Medz Yeghern: Never Again

Reflecting on the pride, loss, and complicated guilt of April 24 as an Armenian-American.

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Every April 24, my mother, sister, and I walk through the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. In our arms, we hold baskets of forget-me-nots to decorate our family’s single grave, the grave in which the only three members of the Gargholanian family to escape the genocide are stacked in a single graveyard plot. They could not afford anything more. Yet, to my ancestors, even the smallest shared headstone is an honor. Each name etched into the limestone, though anglicized and cleansed of their Armenian origins, represents their survival, a privilege which is unknown to the rest of their family.

On April 24, 1915, a new installment of Turkish nationalists, the Young Turks, rounded up hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and figureheads in Istanbul to be publicly tortured, exiled, and executed. The Young Turks sought to create an Ottoman Empire that was homogeneously Turkish, and the large Armenian ethnic minority posed a significant threat to this vision. Other non-Muslim and non-Turkish groups were persecuted as well, such as Greeks, Assyrians, and Yezidis.

As the genocide spread throughout Eastern Anatolia in May 1915, the scope of mass murder widened, targeting other Armenian families, like mine. My great-grandmother’s family were affluent poppy farmers and produced medicine for hospitals, making them among the first to be targeted in their region. My great-grandmother, Mariam, was only 14 when her mother quickly sewed small coins into the babies’ clothing for safe keeping. They hid their heirlooms in the walls of their home and underneath finely woven rugs, hoping to return someday when the occupation of the Turks would be over. Yet, no one in my family has ever returned to Armenia. There is no one for us to return to.

From 1915 to 1923, the Young Turks committed unspeakable atrocities: they locked Armenians in churches and set them on fire; they raped young Armenian girls and impaled them on sharp sticks, or sold them into harems; they marched long lines of Armenians to death in the Syrian desert. All of Mariam’s siblings, cousins, and friends were murdered this way. She was never able to see them again. Their bodies were never granted a proper Christian burial—they were never properly recognized.

The absence of recognition also pervades the survivors. Even today, the Turkish government denies the Armenian genocide as a false narrative, claiming our assertions of a genuine genocide are solely an attempt to victimize ourselves out of spite. They explain that the widespread loss of Armenian life was due to the strains of World War I, even diminishing  the number of Armenian deaths to just 600,000, rather than the 1.5 million that is estimated by scholars worldwide. There were over two million ethnic Armenians living in the Ottoman empire in 1914. By 1922, the population had decreased to about 380,000. The Turkish government also explains that because the word for genocide was not created until 1944, the events of 1915 could not be accurately labeled as such; since our suffering could not be named, it apparently could not exist. In 2005, Turkey enacted Article 301, which makes insulting “Turkishness” or Turkish institutions a crime, punishable for up to four years. Despite being amended in 2008, this statute continues the legacy of Turkish denial of past and current allegations of genocide. Even in 2024, the Republic of Türkiye utilizes violence and political threats to subdue any attempts to memorialize or recognize the Armenian genocide within the republic. For the third year in a row, the Turkish government has banned Armenian remembrance day activities in Istanbul. 

Despite the rampant denial, Mariam’s experience was very much real. She was raped while escaping her home in Malatya, now modern day Turkey. Her family had prepared for the desecration of their homes and lands, but never of the body of their 14 year old daughter. She managed to escape through the mountains, walking miles each day with her infant daughter, who did not survive. Mariam buried her in an unmarked grave in the Magdalena mountains, which is my namesake. She continued to travel into France, where she stayed for a year before boarding a boat to America, hoping for more opportunities. 

However, the repression of my family’s Armenian cultural identity did not end in 1915 with my great-grandmother’s escape from Armenia. The ramifications of the genocide were not only physical, like the scars stretching across her skin, but mental. In America, my great-grandmother denied and hid her heritage, perpetually terrified of being targeted again for her faith and ethnicity. She attempted to rid herself of any Armenian signifiers, separating herself from ethnic Armenian enclaves in America. She married an Armenian man who immigrated to America before 1915 and had one son, my grandfather, after a series of miscarriages due to the irreparable damage the Turks inflicted on her body.

Mariam settled her new family in Park Slope, a neighborhood primarily composed of Italian and Irish families. She only spoke Armenian and could not relate to the other mothers in the neighborhood. My grandfather was also an outlier, constantly taunted for his clothes smelling like sumac and cumin, the spices his mother used to cook his lunches. Though his peers could not point to Armenia on a map, he was branded as “other.” On one 4th of July, my grandfather was tied by the neck and pulled from a handrail as he struggled to breathe. The neighborhood kids wanted to get rid of any “non-Americans.”

So throughout the 1950s, my American-born grandfather assumed a shame parallel to his mother’s: both associated their Armenian identity with destruction. The genocide was a souce of trauma for his mother—a trauma so deeply imbued that it was seldom uttered aloud. Because of this, many details of Mariam’s story were never passed on—she never talked about it. My mother remembers her as a calm, quiet woman. Even after she died in 1994, my family still struggles to swallow the extent of her trauma.

Due to the shame inherited through his mother’s trauma, my grandfather’s life as an Armenian was clad in secrecy. He tried his best to protect his family from being victimized further, commanding us “Don’t tell people too much” and “Don’t be proud or you will be targeted.” My grandfather never taught my mother Western Armenian because it reminds him of all that our family has lost. The language he spoke his first words in has been lost to Americanization and guilt.

My last name is not Armenian, nor does my appearance echo any typical Armenian features: not the long nose, the high cheekbones, the olive skin, or the round dark eyes. I do not celebrate Easter or Christmas according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar, nor do I speak the language. Thus, acknowledging my Armenian ancestry is a constant confrontation with all that has been lost, like the handwoven textiles and rugs left in my great grandmother’s abandoned home, never to be reclaimed. Honoring the validity of an almost decimated culture means that we must equally acknowledge our defeats where we were powerless against the dominating violence of the Young Turks. Sometimes I feel most Armenian when I am mourning, as our community is built on shared grief; I am only surrounded by other Armenians outside of my family on April 24.

Last year, I attended the 108th Armenian Genocide Commemoration in Times Square. Bleary-eyed, I watched the Armenian school children sing our national anthem in the center of the square. Afterwards, one of their mothers came up to me and began to compliment my eyes. She smiled, calling me jan and gandzs, which I then learned were terms of endearment in Armenian. Street vendors sold gigantic Armenian flag sashes, and elders wore hand-knit scarves with red, orange and blue. For the first time in 100 years, someone in my lineage felt safe to be Armenian.