By Richard G. Hovannisian
Altruism during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is a subject that has not been studied. Although many survivors have related incidents of external intervention which saved their lives, these episodes have always been parts of much larger stories of cruelty suffering, trauma, and seemingly miraculous personal escape from the fate that befell most Armenians in the Ottoman or Turkish Empire. In the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide the survivors were prevented from returning home, and they scattered around the world, while the perpetrator regime and all successive Turkish governments engaged in unrelenting campaigns of denial and rationalization. These developments have discouraged investigation of the degree to which altruism may have been manifested during the most disruptive and irreparable catastrophe in the long history of the Armenian people. In many ways, therefore, this study is a first attempt to assess and categorize the primary motivations for and frequency of intervention.
What must be stated at the outset is that seeking instances of altruism in a genocide should not and cannot obviate the enormity of the crime and its consequences. Identifying episodes of apparent kindness in the midst of the destruction of a people may afford some solace and provide some affirmation about inherent goodness, but it should not disguise the fact that for every case of intervention during the Armenian Genocide there were thousands of cases of participation in or approval of the measures applied. In fact, the proportion of public involvement was very high. The hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the deportation caravans were fair game to all who would attack them to strip them of their last few possessions, to abduct pretty girls and children, or to vent their killing rage upon the victims, often as previously arranged by the ruling Young Turk dictatorship and its Special Organization (Teshkilat-iMahsusa), whose responsibility was to oversee the deportations – that is, the process of annihilation. The Special Organization used as agents of death and destruction hardened criminals who were released from prison for the purpose, predatory tribes that were incited to wait in ambush for the deportee caravans as they passed through narrow gorges and defiles or approached river crossings, and Muslim refugees (muhajirs) from the Balkans, who were encouraged to wreak vengeance on the Armenian Christians and occupy the towns and villages that they were forced to abandon.
In the search for altruism during the Armenian Genocide there are, in contrast with Holocaust research, some insurmountable barriers. Since most of those who intervened on behalf of Armenians in 1915 were at the time already mature adults, usually between forty and sixty years of age, none of them is still alive. There is no way, therefore, to question them about their motivations, their upbringing, or their character, and to develop reliable profiles of them. As for interviewing their children and grandchildren about recollections or stories that may have been passed down, even this is not feasible in view of the ongoing Turkish denials and campaign to discredit all evidence pertaining to the genocide. Hence, we must rely almost entirely on information provided by the survivors themselves, most of whom were children in 1915.
Because of the politics surrounding the Armenian Genocide, the expulsion of the survivors, the uncompensated confiscation of Armenian goods and properties, and the abiding bitterness and trauma of the survivors and their progeny, virtually no contact occurred between the survivors after their rescue and resettlement and those who had intervened on their behalf. Moreover, in a significant number of cases it would be difficult or impossible, in the best of circumstances, to identify those who intervened,
inasmuch as those individuals acted along the deportation routes for periods lasting from a few minutes to a day and remain nameless.
As a child in the San Joaquin Valley of California, I was often present when women who had survived the genocide would gather to visit, and over their oriental coffee and pastries exchange stories of deportation and suffering. There would be tears and even laughter, as survivors recalled humorous incidents to relate amid stories of death and torment. These exchanges were perhaps the only therapy that this generation of survivors was afforded. The women had been subjected to prolonged punishment, for, unlike most of the male population, they were not killed outright within a few days' march of their homes. Rather, they were force-marched for weeks and months toward the? deserts, becoming personal witnesses and victims to the cruelest tortures and evils that humans could devise. Pillage, mutilation, disembowelment, impalement, abduction, rape, denial of food and drink, even at water's edge, having to choose which child to carry and which to abandon – all these images mixed with the coffee and pastries during those afternoons under the California shade trees, or in the evenings when menfolk went into the kitchens or screened porches to play cards and women sat in accepted
segregation in the parlors of immigrant households.
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Source: “The Armenian Genocide, History, Politics, Ethics” edited by R.G. Hovannisian, St. Martin?s Press. NY 1992.