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The ‘Great Calamity’ Hoax: What ‘Medz Yeghern’ Actually Meant for the Survivors

Vartan Matiossian
“…All those human-like monsters who executed the Medz Yeghern
and tainted their hands with the innocent blood of the Armenians.”
Yervant Odian (1920)

During the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the word yeghern had already entered dictionaries of Modern Armenian and literary texts with the primary meaning of “crime.” It was used, both alone and within the phrase Medz Yeghern, as one of the names of the pogrom of Adana in 1909.
The echoes of this massacre had barely died out when a large-scale program of extermination was put into practice by the Ottoman-Turkish government. Along came the words yeghern and Medz Yeghern. This article will discuss their use in some of the many texts penned in the first two decades years after 1915.
The genocide was still in progress when the word yeghern was used to describe it outside the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918. One of the first instances of its use was a book published by Archbishop Mushegh Seropian in Boston. In 1916, he invoked a “criminal fraternity” as responsible for the extermination: “‘The Turkish execution of the German method’ is perhaps the best adjective to characterize the last Armenian yeghern. I do not know what name must be applied to that criminal [vojrakordz] fraternity, Turko-German or German-Turkish?…” Note the use of the words “last Armenian yeghern,” implying that there were previous “Armenian yeghern,” such as Adana. The mention of a “Turkish execution” eliminates any concept of passivity that could be tied to a “calamity,” but involves a “criminal,” an active perpetrator, actually labeled “criminal fraternity.” Seropian quoted German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg a few pages later, commenting: “This declaration would be enough proof before history of the German commission of a crime [vojrakordzutiun] in the yeghern of the Armenian extermination.”1 Clearly, the accusation that Germany had committed a crime related to the Armenians could not have been framed in terms of a “calamity.”
It is already noticeable that the word yeghern had acquired a meaning that went beyond “crime,” as the use of the words vojrakordzutiun and yeghern in the same sentence seem to show. Its approximate translation as “pogrom” may have already been surmised in this period.

Yervant Odian: ‘I come from those infernal places of the Yeghern
Other books and articles published outside of the Ottoman Empire may have also used the word yeghern, which resurfaced there only after the end of the war. On Nov. 21, 1918, famous satirist Yervant Odian (1869-1926) published an article in the daily Jamanak upon his return to Constantinople after three and half years in exile in Syria. “I come from those infernal places of the yeghern, where the Zohrabs, Aknunis, Khajags, Zartarians, Siamantos, Varoujans, Sevags, Daghavarians—the Brain of a whole nation—were shredded to pieces by the hands of the worthy heirs of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan,” he wrote.2
This telling paragraph conveys the idea that the “worthy heirs of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan” first killed off the intelligentsia—a crime that was a manifestation of a great, unmitigated evil. It may be complemented by the following paragraph written by Odian in March 1920 about turning April 24 into an Armenian day of commemoration. Here, the fallen emperors of Germany and Austria are named alongside the Young Turk triumvirate as having an equal part in “execut[ing] the Medz Yeghern.” The meaning of the phrase is clearly indicated by the reference to the “enormous crime” in the next sentence: “Thus, every year, all churches, all schools, all national institutions will recall the memory of the great Armenian martyrdom, reading anathemas of malediction to the Wilhelms, the Franz Josephs, the Envers, the Talaats, the Čemals, and all those human-like monsters who executed the Medz Yeghern and tainted their hands with the innocent blood of the Armenians. That day, let all preachers, all speakers, all teachers, and all newspapers remember once again the enormous crime [vojir] and pillory its authors. Let the whole Armenian nation mourn and cry over its martyrs.”3

The first book on the victims of ‘Medz Yeghern
At the beginning of 1919, Simon Kapamadjian (whose whereabouts during the genocide remain unknown) published a 48-page booklet that appears to be the earliest instance when the words Medz Yeghern appeared on the cover of a book, in this case, as a subtitle: “The Victims of the Medz Yeghern with Their Pictures, Poems and Articles of Our Best Writers (…).” The main feature was a section of pictures and brief biographies of 20 well-known victims of the genocide, and a catalogue of 94 others. The author apologizes at the end of the section, writing: “The idea of having committed an injustice weighs over me when I think that it was impossible to present here many talents hidden in deep corners of the provinces who were victims of the MEDZ YEGHERN. I hereby confess the insufficiency of my means and I ask my noble readers not to ascribe this involuntary flaw to any ulterior motive. I pay my deep homage to all the fallen, as well as to those bright intellects who were extinguished by savage criminals [vojrakordz].”4
It is clear that Kapamajian had a “great crime” foremost in his mind when he wrote Medz Yeghern. His reference to the “bright intellects who were extinguished by savage criminals” leaves no doubt that he followed his dictionary of 1910 and understood yeghern according to his own definition of “breach of political or moral law, evil, harm” cited in our previous article.

Bryce, Morgenthau, and ‘Medz Yeghern
The pictures of the well-known victims of the genocide were published in Constantinople in 1919 as a poster under the title “Medz Yeghernin zohere” (The victims of the Medz Yeghern).5 The poster was most likely printed for the first commemoration of the arrests of intellectuals on April 24. At that time, the literary weekly Shant published a special issue that included an article on writer Roupen Zartarian, signed by Zohrab Garon (Hampartzum Harutiunian), and starting with the following sentence: “One of the famous figures of the brilliant Armenian literary phalanx, who became the victim of the Medz Yeghern, in his highest degree of fecundity (…).”6 The context for the phrase appears in a piece in the same issue by another survivor, the writer Mikayel Shamdanjian (1874-1926): “The Turkish yeghern had materially succeeded, but had failed in essence. Many, many went to fill the road to perdition and I believe that those few who saw death and survived, returned more empowered.”7 “Turkish yeghern” can only be understood as an action like a “crime,” “atrocity,” or “massacre,” and not, as in the previous cases, as a passive event like “calamity.”
The same year, Shamdanjian published his memoirs under the title “The Tribute of the Armenian Mind to the Yeghern: Thoughts and Feelings from an Exile,” while Yenovk Armen would translate the memoirs of U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau into Armenian, with the title “The Memoirs of American Ambassador Mr. Morgenthau and the Secrets of the Armenian Yeghern,” and Peniamin Bedrossian would translate the British “Blue Book,” published by James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee, with the title “The Blue Book of the British Government on the Armenian Medz Yeghern (1915-16).” In 1922, Hagop Sarkissian, the translator of Ittihadist Parliament member Hagop Babikian’s report about the massacre of Adana, would refer to his friend, writer Ardashes Harutiunian (1873-1915), as a “victim of the unspeakable Yeghern.”8

Aram Andonian: ‘Horrible Yeghern’/‘Fearful Crime’
The use of these words by survivors continued. Writer Aram Andonian (1875-1951) indicted the “whole Turkish people” for “monstrous crimes” in the first page of his memoir Medz Vojire (The Great Crime), published in 1921. They carried “the entire responsibility for this horrible yeghern,” he wrote in his introduction. “But the Armenian martyrdom lacked principally a voice of conscience and piety, a cry of resistance on the part of the millions who constitute that people who carry the entire responsibility for this horrible yeghern. Five years, those five years of terror! During those five years not a single Turk ever raised a voice of protest against those monstrous crimes [vojir] committed on behalf of the whole Turkish people in the hell called the Ottoman Empire. On the contrary, everyone was given to a sort of sadistic pleasure while a whole people was being killed with a barbarity unknown to history.”9
The first sentence of Andonian’s paragraph is particularly relevant, because the sentence is backed by the English translation published in 1920 (The Memoirs of Naim Bey), which cannot be said to have been altered with any purpose: “What is principally lacking in the records of Armenia’s martyrdom is the voice of conscience on the part of the millions who constitute the nation that is entirely responsible for this fearful crime.10

Kevork Mesrob: ‘One of the first victims of the Medz Yeghern
Historian Kevork Mesrob published a 60-page exposé of Turkish denial in 1922. He introduced documents from the Armenian Patriarchate related to the assassination of the prelate of Erzinga (Erzincan), Very Rev. Sahag Odabashian, in December 1914 with the following statement: “Very Rev. Odabashian was one of the first victims of the Medz Yeghern, whose assassination may be regarded as one of the proofs that confirm that the Turkish government had previously decided and organized the massive killing (chart) and annihilation of the Armenians.”
Mesrob undoubtedly meant “Great Crime” when he made reference to one of the first victims of the Medz Yeghern.One document, a report by the prelate of Sebastia, Rev. Knel Kalemkiarian, incidentally noted: “The first travelers who crossed the scene of the yeghern noted the traces of European horseshoes, only used by the horses of officials.”11 The “scene of the yeghern,”where the ecclesiastic had been killed, was what is called “crime scene” in plain English.

Garabed Kapiguian: ‘Yeghernabadum
Writer Garabed Kapiguian (1876-1950) wrote an account of the massacres and deportations in his native region of Sebastia. First serialized in 1919 in the periodical Yeridasart Hayastan of Providence, R.I., his account was published in book form in 1924 under the title “Yeghernabadum of Lesser Armenia and Its Great Capital Sebastia.” The neologism yeghernabadum indicated the “story of the crime,” while the word yeghern was used three times, in all cases with the meaning “crime,” when talking of Odabashian’s killing:
(1)   “…[He] becomes the victim of such an absolutely political yeghern, Turkish treason”;
(2)   “Rev. Vaghinag, prelate of Karahisar, reports by telegraph this great yeghern to the Armenian Prelacy…”;
(3)   “The yeghern was so absolutely the result of the conspiracy of the Turkish government…”12

Grigoris Balakian: ‘Yeghernakordz Ittihad fugitives’
In 1922, in Vienna, Very Rev. Grigoris Balakian (1875-1934) published the first volume of his memoirs, The Armenian Golgotha: Episodes of the Armenian Martyrdom. From Berlin to Zor 1914-1920 (the second volume would be posthumously published more than 35 years later).
The recently published English translation has omitted his emotional preface, entitled, “To You, Armenian People,” and dated August 1922, where Balakian used the word yeghernabadum four times in the first three pages:
“This bloody book is your holy book. Read it without getting bored, don’t doubt at all of this yeghernabadum, and don’t think that the writings are tendentious exaggerations.”
“I have expected in vain since the armistice that more able people executed this hard duty. However, with the exception of foreign eyewitness missionaries and the brief travel notes of a few Armenian exiles, the yeghernabadum of your inenarrable martyrdom has not been published so far.”
“Yes, I did not want to write because my heart and my pen felt weak to write down your yeghernabadum that blackens the bloodiest pages of human history.”
“Because all those who shared with me the thorny road to the Armenian Golgotha asked me to write the inenarrable yeghernabadum of their suffering and exile.”13
There is no doubt that yeghernabadum again indicated the “story of the crime.” The conceptual frame of Balakian’s text revolves around the analogy of the Armenian annihilation with Christ’s journey and crucifixion. The use of images such as bloody book, martyrdom, bloodiest pages of history or Golgotha ensure that the author is not talking about a calamity.
After quoting German Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz’s 1914 suggestion to deport the Armenian population of the Ottoman-Russian border, Balakian wrote: “But as we will unfortunately see, what which had seemed impossible to everyone at that time, and even become a subject of derision, became possible during the World War, as did a litany of other tragic [yegheragan] and criminal [yeghernagan] events, as well as widespread human slaughter unprecedented in the annals of mankind.” He was well aware of the difference between yegheragan and yeghernagan; a few pages later, he would refer to “what horrible pitch the frenzy of the Turks could reach and what criminal [yeghernagan]consequences it could have…”14 Frenzy can, most likely, lead to criminal and not calamitous actions.
To close the circle, it is worth quoting the following: “Still, the course of the Armenian political parties toward the Turkish government was always friendly and never conspiratorial, as the major criminal [yeghernakordz]Ittihadist fugitives responsible for shedding Armenian blood are now endeavoring to show, of course in the hope of gaining exoneration for their great crime [vojir].”15
Needless to say, someone who sheds blood is the perpetrator of a crime [yeghern-a-kordz] and not of a calamity.

Mardiros Sarian: ‘The Greatest Yeghern of all times’
In 1933, a survivor from Smyrna, Mardiros Sarian (unrelated to the homonymous Soviet Armenian painter), published a rare booklet with a conversation he had overheard in February 1916 from his room in the “Turque Hotel” in Konia, where he had first been deported with his family (in the same manner as deported Armenian intellectuals had found lodging in Armenian or Greek homes in Changr for a few months before meeting their fate). He had written down his notes in 1918; the text remained unpublished for 15 years.
The conversation was held between an Ottoman military officer called Hüsni Bey (later revealed to be Albanian of origin), and a Young Turk official, Nejib Bey, in the presence of several other Turkish officers. Hüsni Bey had gone “from Konia to Tarsus, from Adana to Osmaniyeh, from Islayeh to Aleppo as far as Deir-er-Zor.”16 After describing the atrocities he had seen on his way, he questioned the purposes of the Ottoman government. This prompted Nejib Bey to reveal the plans of the Ittihad Party in considerable detail and characterize the ongoing annihilation as a fait accompli. His lengthy response provoked a counter response from Hüsni Bey, in which he applied the adjective “greatest” (medzakuyn)to the extermination: “Out of the 2,000 year history of Christian martyrdom, we were the ones who earned the title of those who had horrifically exceeded all tyrants and monsters in the unheard of numbers of our victims and torments caused, while the Armenian nation is seen as the 20th century’s greatest hero and greatest victim and has been found worthy of admiration, even of adoration. Are we then to go on stubbornly believing that in view of this, the greatest yeghern, the fait accompli you have made so much of has any power?”17

Nazaret Piranian: ‘The Yeghern of Kharpert’
We will end by referring to Nazaret Piranian’s The Yeghern of Kharpert, published first in installments in the daily Baikar of Boston, Mass., and then as a book in 1937. Writer Yervant Mesiayan noted in his preface: “Nazaret Piranian is warning to us ‘Don’t ever forget.’ This warning comes from the reminiscences of the terrible yeghern, which undoubtedly ignite just passions of vengeance and fury, but also a deep awareness of Armenian fate, which we may rule just if we keep aflame in ourselves the sense of justice sparked by the Crime [Vojir] and the idea of right.”18 Indeed, “passions of vengeance and fury” could have only been ignited by an action that generated them: the crime that also spiked a “sense of justice.” It is clear that yeghern and vojir were used here as synonyms.
The abovementioned examples illustrate how the combined forces of “evil” and “crime” imparted a particular power on the meaning of Medz Yeghern and accounted for its widespread use in the decades to follow. This is the reason that a word much less used than vojir in everyday language took its place with the meaning “Great [Evil] Crime.” The survivors had no need to coin a phrase to say “Great Calamity” when the word aghed (“catastrophe, disaster, calamity”) already fulfilled that function.

1 Archbishop Mushegh, Haykakan mghdzavanje: knnakan verlutzumner (The Armenian Nightmare: Critical Analyses), Boston: Azk, 1916, p. 70, 73.
2 Yervant Odian, “Voghjuyn dzez” (Hail You), reprinted in Teotig, Hushardzan nahatak mtavorakanutian (Monument to the Martyred Intelligentsia), Los Angeles: Navasart, 1985, p. 16.
3 Yervant Odian, “Azgayin nor tone” (The New National Anniversary), Jamanak, March 21, 1920, reprinted in Azg-Mshaguyt, April 24, 2010.
4 Simon Kapamadjian, Hayastani Kaghandcheke (The New Year Gift of Armenia), Constantinople: Simon Kapamadjian Bookstore, 1919, p. 12 (capitalized in original).
5 “Matenagitakan (1915-1921)” (Bibliography, 1915-1921), Haykashen taregirk, vol. I, Constantinople, 1922, p. 397.
6 Zohrab Garon, “Ruben Zardarian,” Shant, April 26, 1919, p. 293.
7 Mikayel Shamdanjian, “Ittihati hayajinj nopan” (The Armenian-Exterminating Crisis of the Ittihad), Shant, April 26, 1919, p. 299.
8 Hagop Sarkisian, “Artashes Harutiunian (hishatakner)” (Ardashes Harutiunian: Reminiscences), Haykashen taregirk, vol. 1, Constantinople, 1922, p. 266.
9 Aram Andonian, Metz Vochire. Haykakan verjin kotoratznere yev Taleat Pasha (The Great Crime: The Last Armenian Massacres and Taleat Pasha), Boston: Bahag Press, 1921, p. 5-6 (emphasis added).
10 The Memoirs of Naim Bey, second edition, Newtown Square (Pa.): Armenian Historical Research Association, 1964, p. IX (emphasis added).
11 Kevork Mesrob, “Trkahayern u turkere (1914-1918). antip u pashtonakan pastatughter” (Turkish Armenians and Turks [1914-1918]: Unpublished and Official Documents), Haykashen taregirk, Constantinople, 1922, p. 119-20.
12 G. Kapiguian, Yeghernapatum Pokun Hayots yev norin metzi mayrakaghakin Sebastio (Story of the Yeghern of Lesser Armenia and Its Great Capital Sebastia), Boston: Hairenik Press, 1924, p. 48.
13 Krikoris tz vard. Balakian, Hay Goghgotan. Drvagner hay martirosagrutenen. Perlinen depi Zor 1914-1920, vol. I, Beirut: Planeta Printing Press, 1977, p. 17-19 (second printing of the 1922 edition).
14 Grigoris Balakian, Armenian Golgotha, translated by Peter Balakian with Aris Sevag, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, p. 21, 24 (Balakian, Hay Goghgotan, p. 61, 68).
15 Balakian, Armenian Golgotha, p. 38 (Balakian, Hay Goghgotan, p. 81).
16 Mardiros Sarian, Fe d’agombli yev Astutzo dem paterazm. Polis Nuri Osmaniyei mej Ittihatakanneru gaghtni voroshumnere. hayots bnajnjman sharzharitneru masin (Fait Accompli and War against God. The Secret Decisions of the Ittihadists in Nuri Osmaniyeh, in Constantinople: On the Motives for the Annihilation of the Armenians), Paris: n.p., 1933, p. 4.
17 idem, p. 40.
18 Nazaret Piranian, Kharperti Yegherne (The Yeghern of Kharpert), Boston: Baikar Press, 1937, p. [II].

"The Armenian Weekly," January 4, 2013

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