, and Turkey should be held accountable."

Robert Kaloosdian, author of the recently published "Tadem, My Father's Village: Extinguished during the 1915 Armenian Genocide," said the survivors he interviewed recalled the chaos with remarkable clarity, given how many years had passed.

"They never left it behind," said Kaloosdian, a lawyer who lives in Belmont and is the former chairman of the Armenian National Institute.

Narrowly avoiding capture, Kaloosdian's father managed to escape through the mountains to Russia and rode the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok before finding his way to the United States.

Now 84, Kaloosdian hopes the historical record can finally be set right.

"One of the most painful things is denial," he said. "I think recognition would go a long way toward closure."

Young Armenian-Americans have also joined the cause.

Ani Karabashian, a 21-year-old studying at Gordon College, said the world must declare the massacres a genocide to help prevent such "atrocities from ever happening again." Recognition would also help Armenians come to terms with the past, she said.

"A lot of people would be able to move on," she said. "I think it would be a huge step toward reconciliation."

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Karabashian's grandmother survived the genocide, though most of her family did not. Karabashian was young when her grandmother died, but remembers how the smell of Armenian bread filled their house in New Jersey, and how she would slip her cakes as a treat.

Despite Turkish resistance, most Armenians say the historical debate is settled, and that it's only a matter of time until the genocide is universally declared. Until then, Armenians say they must match their grief with resolve.

"It's a day to call on nations of the world to see justice done to the Armenians," Hajian said.


Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.