German-Armenian Historian Warns That Important Genocide Archival Material Is Being Destroyed in Aleppo

Sako Arian
German historian Elke Hartmann’s mother is Armenian. Elke has studied history and Middle Eastern/Islamic Studies in Berlin specializing in modern Ottoman history. Her MA thesis examined the German military mission to the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Abdulhamid II, while her PhD. dissertation analyzes conscription in the late Ottoman Empire in the context of modern state and nation building. In 2010, with her husband, historian Vahé Tachjian, she established the Houshamadyan website.
From April to July, she will be a visiting professor at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany teaching the subject of “Christian Minorities in the Ottoman Empire.”

Why did you choose Ottoman studies as your specialization?
When I started to study history I observed that Ottoman history was not included in the general study European history. The history of the Ottoman Empire should be a component of European history at the academic level. Later, when I got involved in Middle Eastern studies, I noticed that Armenians were absent from Ottoman Studies. I felt I needed to focus on Ottoman studies in order to better understand European history and the history of Armenians.

In 2010, you and your husband Vahé Tachjian established the Houshamadyan website. Can you tell us a bit about the site?
Yes, I established the site along with Vahe Tachjian. It was a product of the abovementioned concerns; i.e. to fill in the gaps in history I had observed. People can contribute to the website, which we describe as a project to reconstruct Ottoman Armenian town and village life, and fill in the gaps of history. If people have information, photos, memoirs, etc. of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, they can send such material to us for inclusion in the site. Houshamadyan is also an interactive website and can serve as a bridge between various generations of Armenians and between Armenians and other peoples.

We have seen attempts in Europe to foster Armenian-Turkish dialogue. What do you have to say in this regard especially since you participated in one such meeting?
In fact, we have much to learn from the German experience in this regard. The Germans have faced up to their past. They know about the crimes and mistakes they committed in the past. Regarding your question, I should say that I participated in a program called “Speaking to One Another” that attempted to foster dialogue between Armenians and Turks. There were Armenians from Armenia, Istanbul, the Turkish provinces, and even Turkified and Islamicized Armenians (perhaps also forcibly Islamicized – S.A.) But what was surprising was the absence of any son or grandson of a Turkish executioner.
If we are to start some kind of dialogue, with whom should we dialogue with?  If we are to talk about reconciliation, at the core of any conversation must be the 1915-1916 genocide of Armenians. The program I attended always sought to divert attention and talk away from the past. Even reference to the genocide was given short shrift. But I believe that it is exactly the genocide issue that must bring Armenians and Turks around any forum tasked with dialogue.
If we take the genocide issue off the table, we have no need of dialogue with the Turks. Yes, meetings are very important, and we understand that it is very difficult for those living in Turkey to speak about the Genocide. As with regard to Germany, it is important that Germans do not adopt the opinions of those people living in Turkey. Germans must speak openly about the issue and call the massacres of Armenians by its real name.

Next year, we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Genocide. Given this, can you speak about those archives containing important materials and what else needs to be done with them?
There is a huge amount of work to do. There is much material of historical significance. And there is much archival material in Armenian. Memoirs written by individuals are plenty and a significant portion of these archives are located in Armenia. With the research I have done to date, I have revealed that there is little written about Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century. There is a huge archival inheritance and our main concentration must be on Armenians archives. In the end, we are the ones who speak and read Armenian. It’s hard to imagine a non-Armenian scholar studying Armenian to do such research. There are also the Ottoman archives, but I believe the main archives are the Armenian language materials. We must study and cherish these archives and protect this history.

Where do these Armenian archives exist today?
The most important collections are the church archives. They exist in Armenia and Jerusalem. Let’s also not forget Aleppo, which is going through some horrible times today.
Aleppo and the Armenian community are being destroyed right in front of our eyes, and we haven’t been able to salvage enough of the archives there. There’s a wealth of personal archives and photographs in Aleppo. The town is famous for such rich individual collections. It makes me sad to dwell on this.

And what about Armenia?
There is also a good amount of such archives in Armenia. There are personal memoirs and collections that are housed in museums but aren’t well researched. Yes, some work is being made in this direction but tremendous work remains to be done.

You told me about your trip to Beirut to collect items for Houshamadyan that Genocide survivors had taken with them when fleeing the Ottoman Empire. One man approached you and said that just the other day he had thrown away a large number of such items in the garbage. You chided him by saying that those gems should not have been discarded but rather handed over to someone like Houshamadyan. What’s the morale of this story?
Yes, such an incident happened. At the core of our problem is the following. Genocide survivors brought with them items that meant a lot to them on a personal level. They lovingly preserved those artifacts. One or two generations will hold on to them, but following generations will collect all of it and discard it as meaningless refuse. When old items lose the history associated with them, they turn mute and meaningless. This is why some people discard such items as junk. The memories linked to those pieces have faded.
So how do such items, so cherished by the original owners, lose their worth over time?
When an item loses the power of narration, of story-telling, it loses its value. When memories fade, the item no longer speaks to us. This is why, sadly, so many items of the past are discarded haphazardly. One of the aims of Houshamadyan is to protect and preserve these items that serve as the basis for our collective memories. We want to digitize them and, if possible, to record and digitize the personal stories they represent.

Western Armenia, the culture and society, bore the brunt of the Genocide. Today, its surviving fragments are scattered around the world. After all these years, it is evident that the diaspora hasn’t crafted a serious plan of action to foster the aim of Genocide recognition and more importantly, to draft a vision of what needs to be done afterwards. As a historian what do you have to say in this context, especially since your views can serve as a factual basis for future action?
I would like to see us not only remember our death but also our life. We must learn to become the masters of our history. If we have lost much to date – our lands, monuments, churches and riches – we still have our memories in the face of all that loss.
What has survived and reached us from the lands of western Armenia are our memories. It is something we need to cherish and protect. I have nothing against expressing lament. It is natural to lament the losses incurred. But we must look optimistically towards the future. Along with the lament, we must remember the living. We must seek to revitalize our past.

"Hetq," February 10, 2014 (http://hetq.am/arm/interviews/32468/germanahay-patmabany-kahazange-halepi-mej-pahuats-cexaspanutean-hayeren-arkhi%D6%82nery-kochnchacuin-mer-achqerun-arjev.html)

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