The more I learn of history, the more I see events repeating themselves. In some cases, it’s fascinating to see. In others, the repetition breaks my heart. For example, many people had pointed out the similarity in western countries denial of refugees from Syria is an awful lot like our denial of Jewish refugees before and during World War II. Dawn Anahid MacKeen’s book The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey, taught me that our treatment of Jewish refugees mirrored the West’s unwillingness to help Armenians when word got out that the Turkish government was trying to kill them all. The only thing that could make things any worse is that now, even a century later, the Turkish government refuses to admit that there was a genocide. There are laws on the books that prohibit Turkish citizens from speaking about it; activists and writers have been threatened and even killed for speaking out.
Like the Jews only a few decades later, the Armenians were a religious and ethnic minority inside a country where they had lived for centuries. They had suffered legal discrimination and pogroms that worsened towards the end of the nineteenth century. After the Battle of Sarikamish, where the Turkish Army lost heavily to the Russians in the winter of 1914-1915, Enver Pasha and the Turkish government began a campaign of scapegoating Armenians for the loss. The government claimed that the Armenians were working with the Russians against the Turks. (Hitler and the Nazis would do something similar at the start of the Holocaust and blame Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I.) On 24 April 1915, Turkish forces began to round up Armenians. Community leaders were killed first. Hundreds of thousands were deported east and south into the Syrian desert. Their homes and belongs were stolen. Many died from disease, starvation, dehydration, and exhaustion. Thousands who managed do survive this were killed by Turks and Chechens and Arabs. To call these crimes and murders anything other than the Armenian Genocide is an insult to the victims and survivors.
Dawn Anahid MacKeen is the granddaughter of an Armenian who survived against all odds. Stepan Miskjian and his family lived in Adabazar (now Adapazarı) when Stepan and his brother were called up to serve in an Armenian labor battalion in 1914. When the deportations began, his mother and sisters were sent to a camp in the interior. Stepan and his Armenian compatriots were marched further and further southeast, their rations being cut again and again, until it became clear what was happening. For the next three years, Stepan would fight to reunite with his family.
Miskjian told his story in a series of notebooks written in Armenian. MacKeen’s mother badgered her until she wrote Stepan’s story. Using family friends and other members of the Armenian diaspora, MacKeen had the biographies translated. The project ended up taking ten years as MacKeen dug deeper and deeper into the history. She even traveled to Turkey and Syria to retrace her grandfather’s route. The Hundred-Year Walk is the product of all that labor.
What astonishes me most about the Armenian Genocide was that it was widely known. The US Ambassador to Turkey at the time, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., wrote increasingly worried telegrams home to report on the Armenian plight. Armin T. Wegner*, a German lieutenant, documented and photographed Turkish atrocities for his government. The genocide was reported in newspapers across the world. But Morgenthau and other diplomats were repeated told by the Turkish government not to interfere. And no one interfered.
As I read The Hundred-Year Walk, I did what I often do when I read about war criminals: I went to Wikipedia to see if anyone was punished. At the end of World War I, the “Three Pashas”—Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha—and other members of the Turkish military and government were court-martialed. Many were convicted, sentenced to jail sentences or labor, and executed. A few escaped before the court martial and were sentenced in absentia. Operation Nemesis was created by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation to kill any guilty men who’d escaped. One of the Three Pashas, Talaat, was killed by an Armenian in Berlin; the German court acquitted the assassin.
MacKeen’s book only briefly addresses the aftermath and retribution. Rather, she hews closely to her grandfather’s accounts. And, in telling her grandfather’s story, she tells the story of hundreds of thousands of Armenians who were never heard. There are a lot of Armenian names and words in The Hundred-Year Walk that I stumbled over. I didn’t mind. I stumbled knowing that the names and words are small memorials that keep us from forgetting the Armenian Genocide. The names made me think of Janelle Monae and Wondaland’s “Hell You Talmbout.” Saying the names keeps their memories alive. They should never be forgotten.
The Hundred-Year Walk is slated for publication on 12 January 2016, almost 101 years after the Armenian Genocide began. I hope it is widely read and discussed because, even 101 years later, our governments need reminding that saving lives is more important than alliances or trade or fear of terrorism.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be published 12 January 2016.
* Wegner was later named Righteous Among Nations for speaking out against the Holocaust.