Of a grandmother's gaze and a boy named Revenge

Laura Marginata

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was or was not a genocide.

Begun 74 years ago on April 24, it was a calculated program of extermination during which 1.5 million Armenian people perished at the hands of the Turks—or did they? Armenians say it happened; Turks insist it did not. Anguish has ensued ever since.

Armenians are a Christian people—the first, in fact, to embrace Christianity as a national religion. Yet Christian doctrine provided little solace and no definitive answers for my family when we discussed the genocide.

We would square off, each of us staking out our biblical terrain.

"Yes, the Turks committed atrocities," one would say. "But shouldn't a true Christian forgive and forget?"

"No," said another. "How can you forgive someone who hasn't repented? Forgiveness hinges on the realization that you have done wrong, and the Turks have never acknowledged their heinous crime. Why should we forgive them? Besides, we'll be encouraging history to repeat itself."

"But," someone else would interject, "didn't Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek? Wasn't his ultimate victory to beg forgiveness for his enemies though they knew not what they'd done?"

Round and round we would go, never resolving the controversy.

My grandparents and many other Armenians of their generation spoke reluctantly of the horrors they had endured. As a result, the formative events of their lives drifted into the grandchildren's psyches as random fragments.

There were Grandma Nazely's haunting eyes. They would pierce you every time you walked past her faded photo in the hallway. Even as a child I sensed the profound sadness and desolation that lay behind her expression, but it was not until years later that I learned why.

Her first husband was killed by Turks, as were her four brothers and her father. Her sister was carried off and presumed murdered. Grandma Nazely's baby died of starvation during the death march from Armenia; she had just barely buried the child wrapped in her apron before Turkish soldiers prodded her to move on. Her mother fell in the dirt, literally dying of thirst, but the soldiers refused to let my grandmother relieve her mother's parched throat. Grandma Nazely was forced to march, leaving her mother behind to die alone by the wayside.

Some survivors kept quiet and busied themselves with creating a new life in a strange land. Others could not contain their rage.

There was the man in my hometown of Racine, Wis., who named his son Vrezh, the Armenian word for revenge. He christened his next child, a daughter, Vrezhouhi.

Then there was the old Armenian woman in a nearby Wisconsin town. During the massacres of 1915, she had been found wandering, naked, having been stripped not only of her clothes but of her two-year-old child, stolen from her side as she slept. And now, decades later, she would still scream, "If you fed me their blood with a ladle, it wouldn't quench my thirst!" We listened, aghast, to these stories. We could not comprehend such grotesque agony.

For young Armenian-Americans, there has never been any doubt that a genocide occurred. But what prescription for living does that afford us in the United States?

America is the pot in which ethnic differences melt away. Most of us cherish that vision of unity. Yet occasionally it collides head-on with our ethnic legacy, and we cannot reconcile the two.

It happens, for example, every time I meet a Turkish-American. Do not reject someone solely on the basis of ethnic heritage, I tell myself. This person was not even alive in 1915. Maybe this person's family bravely hid Armenians from Turkish troops.

Playing this mind game, I often persuade myself that I have achieved my goal: equal acceptance of everyone. Yet not long ago, while being introduced to other parents at my daughter's nursery school, I noticed myself sweating as I shook hands with a small, dark-haired woman. She was sweet and friendly and—I feared—Turkish.

Would her eyes narrow when she heard my last name, immediately recognizable as Armenian? Would I avoid, resent, dislike her in spite of myself? The forgive-and-forget versus wait-till-they-repent debate sprang before me again.

I have always thought of myself as someone who lives for the future rather than dwelling in the past. Though perhaps heresy to admit, I am glad that my grandparents ended up in the United States, particularly when I look at Armenia today, still exchanging blows with a Turkic neighbor, Azerbaijan.

Yet here the battle is subtler—until each April 24. It's a battle waged fiercely in the recesses of one's mind.

This essay appeared in the Los Angeles Times (April 24, 1989) and the International Herald Tribune (April 26, 1989).