Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Genocide has a face

I was born on the first anniversary of V-E Day, 8 May 1946. As a boy I saw a flag printed on the calendar in our kitchen on my birthday every year, noting Victory in Europe at the end of WWII. Still, in spite of doing extremely well in math classes, I did not calculate that I must have been conceived when Japan surrendered in August 1945. This only dawned on me as folks prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. I am a child of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My consciousness, somehow, has never escaped the horrors what humans are capable of doing to each other.

I was born in Fresno, California, in the heart of the Central Valley—the land of raisins, cotton, safflower, peaches, almonds, table grapes, figs, etc. It was one of the areas that attracted immigrants, including my Swedish grandparents. It was also home to many who had fled the Armenian genocide of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus I grew up in an area where one could hear Armenian spoken, see Armenian newspapers, and rejoice in Armenian food.
Back in the early 30s two newlywed couples lived next door to each other: my parents and the Kooyumjians. George Kooyumjian worked as a butcher and had a deli called Home Market. As a boy he had seen his entire family slaughtered by the Turks. I never heard him speak of this, but the tale was passed through my parents. Over the years I had many Armenian fiends. One taught me to recite the Armenian alphabet although I could not read it, some taught me a few phrases, and all of them fed me. The hospitality practices of the Ancient Near East are not something found only in history books, they are a living reality of which I have been a beneficiary.

The Armenian genocide was acknowledged but not really discussed. For the elders it was too painful a memory, to their children it was too vague. It all became more specific for me when I went to France for a semester abroad in fall of 1967.

As a French major at Pomona College I was expected to spend a semester in France and I was blessed to spend two months in Montpellier and one in Paris. While in Montpellier I lived with L’Intendant Général Jean F Urvoy and his family. He was in charge of L’École Militaire d’Administration, the French army’s business school. (It has gone through some changes and is now known as École militaire supérieure d’administration et de management, 4, rue du 81e Régiment d’Infanterie, 34056 MONTPELLIER Cedex 1.) When the General traveled to review troops or attend some other army dog and pony show, I got to travel along with him and M Bros, the chauffeur. (Mme Bros was the cook for the General’s household.) It was thus that I got to visit Marseilles for a day.

My friend Connie Kemalyan, who had studied for a year at Aix-en-Provence, said that if I were ever in Marseilles I had to meet a friend of hers, so I went to meet this Armenian family in southern France. Connie’s friend was not home and the only one who could really visit with me was her father, who took me to his furniture store on the main street downtown. It was quite an adventure. I learned about the styles and periods of French furniture and how to distinguish them, all in French, of course. (To this day when I want to identify acajou flambé I can only do it in French.)

The large and splendid furniture store was named Massis, Armenian for Ararat, the mountain in Eastern Turkey that symbolizes homeland to Armenians. At one point in the afternoon, this passionate elder had a serious talk with me. He gave me a small booklet about the Armenian genocide and told me that it was up to my generation to make sure the story was told and not forgotten. I felt that an elder had given me a solemn charge which I have never since forgotten. I took the booklet and read it. Over the years I have read more of the stories the survivors found so painful that their children often had to uncover them by digging into the family past. Cities woven into the narrative are woven in my memory, for my friends’ families had told of their parents and grandparents coming from Van and Dyarbekir. Genocide had names and faces, faces similar to the ones in family portraits in the homes of my friends, wedding pictures of grandparents resembling photos in history books recounting tales of atrocities.

Such was my first personal link to the theme of genocide in the 20th century, but not the last. I had Jewish friends in school also, but we did not talk much of the Holocaust. Perhaps it was too fresh when I was a boy, something that happened just before I was born. My WWII focus was on the Pacific theater and the many episodes of “Victory at Sea” that my friends and I watched before going outside to play war games, armed with nothing but our imaginations. As a curmudgeonly aside, I must remark that we made much more realistic sounds of firing weapons and explosions than those I hear children make nowadays. We would never simply say, “Bang, bang.”

When taking political science in college I wrote a short paper comparing the British Parliament and the Israeli Knesset, which involved deepening my awareness of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the state of Israel. This was before the 1967 Six-Day War in which “Israel gained control of the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.”(Wikipedia) The reality of the Holocaust entered my soul later, when I was living in the Fairfax and West Hollywood, neighborhoods of Los Angeles where emigrant Jews gathered before adjusting to American society. Here you had the spirit of an Eastern European stetl in a California metropolis. I could take a walk and hear half a dozen languages spoken, including Yiddish and modern Hebrew. A challenge I posed for myself was trying to read the headlines on the Forward, a Yiddish publication in the United States founded in 1897. Since Yiddish is a form of High German written with the Hebrew alphabet, the challenge was a form of decoding or puzzle-solving, exercises I have always enjoyed. An illustration would be reformulating the Hebrew characters in to something recognizable as “editorial.” Next to the polyglot newsstand would be yet another falafel stand where one could get a fresh taste of the Middle East.
The shadow of this wonderfully colorful neighborhood was the reason why all these Jews had some here, fleeing the Holocaust decades ago or still fleeing oppression in the late 1970s. Sacrificing their minimal status the familiarity of their homeland, they left all that was familiar to go to a place they had never been, modern Abrams and Sarais who would soon be given new names and new beginnings. As I became acquainted with my neighbors, I began to realize how difficult and dangerous such a journey is, and how the promise often exceeds the harsh reality of the new life.

Pauline Goret was born in St Petersburg under the Czar at the end of the 19th century. She married a Polish engineer and they had two daughters. Her husband and one daughter perished under the Nazis. Pauline and Elizabeth escaped through France to the United States. They lived in the apartment adjoining ours. Bill and I just called her “Mama.” Mrs. Goret seemed too distant and Pauline was out of the question. Her English was minimal, but we communicated a fondness that was very real. Elizabeth was haunted by night terrors. We would be awakened in the middle of the night by her voice coming through the thin wall where our closets abutted or through windows kept open in the summer, as we did not have air conditioning. All she said were two words, alternating with long pauses in between. “Sh*t!” “God damn!” She could go on for an hour or so. I have no idea what horrors she may have seen, what memories or anxieties visited her in the dark. We never talked about it.

One day at the Thrifty drug store on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue I noticed that the sleeve of the lady at the counter shifted up her arm. I saw the numbers tattooed there and knew what they meant. It was not the only time I saw such marks, mute testimony to survival in the concentration camps. One did not discuss such things, but one never forgets.

Various threads came together in late April of 1994, when I was serving as interim priest at St Aidan’s in San Francisco and working on a sermon. The Eastertide text from Acts was to include Peter’s bold affirmation: “We are witnesses of these things.” Peter was speaking of the entire Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus. In order for us all to pass into resurrection and proclaim it, I felt we needed to witness as well to death, so we could be whole, speaking the truth we know.

The AIDS epidemic had been sweeping through San Francisco and taken a heavy toll on St Aidan’s, all of which was compounded by the typical grave illnesses, accidents, and mortality of life. The congregation had loved much and suffered much loss and grief. They were witnesses. April 24 is Armenian Martyrs’ Day, something I knew from growing up with Armenian friends in Fresno, and it fell on that Sunday. Some friends and I had seen the movie Schindler’s List that week and I knew that Yom Hashoa, or Holocaust Day, had just passed. Curious about whether it was a fixed day on the Western calendar or was governed by the lunar Jewish calendar, I called our neighbors in El Cerrito, the Blumenfelds. Joel and Rochelle seemed especially interested in my reactions to Schindler’s List, then told me they knew the author of the book. This intrigued me, but the next revelation floored me. Rochelle’s father was one of “Schindler’s Jews.” Oskar Schindler had saved his life, and my neighbor and her two adorable children, Jonah and Miriam, walked the earth because of one “righteous gentile.” Genocide had more human faces.

When I came to St Cuthbert’s, Oakland, in 1995, there were more survivors of genocide to meet. These were members of several families, chiefly the extended Peou family, who had some from Cambodia by way of refugee camps in Thailand and Vietnam. They had escaped from the Khmer Rouge and its brutal reign under the Maoist agrarian ideology of Pol Pot. Heng Peou, the patriarch of the clan, had ties to the Cambodian royal family and served in the military, as had his brother. His brother insisted on keeping his uniform and was consequently killed by the Khmer Rouge; Heng had urged him to get rid of it for his own safety. The family had been scattered and then reunited. That so many members escaped to the United States is amazing. Sarom Khak and her husband Seout (Stewart) Peou had fled, she on the verge of giving birth and he carrying one-year-old Sophoak. Sophoan was born as they journeyed through the mountains toward Thailand. Members of the family have shared tales of overcoming terror of leeches to become the fastest rice planter in the cadre, of eating rats and insects to survive starvation, of serving the Khmer Rouge by day and stealing food by night, of having to decide who in the family gets to eat. These were educated people who had been made into slaves of the peasants, living every day in mortal terror that they might be next to join the corpses in the Killing Fields. They could not let it be known that they had been to college or spoke anything but Khmer, no hint of serving the government could be uttered. Heng Peou was on a death list, but the Khmer Rouge did not know what he looked like, an oversight that probably saved his life. These were members of our congregation. Genocide had more faces.

A few years back Sudan started showing up in press releases from the Anglican Communion News Service. The Church there was reporting tales of atrocities, of kidnapping and slavery, of rape and murder. The victims were southern Sudanese, mostly Christians or followers of indigenous African faiths. I began praying for Sudan. Much later the press began to talk of genocide in the south and west of Sudan until it became a global scandal. Only recently the government has reached an agreement with the south to restrain the janjaweed rebels who have been perpetrating the atrocities (allegedly with government aid and certainly with government knowledge and failure to prevent such acts). We had seen such horrors in the ethnic wars of Rwanda a decade ago (while the world watched ineffectively). The Bosnian conflict demonstrated the power of a radical few to stir up hatred among Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croatians, and Muslim Bosnians who had lived together in peace for centuries. We keep reenacting the story of Cain and Abel.

We recently saw commemorations of the liberation of Auschwitz sixty years ago. People gathered, heads of state and survivors, to remember. Owning up to the harsh side of the truth is not easy or pleasant, but it is necessary. Speaking the truth of our own experience is vital. Joining with the Apostle Peter to say to all, “We are witnesses to these things,” remains an ongoing obligation if we are to avoid collective and individual amnesia, the kind of amnesia that forces us to learn everything again the hard way. Learning the hard way it too high a price to pay if it is only because we were too lazy or too cowardly to remember and speak.

Genocide is not about numbers. It is about faces. And names. And human lives, each one unique and unrepeatable.

During my brief two years of graduate study at UCLA I lived in Mira Hershey Hall, the graduate dorm near the botanical garden and the med school. I worked on the front desk staff and one of my colleagues was Justin McCarthy, a great bear of an Irishman studying the Ottoman Empire. He insisted that there was no Armenian genocide; the tales of it are exaggerated or misleading. Action was taken against Armenian activists working against the Turkish government, not the whole race. He still proclaims this and is a big Ottoman scholar these days (I found his book and lectures on the internet). I disagreed with him then and I disagree now.

I can only tell my story, and my story is woven with the stories of the people I have known, the faces I have seen, the voices I have heard, the people I have loved.

We are witnesses of these things.