JEWS: ARMENIANS’ OTHER COUSINS

Athens, Greece, 1988

Growing up a diaspora Armenian, I lived on three continents by the time I was fifteen. Due to the Genocide’s integral part in Armenian identity, it is often a point of reference when learning about other cultures and their part or response to the tragedy. As an adult, I learned that in addition to many other countries, cultures and people, the French, Greeks and Jews have been great allies to the Armenian people. Hence, Armenians consider them cousins. The cousinship with Greeks and French is well known, so I concentrate on our Jewish cousins.

I lived in Greece for three years and quickly learned why Armenians and Greeks consider each other cousins. This is largely due to their shared disdain for the atrocities committed against the Greeks and the Armenians by the Turkish government.

A considerable part of historic Greece is now occupied by Turkey. Among a million and half Armenians, tens of thousands of Greeks were massacred during WWI, commonly known as the Armenian Genocide. In fact, seven-hundred thousand Assyrians, tens of thousands of Jews and Kurds were also physically annihilated by the Islamic Turkish government.

This is what typically happens when I meet a Greek anywhere in the world. We say hello, exchange niceties, find-out about each-other’s heritage and start discussing how we are cousins. I tell them about my years in Greece, living in Athens’ Armenian neighborhood Neos Kosmos (New World), the beautiful islands, etc….

French are equally admired and appreciated in the Armenian community. It was French ships, beginning with the Guichen, under command of Louis Dartige du Fournet that rescued 4,200 Armenians from Musa Dagh toward the later years of the Genocide. (More about Mousa Dagh when I get to the Jews)

About half-million Armenians would eventually settle in France, most of them survivors of the Armenian Genocide. The parents of legendary late French-Armenian superstar, Charles Aznavour’s were among them. (Again, more about Charles Aznavour when I cover the Jewish people)

In 2001, France’s parliament passed a bill recognizing the massacres of Armenians living under Ottoman rule during World War One as genocide. Eleven years later in 2012, the French Senate approved a bill that made it a criminal offence to deny the Armenian Genocide.

As I grew older, I started to read about and study the Armenian Genocide. In all the books, scholarly materials, newspaper and magazine articles and documentaries, I saw a common thread-Jews were instrumental allies to the Armenians during and following the Genocide.

Some of the most high-profile individuals who shed light on the Genocide and brought worldwide recognition were Jewish, and here are a few of these extraordinary individuals.

Henry Morgenthau, Sr.

Henry Morgenthau, Sr., was the Jewish American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian Genocide. When he arrived in Turkey in 1915, the United States was, and would remain until 1918, technically neutral. As a part of the U.S. Foreign Service and State Department, Ambassador Morgenthau was expected to remain neutral as well. He did not expect that he would bear witness to the first genocide of the 20th Century.

Ambassador Morgenthau noticed that the Armenians were experiencing demilitarization. The Armenians that had once served as combat soldiers were being transformed into laborers. Their communities were being torn apart and their property taken, without compensation, by the state. And then, mass deportations started. While Turkey claimed they were relocating the Armenians, Ambassador Morgenthau knew that there were other plans.

“A campaign of race extermination is in progress” Morgenthau wrote in a dispatch to the State Department. “The treatment, given to the convoys, clearly shows that extermination was the real purpose.”

Ambassador Morgenthau tried to prevent the deportations and killings, but German Ambassador Hans Reiherr von Wangenheim and Interior Minister Talaat Pasha did not heed his warnings. Interior Minister Pasha once asked Ambassador Morgenthau, “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway? You are a Jew. These people are Christians.”

Morgenthau responded, “I’m not here as a Jew, but as American Ambassador. My country contains something more than ninety-seven million Christians and something less than three million Jews. So, at least in my ambassadorial capacity, I am 97% Christian. But after all, that is not the point. I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or any religion, but merely as a human being.”

As Ambassador Morgenthau tried to stop the massacres of Armenians, he got no response from officials- most denied the events completely. He made economic and strategic arguments in an attempt to convince Turkey to allow American aid to reach the Armenians, but economics and strategy were of no concern; the Armenians were to be left alone, subject to horrific violence by the Turkish government. “We don’t want the Americans to feed the Armenians,” Minister of War, Ismail Enver Pasha said to Ambassador Morgenthau, “this is the worst thing that could happen to them.”

The Turkish government was displeased with the interest Ambassador Morgenthau paid to the Armenians. He attempted to give the $100,000 in aid he had received from the United States to Armenians, but at every corner he was refused. The Turkish government insisted that they should receive the aid directly, but Ambassador Morgenthau knew that was not an option; it would only result in the death of more Armenians. He searched for ways to provide relief, but Turkish officials would do nothing to stop or even admit their plans of genocide. To this day, Turkey’s tradition of denial remains unchanged.

When confrontations with Turkey proved unfruitful, Ambassador Morgenthau approached the U.S. Secretaries of State William Jennings Bryan and Robert Lansing for support, without any success. He then approached President Woodrow Wilson, seeking help for the Armenian people. On all occasions, the Ambassador was rebuffed. He became an outcast within the White House as champion of the Armenians. Ambassador Morgenthau then decided to resign from his post in order to share this information with the press.

Morgenthau’s friend Adolph Ochs of the New York Times helped publicize the information about the Armenian Genocide. On May 20th, 1916, a headline in the New York Times reads, “Morgenthau Seeks Aid for Armenians: Says They and Needly Moslems in Turkey Will Starve Next Winter Unless Helped.” Eight days later, there was a headline in the Washington Post, “Million Die in Armenian Massacres; Morgenthau Tells of the Barbarities.” The headline of an article from December 11th, 1917, “Says Germans Aided Armenian Killings; Morgenthau tells Hero Land Audience of Help Given to Turks by Officers. Now Look To Us For Help.”

In his memoir, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, Morgenthau expresses his regret of the failure to stop the Armenian Genocide.

“My failure to stop the destruction of the Armenians had made Turkey for me a place of horror, and I found intolerable my further daily association with men who, however gracious and accommodating and good-natured they might have been to the American Ambassador, were still reeking with the blood of nearly a million human beings.”

While his tremendous work on behalf of the Armenians did not stop the atrocities, his writings serve today as proof of the Armenian Genocide.

Franz Werfel

Franz Werfel was a Jewish Austrian who, in 1933, wrote the most poignant book to date, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, on the Armenian Genocide. Earlier, I wrote about the French ships rescuing 4,200 Armenians from Musa Dagh, so this is the chapter in history that Mr. Werfel wrote about.

The novel focuses on the self-defense by a small community of Armenians living near Musa Dagh, a mountain in Hatay Province in the Ottoman Empire, now part of southern Turkey, on the Mediterranean coast, as well the events in Istanbul and provincial capitals, where the Young Turk government orchestrated the deportations, concentration camps and massacres of the empire’s Armenian citizens. Because of this or perhaps in spite of it, the facts and scope of the Armenian Genocide were little known until Werfel’s novel, which entailed voluminous research and is generally accepted as based on historical events.

Werfel was introduced to the Armenian saga by a chance meeting in Damascus, and the result was a best-selling novel about the Turks’ 1915 campaign against the Armenians. He described the book to audiences as telling how “one of the oldest and most venerable peoples of the world has been destroyed, murdered, almost exterminated … by their own countrymen.”

The novel was originally published in German in November 1933. It achieved great international success and has been credited with awakening the world to the evidence of the persecution and genocide inflicted on the Armenian nation during World War I. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh also foreshadows the Holocaust of World War II due in part to the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, which paralleled the novel’s creation.

Not surprisingly, “The Forty Days” was one of the first books consigned to the bonfires by the Nazis

Turkish machinations made their way across the Atlantic as well, where Forty Days was causing such a stir that MGM had made up its mind to turn it into an epic movie, starring Clark Gable. In 1934, MGM purchased the rights to make the novel into a motion picture. Head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, believed that The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was one of the few great books written since War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and dreamed of making the movie.

Diplomatic wranglings from Ankara and interference by the State Department in DC all the way to Hollywood finally had their effect: the film was put on hold, its rights passing down until a low-budget production was put together in the early ’80s.

Pressure was applied by Turkey on the U.S. State Department to influence the Hays Office (Hollywood’s censor bureau) to exhort MGM to cancel the film production. Until today it has become the most on-again and off-again motion picture production in Hollywood history. Prominent directors and actors such as Elia Kazan, Rouben Mamoulian, and Sylvester Stallone throughout the decades have attempted to produce the film based on Werfel’s novel.

This book is thoroughly documented based on research in the MGM archives and the U.S. State Department, the Franz Werfel Papers at the UCLA Special Collections Library, the American Film Institute, and interviews of personalities involved in the film project. The basic components of historical research are covered in a manner that finally unveils-the truth of a film denied.

Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin is the reason we why we call it what it was: A Genocide. “I became interested in genocide, because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians and after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”

Lemkin’s memoirs detail early exposure to the history of Ottoman attacks against Armenians (which most scholars believe constitute genocide), anti-Semitic pogroms, and other histories of group-targeted violence as key to forming his beliefs about the need for legal protection of groups. As early as 1933, he was working to introduce legal safeguards for ethnic, religious, and social groups at international forums, but without success. When the German army invaded Poland, he escaped from Europe, eventually reaching safety in the United States, where he took up a teaching position at Duke University. He moved to Washington, DC, in the summer of 1942, to join the War Department as an analyst and went on to document Nazi atrocities in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In this text, he introduced the word “genocide.”

“By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)…. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.”

In his autobiography, Totally Unofficial (written during the 1950s), the impact of the massacres of Ottoman Armenians on his thinking appears early on. He recalls that he was still an adolescent when he learned that the fate of the Armenians in Turkey was an inextricable part of the Great War: “In 1915, the Germans occupied the city of Wolkowysk and the entire area. I began to read at this time, to read more history, to study whether national, religious, or racial groups as such were being destroyed. The truth came out … after the war. In Turkey, more than 1,200,000 Armenians were put to death for no other reason than they were Christians.” Not only had the war made its inevitable impact on his home region, but Lemkin clearly notes that the fate of the Armenians led him to think about the fate of “national, religious, or racial groups.” And although the Ottoman government had eradicated almost all of the Greeks and the Assyrians—the other major Christian groups within the Empire’s borders during this period—it was the Armenian case on which Lemkin focused most intensely.

“After the … war, some one-hundred-fifty Turkish war criminals were arrested and interned by the British government on the island of Malta. The Armenians sent a delegation to the peace conference at Versailles and demanded justice. Then one day, I read in the newspaper that all Turkish war criminals were to be released. I was shocked. A nation that killed and the guilty persons were set free. Why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual? … I didn’t know all the answers, but felt that a law against this type of racial or religious murder must be adopted by the world.”

As the Nazis invaded Poland, Lemkin found safe haven in the United States, where he gained a reputation as a legal scholar following his work at Duke University, in the US government, and at Yale University, positions that allowed him to pursue efforts against targeted killings at the Nuremberg Trials of German officers, and also at the UN. He came up with “genocide” as an original term in order to highlight the phenomenon and give it enough depth to stand on its own as a legal category. Lemkin mentions in a TV interview of the time how the word, which combines Greek and Latin roots, was informed by the Armenian experience.

Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg and his team amassed more than 50,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors during the 1990s, the organization that became USC Shoah Foundation, The Institute for Visual History and Education continues to collect testimonies from the Holocaust and other genocides.

In April 2010, USC Shoah Foundation signed a historic agreement with filmmaker Dr. J. Michael Hagopian, his wife Antoinette and the Armenian Film Foundation. The agreement paved the way for the preservation and dissemination of the largest collection of filmed interviews of survivors and witnesses of the Armenian Genocide.

The interviews were conducted by the late Hagopian, who recorded them on 16 mm film between 1975 and 2005 for a series of documentaries. The J. Michael Hagopian/Armenian Film Foundation archive of nearly 400 filmed survivor and eyewitness testimonies is the first collection in the Armenian Genocide Digitization Project.

 

Robert Lantos, a Hungary born Jew, who was raised in Uruguay, is one of Canada’s most prolific and celebrated producers. He is also the producing partner and long-time collaborator of Canadian-Armenian director, Atom Egoyan, one of the most celebrated directors of our generation. Mr. Lantos promised that he would support a film about the genocide if Egoyan ever felt prepared to make one. Lantos is a co-founder of Alliance Films who later started Serendipity Point Films, provided Egoyan a budget of $12 million. With Lantos’ support, Atom Egoyan produced and directed Ararat, a brilliant film which explores the ongoing impact of the Turkish government’s denial of the Armenian Genocide. The film was honored as the best Canadian feature film of 2002 at Canada’s Genie Awards presented by the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television.

 

Mike Medavoy

Mike Medavoy pushed The Promise forward. Late Armenian-American billionaire, Kirk Kerkorian gave $100 million of his fortune to make the Genocide film, The Promise, and made Dr. Eric Esrailian in charge of making his dream come true. According to an insider, even with this hefty budget, the project had a hard time getting off the ground until veteran producer, Jewish-American, Mike Medavoy, stepped in.

Co-founder of Orion Pictures, former chairman of TriStar Pictures, former head of production for United Artists and current chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures, Mike Medavoy is by far one of most successful film producers of all time. Medavoy was born in China to Jewish parents, raised in Chile, before moving to the United States in the early 1960s.

Sample some of the best films over the past forty years and there’s a good chance Mike Medavoy played a role in the success of many of them. From agent to studio chief to producer, he has been involved with over three-hundred feature films, of which seventeen have been nominated and seven have won Best Picture Oscars.

According to my source, The Promise attracted a great deal of attention and support, once Mike Medavoy got involved with the project.

Armenians and Jews are natural allies, kindred spirits and share similar histories. They have often faced persecution, which culminated in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the Holocaust of the Jews in WWII. Adolf Hitler in fact modeled the Holocaust on the Ottoman extermination of the Western Armenians. On August 22, 1939, in preparation for the impending invasion of Poland, Hitler stated to Reichmarshal Hermann Goering and the commanding generals at Obersalzberg, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Armenians and Jews have a history of reciprocal love and compassion, especially since the tragedies of the 20th century.

Chales Aznavour

A child of Genocide survivors, the late French Armenian superstar, Chales Aznavour, was often mistaken as Jewish because of his affinity for the Jewish culture and traditions. He appeared in French films over the years playing Jewish characters, and his version of the Yiddish song La Yiddishe Mama has been one of his enduring hits. His haunting 2011 song J’ai Connu, “I Knew”, is told from the perspective of a Jew imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Aznavour has performed repeatedly in Israel, most recently in October 2017.

On his visit to the Jewish state, Mr. Aznavour met with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin who bestowed on Mr. Aznavour and his sister Aida the Raoul Wallenberg Medal, given by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, in recognition of the Aznavour family for saving the lives of several Jews and others during World War II.

Aznavour, the son of parents who fled the Armenian Genocide in Turkey of 1915-1918 to find safety in Paris, had previously said little about his parents’ heroic wartime activities.

That changed in 2016. Aznavour worked with Israeli researcher Dr. Yair Auron to write a Hebrew language book published in Israel that details the ways his family saved the lives of several people in wartime France. The book, titled Matzilim Tzadikim V’Lohamim, or “Righteous Saviors and Fighters” in English, will be translated into French and Armenian, too.

“We grew up together in the Les Marais district” in Paris, Aznavour recalled where many immigrants mingled together, including both Jews and Armenian refugees. “They were our neighbors and friends.” By the time World War II broke out, a then-teenage Charles Aznavour lived with his parents Michael and Knar Aznavour and his sister Aida at 22 Rue de Navarin, in Paris’ 9th Arrondissement. That small, three-room apartment would become a safe haven, Aznavour explained, for Jews and others who were hunted by the Nazis.

The first person the Aznavour family sheltered was a Romanian Jew who lived in Germany. That Jew, whose name the singer no longer remembers, was accused of subversion and had been sentenced to death. He’d escaped to France disguised as a German soldier, but had been discovered and he was being hunted by the Gestapo. A friend alerted Michael Aznavour of the situation and the family took him in.

Aida Aznavour wrote in the book, “We understood that the Jews were going to be the victims of brutality. We looked upon the Jews with sadness and sorrow.” Having escaped persecution in Armenia, “we knew what genocide was.”

It was clear that if the Nazis found this man in our house, they’d kill us right away. She recalled that her parents never hesitated to shelter Jews, “even though it was clear that if the Nazis found this man in our house, they’d kill us right away. We told him that our home was his home, and we treated him warmly, like a good friend who had to extend his stay. For a few days, he even slept in the same bed as Charles.”

Later, a female acquaintance of the Aznavours asked them to hide her Jewish husband, whose name Charles and Aida recall was Simon. Simon had been rounded up with other Parisian Jews and sent to the Drancy concentration camp, but he had escaped. The Aznavours took him in, and later on, Charles and Aida recall, they sheltered a third Jew in their tiny apartment, as well.

As the occupation of Paris continued, the Aznavour family also sheltered Armenian soldiers who’d been forcibly drafted into the German army and had deserted rather than fight for the Nazi regime. At times, there were up to eleven refugees hiding in the family apartment, sleeping on the floor at night.

Michael and Knar Aznavour helped the refugees obtain false papers, and Charles and Aida offered aid as well. It was the teenagers’ job to burn the Nazi uniforms of the Armenian deserters and dispose of the ashes far from home, the siblings recall.

The Aznavour family was close with another Armenian couple living in Paris, Melinee and Missak Manouchian, who helped found and run an underground resistance movement in Paris called L’Affiche Rouge (The Red Poster). Charles Aznavour explained that though his parents were not formally members of the group, they helped members of the organization and even hid Melinee and Missak Manouchian for several months while they were hunted by the Gestapo, after their other friends refused to risk their lives to help.

Charles Aznavour explained, “My parents knew the danger was there every day, but my sister and I only grasped it later. We were ‘crazy’ young people. We were living out our youth and we followed in our parents’ footsteps. Only after the war did we realize how great the risk really was.”

Armenia is proud of its Jewish community, which dates back more than 2,000 years. There are historical records that attest the presence of Jews in pagan Armenia, before the spread of Christianity in the region by St. Gregory the Illuminator.

There are about five-hundred Jews presently living in the Republic of Armenia, mainly in the capital Yerevan. They are mostly of Ashkenazi origin, while some are Mizrahi and Georgian Jews.

The Jewish Community in Yerevan is currently headed by Chief Rabbi Gershon Burshtein from the Chabad Lubavitch, and the sociopolitical matters are run by the Jewish Council of Armenia.

In 1996, the remains of a medieval Jewish cemetery from a previously unknown medieval Jewish community were discovered in the village of Yeghegis, in the southern province of Vayotz Dzor. In 2000, a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem excavated the southern side of the Yeghegis River, opposite the village a Jewish cemetery with forty gravestones with Hebrew inscriptions dating from 1266 and 1497.

A group of Armenian and Israeli archaeologists and historians excavated the site in 2001 and 2002 and found 64 more tombstones. Some are decorated with motifs of the Orbelian kingdom. The archaeological team also found three mills, which the bishop says show that the community had a business because one mill could feed several families. Twenty of these tombstones had inscriptions, all in Hebrew except for two, which were in Aramaic. The oldest dated stone was from 1266 and the latest date was 1336.

Holocaust Memorial, Yerevan, Armenia

 The Holocaust Memorial in Yerevan is a symbol of solidarity between the two nations, Armenia and Israel. The Memorial has a bilingual inscription which states “To live and never forget: In memory of the victims of both the Armenian Genocide and Jewish Holocaust.

Likewise, Armenians have a long history in the Jewish State as well. The Armenian Quarter is one of the four quarters of the walled Old City of Jerusalem.

The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the 4th century, when Armenia adopted Christianity as a national religion and Armenian monks settled in Jerusalem. Hence, it is considered the oldest living diaspora community outside the Armenian homeland. Gradually, the quarter developed around the St. James Monastery, which dominates the quarter, and took its modern shape by the 19th century. The monastery houses the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Jerusalem Patriarchate, which was established as a diocese in the 7th century.

Ultimately, all humankind is connected and we are one big family. But I especially like being mistaken for a Greek sometimes and am able to speak Greek. I’m proud of being able to annunciate French words correctly, especially with letters j, r and g. Equally, I like learning new Yiddish and Hebrew words and being called an “honorary Jew” by my Jewish friends. I have fifty-six first cousins, but I especially like my chosen Greek, French and Jewish cousins.

I close by quoting one of my favorite writers, the great Elie Wiesel, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”