Ecumenical Commemoration of Genocide Victims
By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
BERLIN — The Armenian Genocide was not only Armenian; what unfolded in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and continued for years was a genocide perpetrated by the Young Turk regime against Christian communities. The Promotional Society for the Ecumenical Monuments for Genocide Victims of the Ottoman Empire (FÖGG) has always stressed this fact, which its Altars of Remembrance in the Evangelical Luisenkirchhof in Berlin bear witness to. (See https://mirrorspectator.com/2018/09/27/ecumenical-days-of-remembrance-in-berlin/) There on the site of the church cemetery in Berlin-Charlottenburg are three altars commemorating the victims of the genocide, Armenians, Pontic Greeks and Aramaeans. (See https://mirrorspectator.com/2018/03/01ecumenical-altars-remembrance-berlin/)
The FÖGG organizes events every year to honor the memory of the victims, on dates that are associated with the single communities. In late April, it is the Armenians, in May, the Greeks. And it honors the memory of all in an ecumenical spirit. On September 7, in the context of the Day of the Open Monument 2019, the FÖGG organized a tour through the ecumenical altars and on September 8, a solemn ceremony. Among the honored guests were Greek Consul Andreas Spyropoulos; Archimandrite Emmanuel Sfiatkos, Priest of the Greek Orthodox Parish Ascension of Christ; Panagiotis Matlis, President of the Hellenic Community in Berlin; Konstadinos Kunduras, President of the Society of the Thracians; Amill Gorgis, Syrian Orthodox Chairman of FÖGG, and others.
Dr. Tessa Hofmann, president of the FÖGG, led participants and guests through the commemoration, with an account of the historical events, interspersed with readings of selections from memoirs written by survivors. “This year 2019,” she said, “is the centenary of the commemoration of the extermination of Greek Orthodox Christians in the Pontus region.” Just four months earlier, on May 19, they had gathered to honor them at the same Berlin site.
“But the extermination of the Pontic Greeks,” she continued, “is only one aspect of a vast state crime. We call it the extermination of the indigenous Christians in the Ottoman territory. The Ottoman Greeks had been victims since the Balkan wars. Economic boycott measures, forced resettlements, repeated local and regional massacres of the elites, as well as massacres of unarmed civilians went on for a decade. The capture of the defenseless Ionian port city of Smyrna in September 1922 by Turkish nationalists, or Kemalists, marked the end of this process, which must be designated as the de-Christianization of Asia Minor. Commemorating Smyrna serves a retrospective view of all the victims of the state crimes of the Ottoman Empire.”
After a moment of silence in memory of the victims, Hellenic Community President Matlis greeted the gathering. A folk song, It is too Early to Rise, was performed by Fotis Giselis on the bouzouki and Maritina Buntspecht on the guitar. The song comes from Vurla in Erithrea and relates the story of the lost homeland, especially of the city Alatsata, which had been inhabited only by Greeks until 1922.
Hofmann picked up the threads of the story: “The Holocaust of Smyrna,” she said, “as the burning of this city is known, has come to be a permanent memorial site in world literature, thanks above all to Jeffrey Eugenides and Aris Fioretos, authors of Greek extraction. Greek-speaking readers and Greeks who have grown up in Greece,” she noted, “are more familiar with Elias Venezis and Dido Sotiriou. Both came from Asia Minor and introduced their autobiographical experiences with flight and expulsion to a broad public.”
Hofmann referred to two other witnesses of the “so-called Asia Minor catastrophe, or the Holocaust of Smyrna,” both Armenian survivors and not so well known. Smyrna bears these names, she explained, because the fate of the city “illustrates most clearly that the victims of the extermination of Asia Minor Christians, for which the state was responsible, were not selected according to ethnic criteria, but rather because of their faith.”
Hofmann wanted to stress another important point; since the generation of perpetrators as well as victims has died out, “they are accessible to us only through the memoirs of the eye witnesses and contemporaries, who are also gone. And yet the memories of the events of Smyrna in 1922 remain especially relevant, as they are kept alive by the fate of today’s persecuted and refugees.” Here she pointed to “people who are drowning in the Mediterranean while seeking to escape, the persecuted, those who are denied protection and support” as symbols of the depressing reality, “then and now.”
Farewell to Smyrna
There followed readings of selections from memoirs of survivors of the Holocaust of Smyrna. The first came from the diary of Dr. Garabed Hacherian (published by his daughter Dora Sakayan, of Montreal).
Bardisag (Turkish Bahçecik), where he was born in 1876, was a parish of eight small villages in Mutessariflik Izmit, and counted about 10,500 Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century. Four other villages of the group were Armenian, two Greek and one Turkish. Armenian refugees from Bardisag in Sivas province had settled there in the 17th century.
Hofmann explained that the new Bardisag on the Sea of Marmara, with its healthy climate and beautiful landscape, had become a favorite summer residence for Constantinople’s wealthy intelligentsia. But, more than its natural beauty, she said, “the city was famed for its vibrant cultural life, with eight Armenian schools, including the American Robert College, several Armenian churches of different sects, at least three Armenian newspapers and magazines.”
Chacherian was a doctor who had attended Armenian and American schools, studied medicine in the capital and practiced in Bursa and Bardisag. He served in the Ottoman armed forces during the war. She read from his diary, which has been published in nine languages.
The second reading came from the memoirs of Deli Sarkis (published in 2011 by his daughter, Ellen Chestnut Sarkisian). Hofmann introduced the author as the son of a butcher born in 1905, who also came from a village in Mutessariflik Izmit. This was Keramet, an Armenian village on the northern shore of Lake Ascania or Iznik. He survived the deportation and with 44 others returned at war’s end to his home; the village had once been inhabited by 1,500 Armenians, and the returning survivors were not numerous enough to make a new start. In autumn 1919, Sarkis (then only 14) lied about his age to join the Hellenic armed forces. After training, he took part in armed conflict but in November 1921 left the army and went to Smyrna, a city he described as one “with a huge Greek and a large Armenian population.” The Kemalist “Liberation army” had driven out the Greek troops, and tens of thousands of panicked Ottoman Greeks and Armenians had taken flight. Sarkis joined in the defense of the Armenian prelature. With 200 Greeks and a smaller number of Armenians he was put up against the wall to be shot, but fell unconscious and survived.
The selection that Tessa Hofmann read relates this dramatic episode:
“We – (that is, Sarkis and his friends Dikran and Bedros) – hid inside the building for a few days. We had nothing to eat and no water. In despair, we decided to run outside in the direction of the quai. What a big mistake! Turkish soldiers controlled everything. One hit me on the back of my jacket so hard that I fell. Together with 200 Greek and a smaller number of Armenian men and boys, we were shoved into the Bashmachan railway station. Then we were hurriedly thrown against the wall, and machine-guns were quickly set up and aimed at us. As the guns began to fire, I thought: ‘This is the end!’ I heard the rat-ta-ta-ta of the guns and fell unconscious, as I saw the lad next to me collapse.
“A little later I came to. I looked around me. Dozens of bodies lay in every imaginable position. There was blood everywhere: on the faces, arms and legs, as proof of terrible wounds. A young man next to me shouted loudly begging for someone to kill him. His legs were a bloody mass. My forehead and right leg throbbed. I saw vague shadows of the khaki dressed soldiers. ‘Stay down and keep quiet!’ I told myself, ‘the murderers are still there!’
“The Turkish soldiers climbed over the bodies, to bring their bayonets into positions, and violently drove their blades into those that were still alive. One heard the sound of blades breaking, swords that crushed bones, the tearing of flesh and plaintive cries, then silence. The shadows, no longer so vague, moved away. They had done their job. I jumped up but then sank back down in dizziness. Desperate, I managed to crawl over the corpses until I reached a hole and began to run in the direction that I thought led to the quai.
“Wherever I turned my gaze, right or left, the buildings were in flames. I saw walls of fire, and the heat felt as though it wanted to singe my skin. Later I learned that the Turkish soldiers had set fire to Smyrna, beginning with the Armenian quarter (…) Much later I heard that a half million people had been thrust together in an area a mile and a half long and no more than a hundred feet wide. In the face of the sea, these men, women and children were screaming for help. (…)
“No matter where I looked, Turkish soldiers were shooting into the crowds or slashing them with their swords and cutting off their limbs so they could not swim. But mostly they seized the jewelry from the necks of the beautiful women and girls of Smyrna or grabbed the prettiest girls and dragged them away. Ironically the Turkish soldiers even killed Turkish civilians who had come to the quai to get some loot for themselves. (…)
“Years later I was asked which experience was worse: the massacres and deportations to the Syrian desert or the extinction by fire of the people and city of Smyrna. Without hesitation I had to say: Smyrna. I don’t think that anyone can imagine the heartrending scenes that I witnessed. May God bless all victims there who lost their limbs, their lives and, what was worse, their reason.”
The readings concluded with a song by Fotis Giselis and Maritina Buntspecht, entitled, “I have already said it and will say it again!” from Lydia in Asia Minor, a song about the separation of loved ones.
(Material for this article, including the photographs, has been provided through the courtesy of Tessa Hofmann.)
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