Armenians mark centennial of genocide

Two million Armenians living in Turkey were eliminated from their homeland through forced deportatio
Father Stephanos Doudoukjian poses for a picture at St. Peter's Armenian Church in Watervliet on Thursday, April 16, 2015.
Father Stephanos Doudoukjian poses for a picture at St. Peter's Armenian Church in Watervliet on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

Categories: Schenectady County

The Rev. Stepanos Doudoukjian expects nerves and anxiety next month during his performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Albany.

He also expects peace and hope.

“The ‘Messiah’ is about hope and resurrection,” said Doudoukjian, a Niskayuna resident who leads St. Peter’s Armenian Church in Watervliet, “so in many ways it fits in incredibly perfect with the centennial.”

The Armenian Genocide, which historians describe as the first genocide of the 20th century, began 100 years ago, in April 1915. Two million Armenians living in Turkey were eliminated from their homeland through forced deportations and executions. Many were tortured; The Turks of the Ottoman Empire beheaded, hung and crucified their Christian enemies.

The first phase of the massacres began April 24, 1915, with the arrests and murders of several hundred Armenian intellectuals. Armenians around the world memorialize all victims of the genocide on April 24.

The “Messiah” concert, sponsored by Christian Arts International, will be held Sunday, May 3, one of several events local Armenians have scheduled to mark a somber time in their history.

Included among the gatherings will be:

• A requiem service at the Troy Genocide Monument in Riverfront Park at 6:30 p.m. Friday

• A blood drive at St. Peter’s from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday

• A bus trip to Times Square in New York City on Sunday, April 26, for a commemoration hosted by the Knights and Daughters of Vartan

• A service to remember victims of the genocide at Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Church in Troy at 10 a.m. Sunday, May 3. Members of Holy Cross and St. Peter’s will worship together

• A program to recognize the genocide at the American Italian Heritage Museum on Central Avenue in Albany at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 21

Doudoukjian will be singing for his children’s great-great grandfather, Nerces Nercesian, a clergyman who was among the Armenians killed in 1915. There are family stories about Nercesian’s incarceration, about his fingernails being ripped off, about blood on the walls of prison cells. Doudoukjian believes most local Armenian families have similar stories about ancestors lost long ago.

The priest said frustrations continue; Turkey, he said, has never admitted guilt in the mass deaths.

But there have also been bright spots for Armenians. Last Sunday, Pope Francis used the word “genocide” to describe the deaths during a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica to mark the Armenian anniversary.

“It validates the survivors and the generations that have lived through that event and knew it firsthand as genocide,” Doudoukjian said. “It also validates the souls of the departed, in my opinion.”

Ralph Enokian, former director of music for the Shenendehowa Central School District, has lectured about the genocide to local schools and civic groups. He believes Francis’ statement is a significant development in Armenians’ quest for justice.

“You have a person of his stature who comes out an calls it genocide,” he said. “The big rub is the fact that Turkey denies it was genocide. They have done everything in their power to block any attempt by anybody to call it a genocide. They called it a civil war.”

Turkey responded to the pope’s statement by recalling the country’s ambassador to the Vatican.

There have been other developments. On Thursday, the Armenian church will consecrate and sanctify the martyrs of the Armenian genocide as saints.

“Almost every Armenian family is going to have a saint because almost every family can trace back to a story of the genocide, whether it was how they survived or how they lost their great-grandparents, if they’re my age,” Doudoukjian said.

Another bright spot comes from unlikely sources — Kim and Khloe Kardashian, of the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” reality series on the E! network. The women, known for their fashion and love lives, visited the genocide memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 10.

“She’s on a huge kick for the genocide,” Doudoukjian said of Kim Kardashian. “And with Twitter and social media, she’s got millions and millions of followers, and she’s teaching them about the genocide. … She’s in touch with her Armenian roots, and she’s using her influence in a positive way.”

Loudonville’s Sylvia Kutchukian, music director of the Christian Arts International choir and orchestra, said she and other Armenians have shared memories of injustice.

“We look at each other, and we know what the other one went through without knowing the details,” she said.

“My father, he was a little boy, and he witnessed right in front of his little eyes members of his family who were executed,” Kutchukian continued. “It affected him with a throat ailment that he had all his adult life.”

Kutchukian said people must remember the events and lives of 1915.

“Why would you want to forget something like this?” she asked. “It was part of our ancestors’ lives. My grandparents went to Turkish homes and saved girls from being married to Turks. They knew how to get them out, where they were kept.”

Kutchukian said “Messiah” did not begin rehearsals with the Armenian centennial in mind.

“I didn’t plan on doing it for them,” she said. “They asked me to dedicate it to them in commemoration of the 100th anniversary, and I thought, ‘How appropriate, especially in May, around that time.’ My love for my father, for my people, you just couldn’t stop me from pursuing this.

“I gathered a lot of people, I have a lawyer singing, government employees, construction workers, an Armenian artist from New York City who’s going to be one of the soloists, a professional orchestra, all coming together for this. When they heard about this, they were all eager to take part.”

Kutchukian said the concert — performance of all three movements will take close to three hours — will help raise awareness of the genocide.

“And it will honor our ancestors,” she said. “They didn’t have a chance to be honored. This is our chance to do that by uniting Armenians and non-Armenians to come and share with us.”

Donald W. Boyajian, managing partner of Albany law firm Dreyer Boyajian LLP, will also be in the choir. He said many people remain unaware of the 1915 elimination of his people.

“As a young child, it astonished me that none of my friends knew about it,” said Boyajian, who graduated from Waterford-Halfmoon schools. “We talked about it in our household, certainly.”

Rafi Topalian of Latham, who has helped organize the commemorative events, said Armenians can still take action.

“What Armenians can do is exactly what we’re doing: educating the public at large,” said Topalian, owner of Top Custom Jewelers in Watervliet. “If something is denied, something that’s a massive crime, it can happen again.”

Topalian said some people say such a genocide could never happen again, not in the information age, an age dominated by instant access to information through the Internet.

“I would say to you that it can, and the proof is the Islamic State is doing it as we speak,” he said.

While Topalian is passionate about the genocide — and is quick to say Turkey has never offered an apology for its actions — he is also hopeful.

“One word that comes to me is the word ‘justice,’ ” he said. “That’s the one that really pops up. But I have hope in people. There are so many atrocities and divisions that are going on, fighting around the world, and it seems hopeless sometimes. But I’m a hopeful person.”

Ralph Enokian is hopeful, too.

“The first thing Armenians want is public acknowledgment that the Ottoman Empire committed those atrocities,” he said. “The problem is, if that occurs, the next step will be reparations. The Turks not only killed the Armenians, they took away their homes, their lands. Their government is not only having to deal with the embarrassment of acknowledging the empire committed those atrocities, but now the current Turkish government would have to deal with all these legal issues pertaining to the reparations.”

In recent years, the Armenian cause has been boosted in, of all places, Turkey.

“More and more Turkish scholars and authors are coming out publicly and claiming that yes, it was a genocide,” Enokian said.

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