The Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee (AGCC) of DFW sponsored “An Evening with Peter Balakian” on Thursday March 19, 2015 in cooperation with the Embrey Human Rights Program at the Southern Methodist University (SMU). The topic of the presentation was “Raphael Lemkin, Cultural Destruction and the Armenian Genocide.”
Peter Balakian is the preeminent author of several widely translated books on the Armenian Genocide, notably Black Dog of Fate, and The Burning Tigris among others. He is also the author of several works of poetry, including June Tree and Ziggurat. He has been teaching at the Colgate University since 1980, and over time has garnered many awards for his literary accomplishments as well as his work towards promoting an understanding of the evils of genocide, specifically the need for the recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide around the world.
Approximately 200 attendees filled the McCord Auditorium at SMU that evening. The mood was somber, but everyone was eager to listen to the accomplished speaker.
Professor Rick Halperin, chairman of the Embrey Human Rights Program and a noted human rights and genocide scholar, welcomed everyone and introduced the topic of the Armenian Genocide as the example of a crime against humanity that was subsequently used to justify the Holocaust, and spoke about how the events that went unpunished during WWI caused greater tragedy in WWII. He reminded everyone that this was the 100th commemoration of the horrifying events that were perpetrated under cover of war, and called the 20th Century the “Century of Genocide” during which 70Million people perished violently. He stressed that everyone should struggle to remember these events so history does not fade away.
Then Peter Balakian was introduced, and he began by thanking the AGCC Chairman Hamlet Sarokhanian for sponsoring his evening, and explained how Raphael Lemkin coined the word “Genocide” to mean the destruction of a people and their culture by systematic steps that involved separating the people from their ancestral lands, forcing them to deny their religion, language and history, killing all their leaders and vilifying all attempts at self-governance. Lemkin was instrumental in introducing Genocide as a crime against humanity in the charter of the United Nations. His definition of Genocide fit the experiences of the Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, where all cultural institutions, including churches and schools were destroyed, and all prominent leaders of the community were killed to leave the people unprotected and defenseless. Some of the examples cited for the existence of a systematic plan to exterminate the Armenians included the fact that out of 2538 churches in a list from 1913-1914, only 7 exist now, and of 1996 schools during the same period, there are only a handful.
Balakian’s message was clear: He looked forward to a day in which the Turkish government will recognize the atrocities that had taken place earlier, and not to keep promoting a revised version of the history. He cited current enlightened intellectuals among the Turkish community who had had to face persecution from their government to get the message out to all that the history taught in Turkish schools was incorrect. As Balakian put it:” How could you go to the ruins of the ancient capital of Armenia, Ani, and not see any mention of Armenians on any of the signs?”
There were a couple of tense moments when Turkish individuals challenged Balakian saying that there was no proof that such atrocities had taken place, and if there was, why weren’t the Armenians taking it to a world court instead of spreading lies? Balakian replied that the Turkish government had taught its citizens the revised history, so he did not blame these men for not knowing the facts, and he encouraged them to read the words of those Turkish intellectuals who were serving time for telling the truth instead of listening to their government’s point of view.
After the presentation there was a rush to buy Balakian’s books, which he gladly signed, with the net income benefiting the centennial events sponsored by the AGCC.
By Mary Mukhtarian