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What Our Words Mean: Towards the Vindication of Medz Yeghern

Vartan Matiossian

People do not bother to look for attitudes and terminology
which will assert their unique identities,
but rather opt for popular and widely current formulas.
–The Armenian Weekly, editorial (1981)1
‘Shoah’ or ‘Holocaust’?
A crime against humanity may trigger a catastrophe for the victims, as exemplified by the obliteration of Jewish life throughout continental Europe during World War II. The close relationship between evil, calamity, and crime should be regarded as one of the logical reasons for the adoption of the word Shoah (Catastrophe) as the name of a catastrophic crime against humanity.
It is interesting to recall that when the term genocide had not yet been coined, the Armenian extermination that began in 1915 was called “administrative holocaust” by Winston Churchill (1929). According to journalist William Safire (1929-2009), it appears that Raphael Lemkin’s word “struck many as too clinical a description of what happened” in Nazi Germany, and therefore gradually yielded its place to holocaust to name the Jewish genocide.2
In 1981, the abovementioned editorial of The Armenian Weekly criticized the use of “Armenian Holocaust” as “basically wrong as far as the Armenian experience is concerned” and claimed that such use was the consequence of a “bandwagon mentality…fairly common in North American society.”3 This unfounded criticism may have been elliptically directed to the title of the bibliography published by historian Richard Hovannisian the year before, The Armenian Holocaust. However, as historian Israel Charny noted in 1999, “the regular use of the word ‘holocaust’ in describing the many outrages committed against the Armenians” makes evident that the term “was used in the English language to indicate wholesale and organized destruction of a civilian population” before Lemkin’s genocide.4 That was, for instance, the case of books published in 1913 (Z. Ferriman Duckett, The Young Turks and the Truth About the Holocaust at Adana in Asia Minor, during April 1909) and in 1923 (Charles Dobson, The Smyrna Holocaust),5 and even afterwards, as historian Bernard Lewis did in 1968 (“the terrible holocaust of 1915, when one and a half million Armenians perished”),6 25 years before he dismissed the label “genocide” as the “Armenian version of this history.” As late as 2007, Italian historian and journalist Alberto Rosselli published L’Olocausto armeno (The Armenian Holocaust), which reached its third edition in 2011.
It may come as a surprise to many readers that, contrary to popular belief, the word Shoah is widely and officially used in several languages by Jews and non-Jews alike, from presidents to journalists, from Europe to South America. The Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem “consider[s] it important to use the Hebrew word Shoah with regard to the murder of and persecution of European Jewry in other languages as well.”7 One main reason, as Charny has pointed out, is that “…the generic word ‘holocaust,’ while still reverberating with the meaning it took on after World War II as the genocide of the Jews, belongs historically to all peoples who suffer cataclysmic extermination and annihilation,”8 including the Armenians. French Jewish filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, the author of the nine-hour groundbreaking documentary “Shoah,” has claimed that “Holocaust” is “a completely improper name” to describe what happened: “To reach God 1.5 million Jewish children have been offered? The name is important, and one doesn’t say ‘Holocaust’ in Europe. This was a catastrophe, a disaster, and in Hebrew that is shoah.”9
Shoah has steadily begun to take its place alongside “Holocaust” in the English-speaking world as well; the best proof is the American Heritage Dictionary.10 This includes President Barack Obama’s April 8, 2013 statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day: “I join people here in the United States, in Israel, and around the world in observing Holocaust Remembrance Day. Today, we honor the memories of the six million Jewish victims and millions of others who perished in the darkness of the Shoah. … On my recent trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, and reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront anti-Semitism, prejudice, and intolerance across the world.”11 Note that the statement calls the event Shoah, including Jewish and non-Jewish victims, and that both mentions of Holocaust are titles (Holocaust Remembrance Day, Holocaust memorial). Neither Holocaust nor Shoah are legal terms, but, even if for obvious reasons, the presidential statement did not use the legal term “genocide” at all, nor did it mention premeditation or systematic extermination.
‘Yeghern’ or ‘Aghed’?
The same relationship of evil, calamity, and crime may be discerned in the Armenian case. According to literary scholar Marc Nichanian, “the proper word for the Armenian genocide, one that expresses the complete annihilation of a people, is Aghet or ‘Catastrophe,’ which is the exact equivalent, semantically and otherwise, of the Hebrew Shoah.”12
The word aghed, the same as yeghern, had been used before 1915 to name the massacres of 1909.
Bibliographical evidence shows that aghed appeared for the first time to name the events of 1915 on the cover of Setrag Shahen’s book, The Suffering Ones (New York, 1917), and in a play with the subtitle “Images of the exile of the Armenian aghed.”13 The word was used in the epilogue to the book Hushartzan Abril Dasnemegui (Monument to April Eleven), which was published on the first commemoration of the arrests of Armenian intellectuals (1919): “On this occasion, a group of intellectuals surviving the terrible Aghed felt the duty of making an statement of respect and mourning for the memory of their unfortunate brothers.”14 It was also used by surviving writer and editor Teotig (1873-1929) in articles published in 1920 (“in the days of the Armenian Aghed” and “on the news of the Aghed”),15 and likely by other survivors, too. It did not show up again on a book title until at least 1930,16 but appeared as medz aghed (“great catastrophe”) in the title of two memoirs by writer and political activist Liparit Nazariantz (1877-1947) published in 1927 and 1928 in the monthly “Hairenik” of Boston.17 Incidentally, the word aghed was also used to name the massacre of Marash in 1920 and the great fire of Smyrna in 1922 in their own time.
Literary scholar Krikor Beledian’s claim, however, that “the word aghed has been the most frequently employed to name the catastrophe of 1915”18 has not taken into account the frequency with which both words yeghern and aghed were recorded in texts—an enormous task yet to be fulfilled—and, above all, in book titles during the first decades after 1915, and, of course, later.
Nevertheless, Hagop Oshagan (1883-1948), a foremost novelist and critic who survived Turkish persecution between 1915 and early 1918 in Constantinople, has been credited as having “invented the name Aghed as the proper name of the event, and announced that his project was to ‘approach the Catastrophe’” in an interview published in August 1931 in the same monthly.19 In fact, Oshagan aimed to write about the process (the “Catastrophe”) and the outcome of 1915; he published the first two volumes of his novel, Mnatsortats (Those Who Remained), from 1931-33, but never tackled the event itself—in a planned third volume, The Hell—for the rest of his life. As his son, writer and literary scholar Vahé Oshagan (1922-2000) explained, the only reason Oshagan père put off the novel “was his fear that his heart might not resist the shock of a visit to the site of the massacres, and that was exactly what happened.”20
At the intersection of history and literature, it should become clear—even to those historians who tend to see the genocide in terms of contingency and not continuity21—that 1915, far from being an isolated event ascribed to a given set of political-military events having arisen early that year, was an integral part of a decades-long process that was aimed at gradually erasing, physically and spiritually, an entire people. The forcible expulsion of Armenians from their ancient homeland into the twilight zone of history was the zenith of this genocidal catastrophe. “The modern catastrophe is not linked to a single event, which would only be the genocide of 1915. It is rather part of a long process, composed by mini-events that started after the Congress of Berlin (1878). The massacres of 1894-1896, the latent repression of following years, the massacres of Cilicia in 1909, constituted the core of this immense drama,” points out Beledian.22 Therefore, it sounds reasonable to suggest the name Aghed (Catastrophe) for the entire cycle of Turkish destruction from 1878-1922 (tantamount to Shoah as the name for the cycle of Nazi destruction from 1933-45) that encompassed the systematic annihilation of the Medz Yeghern (Great Evil Crime) of 1915-17 (compare with the “Final Solution” of March 1942 to April 1945). The explicit legal and implicit existential content of “crime” and “evil” in the word yeghern might satisfy the terminological approaches of both historians and literary scholars.
‘Yeghern’ = ‘Aghed’?
The subtitle “genocide” appears to have worked as a magic wand for Armenian Americans during the many U.S. screenings of German filmmaker Eric Friedler’s documentary “Aghét: a Genocide” (“Aghét: ein Völkermord”) from Capitol Hill to California in 2010. After being exposed to a relentless repetition of “Great Calamity” over the years, its sponsors and watchers probably saw the word aghed as another fancy word for literate Armenians and a “synonym” of Medz Yeghern. If such were the case, any translator of Medz Yeghern as “catastrophe,” “calamity,” or “disaster” from the United States to Turkey would be at pains to explain how it had come to “replace” Aghed as a “synonym,” and how the memory and use of Aghed had been almost completely lost to present-day Armenians. Anyone proficient in the Armenian language may subscribe to literary scholar Taline Voskeritchian’s comment, “I am not certain how many people in the U.S.-Armenian community use the term aghét when they talk about the genocide, but they are perhaps two handfuls at the most,”23 and make it extensive over the rest of the Armenian world, where aghed (աղէտ) is commonly used for natural catastrophes. For instance, 25 years after the terrible earthquake of 1988, Gyumri, the second city of Armenia, is still called aghedi kodi (աղէտի գօտի, “disaster zone”).24
Italian historian Aldo Ferrari categorically pointed out the semantic difference between yeghern and aghed in the article “La Turchia e il genocidio del popolo armeno: un problema historiografico?” (“Turkey and the Genocide of the Armenian People: A Historiographical Problem?”), first published in 2002: “On April 24, 1915 it started what Armenians call ‘the great catastrophe’ (mec ałet [aghed]) or ‘the great crime’ (mec ełern [yeghern]).”25 Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar probably does not read Italian; otherwise, in 2010 he would have  refrained from writing that April 24, 1915 is “now commemorated as the symbolic beginning of what Armenians call ‘Meds Yeghern’—or ‘Aghet’—(Catastrophe), which most of them regard as ‘genocide.’”26
‘Tseghasbanutiun’ in 1933
It is noteworthy that British historian Arnold Toynbee gave his 1916 book Atrocities in Armenia the subtitle, The Murder of a Nation. Former U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (1913-1916) Henry Morgenthau likely borrowed the subtitle for chapter 24 of his memoirs, first published in 1918, when former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt almost literally used “great crime” when advocating for an American declaration of war to Turkey: “We should go to war…because the Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and failure to act against Turkey is to condone it.”27 Lemkin, who had first proposed qualifying “the destruction of racial, religious, or social collectivities a crime under the law of nations” in 1933,28 combined the latent concepts of “greatest crime” and “murder of a nation” to create the word genocide in 1943.
A notable journalist and political figure, Shavarsh Missakian (1884-1957), first used tseghasbanutiun with its contemporary meaning in December 1945.29 Its oldest known recording in a dictionary is from 1968.30
However, the oft-repeated statement that Missakian’s use was first31 should be taken with a grain of salt. French historian Yves Ternon more than 20 years ago underscored that tseghasbanutiun predated Lemkin’s invention of the concept and noted that it had been used in Mardiros Sarian’s little known booklet “Fait accompli,” but stated that it “was hardly used to qualify the massacres of 1915.”32 The latter claim is inaccurate, since Sarian transcribed the conversation he had reportedly overheard in February 1916—a translation of the actual dialogue in Turkish—between an Ottoman military officer, Hüsni Bey (later revealed to be of Albanian origin), and Young Turk official Nejib Bey, where Hüsni Bey labeled the annihilation with the Turkish equivalent of tseghasbanutiun: “What was our government’s purpose in annihilating this race this way—in its entirety and with such antihuman tortures? To tell you the truth, I have never been able to understand what led to that decision. What harm could this race have done us in that life and death struggle, since we had taken soldiers between the age of 20 and 45 from the Armenians on the eve of the war during the general conscription? How could the old men, children, women, and young girls of the Armenians have hurt us? And furthermore, in what century, in what country, in what legend has a tseghasbanutiun like that one carried out with such bestial methods, ever been seen before?”33
Indeed, it would be ahistorical to translate tseghasbanutiun as “genocide” here. Sarian published his small book in 1933, coincidentally the same year that Lemkin made his proposal to define a crime that still would not have a name for a decade. It remains an open question whether the booklet could have inspired Missakian, a keen student of language who may have coined the Armenian word independently and who, nevertheless, should maintain the credit for linking tseghasbanutiun with “genocide.”
We may surmise that Sarian created a compound word, tsegh-a-sbanutiun (“race murder”), to translate the likely Turkish original, bir ırkın katli, instead of using the expression, tseghi me sbanutiun (“murder of a race”); the Turkish ırk (“race”) was also used with the meaning of “nation” in the early 20th century,34 the same as the word tsegh (“race”) in Armenian. There is nothing odd in this: Other languages such as German, French, Greek, and Polish had even older terms to designate the concept of race extermination.35 Morgenthau similarly employed “race extermination” instead of “extermination of a race” in his telegram of July 16, 1915: “Deportation of and excesses against peaceful Armenians is increasing, and from harrowing reports of eye-witnesses it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress.”36
The Meaningful Term ‘Medz Yeghern’
“They have in the collective memory of Europe the memory of the Holocaust, Gulag, Porrajmos (murder of the European Roma in the Third Reich), Holodomor (Soviet famine catastrophe in the Ukraine), Aghet or Yeghern (genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire), and other genocides, sociocides, ethnocides, and other social crimes, and above all the gigantic forceful demographic shifts in Central and Eastern Europe triggered by the two war decades of 1912-1922 and 1939-1949.”37
This excerpt comes from a 2009 article by Stefan Troebst, a professor at the University of Leipzig, in a collection about Poland and its neighbors over the past two centuries. Such use of yeghern in a study completely unrelated to the Armenians is just one example of how this word is slowly becoming recognizable in academic scholarship, while many Armenian Americans have boisterously protested and condemned the use of Medz Yeghern, claiming to have never heard the word.
Medz Yeghern has also begun to permeate genocide studies, as exemplified by the extensive article “Genocide” of the New Catholic Encyclopedia by Professor Siobhan F. Nash-Marshall from Manhattanville College. Despite her adoption of the mistranslation “Metz Yeghern = Great Calamity,” probably due to misleading information in her sources, she has accurately established the relation between Medz Yeghern and genocide on the same level of the usage of Shoah and genocide, namely, as proper name and qualifier. For instance, here is the beginning of her critique of Lemkin’s definition of genocide: “The shortcomings of Lemkin’s definition, which is historically based, concern those significant features of the crimes against the Armenians and Jews that Lemkin himself viewed as paradigm instances of genocide (the Metz Yeghern and Shoah, respectively) and that Lemkin did not adequately include in his definition of genocide.”38
The establishment of its credentials should help Medz Yeghern, the Great Evil Crime, to recover its status as distinctive proper name—above the pedestrian use of the common name “Armenian Genocide” as proper name—and assert the unique identity of what historian Hilmar Kaiser has labeled “the first administratively organized genocide of history.”39 It would also help debunk the mistaken assumption that Medz Yeghern, the proper name of the systematic and premeditated annihilation of the Armenians by the Turkish state, is “a meaningless term to all those who do not speak Armenian,” in the words of Armenian-American commentator Harut Sassounian.40 We have brought enough proof that it is a meaningful way to name the event, as it is the case with Shoah, Porrajmos, Holodomor, or Sayfo for the Jewish, Roma, Ukrainian, or Assyrian genocides.
1 The Armenian Weekly, April 11, 1981.
2 William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 319. For a groundbreaking etymological study of the use of the word before and after 1948, see Jon Petrie, “The Secular Word HOLOCAUST: Scholarly Myth, History, and 20th Century Meanings,” Journal of Genocide Research, 1, 2000, pp. 31-63.
3 The Armenian Weekly, April 11, 1981.
4 Israel W. Charny (ed.), Encyclopedia of Genocide, vol. 1, Santa Barbara (Ca.): ABC-CLIO, 1999, p. 42.
5 Petrie, “The Secular Word HOLOCAUST,” p. 33. Charny has wrongly ascribed the authorship to Dr. N[azaret] Daghavarian and Khosrov (penname of Armen Ardontz) and dated the book in 1911 (Charny, Encyclopedia, p. 42).
6 Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, second edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 356 (the first edition, in 1961, wrote “holocaust of 1916”).
7 See www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/holocaust/resource_center/the_holocaust.asp.
8 Charny (ed.), Encyclopedia, p. 43 (emphasis in original).
9 The New York Times, Dec. 6, 2010.
10 See http://americanheritage.yourdictionary.com/shoah.
11 See www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/DCPD-201300229/…/DCPD-201300229.htm.
12 Marc Nichanian, “Sarafian and the Conquest of Exile,” in Nigoghos Sarafian, The Bois de Vincennes, translated by Christopher Atamian, Dearborn (MI): The Armenian Research Center, University of Michigan-Dearborn, 2011, p. 9
13 S. Shahen, Tanjvatznere (Patkerner hay agheti taragrutenen), New York: Haig, 1917. The title of sociologist Bakhshi Ishkhanian’s book, Agheti yev tarapanki ashkharhits (ayts tiurkahay pakhstakannerin) (From the Land of Catastrophe and Suffering: Visit to the Turkish Armenian Refugees) (Tiflis: Press of the Viceroy of the Caucasus, 1915), does not specifically name the event.
14 Hushardzan April Tasnemeki (Monument to April Eleven), Constantinople: O. Arzuman, 1919, p. 128.
15 Teotig, “Hay verki ‘banase’ner” (Panaceas of Armenian Wounds), in idem, Amenun taretsuytse (Everyone’s Almanach), vol. X-XIV, Constantinople, 1916-1920, p. 170; idem, “Migamatzner hay horizonen” (Nebulae of the Armenian Horizon), in idem, p. 181.
16 See the catalogue of Armenian books for the years 1915-30 in the Hagop Meghapart Project (www.nla.am/arm/meghapart).
17 R. Lernian [Liparit Nazariantz], “Metz agheti nakhorein” (On the Eve of the Great Catastrophe), Hairenik Amsakir, March, April and June 1927; idem, “Metz agheti orerun” (In the Days of the Great Catastrophe), Hairenik Amsakir, December 1927, March 1928, and June 1928.
18 Krikor Beledian, “L’expérience de la catastrophe dans la littérature arménienne,” Revue d’histoire arménienne contemporaine, 1, 1995, p. 131.
19 Marc Nichanian, The Historiographical Perversion, translated by Gil Anidjar, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p. 15.
20 Vahé Oshagan, “The Theme of the Genocide in Diaspora Prose,” Armenian Review, Spring 1985, p. 57.
21 See the discussion in Taner Akçam, The Young Turks Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 126-129.
22 Beledian, “L’expérience de la catastrophe,” p. 135.
23 Taline Voskeritchian, “Between Massacre and Genocide: On Eric Friedler’s ‘Aghét: Nation Murder,’” Jadaliyya, May 16, 2011 (www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1591/between-massacre-and-genocide_on-eric-friedlers-ag).
24 See www.armtimes.com/tag/4539.
25 Aldo Ferrari, L’Ararat e la gru: Studi sulla storia e la cultura degli armeni, Milan: Mimesis, 2003, p. 233.
26 Today’s Zaman, April 26, 2010.
27 Theodore Roosevelt, Letters and Speeches, New York: Library of America, 2004, p. 736 (emphasis added).
28 Raphael Lemkin, “Genocide as a Crime under International Law,” American Journal of International Law, 1, 1947, p. 146.
29 Haraj-50, Paris: Haratch, 1975, pp. 185-186.
30 Ardashes Der Khachadurian, Hrant Kankruni, and Paramaz G. Doniguian, Hayots lezvi nor bararan (New Dictionary of the Armenian Language), Beirut: G. Doniguian and Sons, 1968, p. 855.
31 See Beledian, “L’expérience de la catastrophe,” p. 131; Khatchig Mouradian, “From Yeghern to Genocide: Armenian Newspapers, Raphael Lemkin, and the Road to the UN Genocide Convention,” Haigazian Armenological Review, vol. 29, 2009, p. 128.
32 Yves Ternon, Enquête sur la négation d’un génocide, Rocquevaire: Parenthèses, 1989, p. 218. See also Kurt Jonassohn with Karin Solveig Björnson, Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations in Comparative Perspective, New Brunswick (NJ): Transaction, 1998, p. 151.
33 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 Extermination of the Armenians), Paris: n.p., 1933, p. 4.
34 See Stephan Astourian, “Modern Turkish Identity and the Armenian Genocide,” in Richard Hovannisian (ed.), Richard Hovannisian (ed.), Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999, pp. 45-46.
35 Jonassohn and Björnson, Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations, p. 151.
36 Quoted in Ara Sarafian (ed.), British Parliamentary Debates on the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918, Reading: Taderon Press, 2003, p. 64. Morgenthau’s memoirs or telegrams do not seem to contain the expression “race murder” ascribed to him (Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, New York: Perennial, 2002, p. 1: title of the chapter, “Race Murder,” p. 6: “What he called ‘race murder’ was under way”).
37 Stefan Troebst, “Europäisierung der Vertreibungserinnerung? Eine deutsch-polnische Chronique scandaleuse 2002-2008,” in Martin Aust, Krzysztof Ruchnewicz and Stefan Troebst (eds.), Verflochtene Erinnerungen: Polen und seine Nachbarn im 19. und 20. Jahrundert, Cologne, Weimar, and Vienna: Böhlau, 2009, p. 245.
38 Siobhan F. Nash-Marshall, “Genocide,” in Robert L. Fastiggi (ed.), New Catholic Encyclopedia, supplement 2009, Detroit: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2010, pp. 352-353.
39 Hilmar Kaiser, Luther Eskijian, and Nancy Eskijian, At the Crossroads of Der Zor: Death, Survival, and Humanitarian Resistance, London: Gomidas Institute, 2001, p. XI.
40 The Armenian Weekly, February 12, 2013.
"The Armenian Weekly," August 2, 2013

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