Verjine Svazlian Discusses 53 years of Collecting Genocide Testimonies and Songs
March 19, 2008, San Francisco - Verjine Svazlian, Lead Researcher at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography at the Academy of Sciences in Armenia, presented her research on the oral tradition of Armenian Genocide survivors, through their eye-witness testimonies and songs revealing their experience.
Co-sponsored by the Bay Area Armenian National Committee, the UC Berkeley Armenian Studies Program and the Hamazkayin Armenian Cultural and Educational Society, Svazlian's presentation was based on the many oral histories of Armenian Genocide survivors, which she personally collected beginning in 1955 from 100 localities in Western Armenia. She undertook these efforts often at great personal risk from authorities in the former Soviet Union and Turkey. Her latest book, translated from Armenian into English, Russian, Turkish, French, and other languages is titled, "The Armenian Genocide and the People's Historical Memory."
"The Armenian Genocide, as an international political crime against humanity, has become, by the brutal constraint of history, an inseparable part of the national identity, the thought and the spiritual-conscious inner world of the Armenian people," said Svazlian, who was born in Egypt and immigrated with her family to Soviet Armenia in 1947. "There is no man without memory. Similarly, there cannot exist a nation without memory," said Svazlian.
Svazlian began collecting Genocide testimonies as a student at the Yerevan Khachatour Abovian Pedagogical University, walking door-to-door and village-to-village, searching for Armenian Genocide survivors who had been rescued. Her work is particularly valuable not only because of its volume, but because of the short amount of time that had passed since the Genocide. One of her subjects, Maritsa Papazian was born in 1874, in Samsun. Many of the survivors Svazlian interviewed were "repatriates" to Soviet Armenia, living in newly built districts on the outskirts of Yerevan (like Nor Aresh, Nor Giligia, Nor Zeytoun, Nor Marash, etc.)
Svazlian spoke about the circumstances of her meetings with the survivors. "Upon meeting the eyewitness survivors miraculously saved from the Armenian Genocide, I always found them silent, reticent and deep in thought. There was valid reason for this mysterious silence, since the political obstacles prevailing in Soviet Armenia for many decades did not allow them to tell about or to narrate their past in a free and unconstrained manner."
Because of these circumstances and the horrors the survivors had experienced, Svazlian said she went to great lengths to earn the trust and friendship of her subjects, in order to obtain the most genuine and comprehensive testimonies. They include descriptions of a wide range of topics: the native land, patriarchal life and customs, communal-political life, historical events, discriminatory practices (i.e. taxes, prohibitions directed only against Armenians), and the inhumanities of the forced exile, murders, mutilations, and the holocaust, all of which remained vivid in many of the survivors' memories.
Svazlian read from several testimonies, including that of Nektar Gasparian, born in 1910 in Ardvin, who confessed, "More than 80 years have passed, but I cannot forget up to this day my prematurely dead beloved father, mother, uncle, grandmother, our neighbors and all my relatives who were brutally killed, and we were left lonely and helpless. During all my life I have always remembered those appalling scenes, which I have seen with my own eyes and I have had no rest ever since. I have shed tears so often..." Verginé Gasparian, born in 1912 in Aintap said in her interview, "The Turks slaughtered my father Krikor, my mother Doudou, my brother Hagop and my sister Nouritsa before my eyes. I have seen all that with my own eyes and cannot forget until this day."
A common element in the interviews were the survivors' tally of members of their extended family - how many were massacred, and how many survived. Hazarkhan Torossian born in 1902 in Balou said," So many years have passed, but up 'til now I cannot get to sleep at nights, my past comes in front of my eyes, I count the dead and the living." Hrant Gasparian, born in 1908 in Mush said, "I told you what I have seen. What I have seen is in front of my eyes. We have brought nothing from Khnous. We have only saved our souls. Our large family was composed of 143 souls. Only one sister, one brother, my mother and I were saved." And Verginé Nadjarian born in 1910 in Malatia said, "Our family was very large, we were about 150-200 souls. My mother's brothers, my father's sisters, and brothers. They slaughtered them all on the road to Der-Zor. Only three of us were left: I, my mother and my brother."
Through her interviews, which Svazlian conducted in written, audio taped, and videotaped form and in different dialects and languages, she also captured testimonies about the self-defense actions that took place in several Armenian towns attacked by the Turkish military (as in Van, Shatakh, Shabin-Karahisar, Sassoun, Musa Dagh, Urfa, and others.)
Svazlian discussed the wisdom also revealed by many of her subjects. She quoted Armenian Genocide survivor Artavazd Ktradsian, born in Adabazar in 1901, who began is memoir with the words, "A man should be a man, whether he is an Armenian or a Turk." She also said that many of her subjects harbored no ill will or hatred toward Turks in general, pointing out testimonies that included descriptions of the neighborly relations between the two peoples. Arakel Tagoyan, who was born in 1902 in Derdjan, testified about his village's pilgrimage to the monastery of St. Garabed in Mush, saying, "Besides the pilgrims, Turkish and Kurdish inhabitants also gathered, ate the offering with us, rejoiced with us, sang and danced. They brought sick people on the tomb of St. Garabed to be healed."
The testimonies also reveal various forms of popular folklore (lamentations, songs, parables, proverbs, prayers, oaths, etc.), which not only lend a more valuable ethnographic study, but also help to confirm the reliability of the survivors' narratives. Svazlian said that some of the subjects even took it upon themselves to make the sign of a cross and swear to the truthfulness of their statements. One survivor from Erzeroum, Loris Papikian, born in 1903, stated at the beginning of her interview, "...I should tell you first that if I deliberately color the events and the people, let me be cursed and be worthy of general contempt..."
Svazlian also played excerpts of survivors singing songs about the Armenian Genocide. "The authors of those historical songs were mainly the Armenian women," said Svazlian. "Those horrifying impressions were so strong and profound that these songs have often taken a poetic shape as the lament woven by the survivor from Mush, Shogher Tonoyan (born in 1901), which she communicated to me with tearful eyes and moans:
"...Morning and night, I hear cries and laments,
I have no rest, no peace, and no sleep,
I close my eyes and always see dead bodies,
I lost my kin, friends, land, and home..."
"With their originality and ideological contents, these historical songs are not only novelties in the fields of Armenian Folklore and Armenian Genocide studies," said Svazlian, "but they also provide the possibility for comprehending, in a new fashion, the given historical period with its specific aspects."
Svazlian has collected a variety of songs, divided into categories according to the experience they communicate: "Songs of mobilization, arm-collection and imprisonment," "Songs of deportation and massacre," "Songs of child-deprived mothers, orphans and orphanages," "Patriotic and heroic battle songs," and "Songs of the lost Homeland and of the rightful claim."
Many survivors from different regions sang the same songs, with variations. The songs had been passed along extensively by word of mouth. Many of them were composed and sung in Turkish, especially in towns where speaking Armenian was forbidden. Numerous interviews attested to the practice of Turkish authorities cutting out the tongues of those speaking and/or teaching the Armenian language, and one of the collected songs included the refrain:
"They entered the school and caught the school-mistress, Ah, alas!
They opened her mouth and cut her tongue, Ah, alas!"
Svazlian provided the following examples of songs about the Genocide:
I got up in the morning; the door was closed,
The major came, a club in his hand,
The blind and the lame spread before him,
Armenians dying for the sake of faith!
The place called Der-Zor was a large locality,
With innumerable slaughtered Armenians,
The Ottoman chiefs have become butchers,
Armenians dying for the sake of faith!
The desert of Der-Zor was covered with mist,
Oh, mother! Oh, mother! Our condition was lamentable,
People and grass were stained with blood,
Armenians dying for the sake of faith!
Svazlian's interviews included survivors who were already adults during the Armenian Genocide. Some of their testimonies can be quite graphic and look at the Genocide in the context of world politics. An example is Hagop Papazian, born in 1891 in Sivrihissar. Papazian was a graduate of Istanbul Medical University, who had served in the Turkish army as a medical officer and had seen all the atrocities first hand: "...When I recall all that I think to myself: none of the civilized countries took any step towards humanism. Therefore, willy-nilly they encouraged the Turks to annihilate millions of unarmed and defenseless, innocent Armenians of Western Armenia, a whole nation, from the old to the young with such cruelty that hadn't been heard or written in the history of mankind: people were tortured and tormented to death, held captive, kidnapped, raped, forcibly turned into Turks, slaughtered, sent to the gallows, some were hanged head-down and left to die in torments. They imprisoned hundreds of people in churches and barns, hungry and thirsty, for several days and then they poured kerosene on them and burned them to ashes. Countless, innumerable people were drowned in the Euphrates River. On both sides of the road of exile, they buried small children alive up to their neck and left them to die, and the deported people were led by the same road to see these atrocities and to feel violent grief. The Turks cut open the bellies of pregnant women with swords, they violated the young virgin girls, kidnapped young women to make them concubines in their harems, they forced aged and young people to become Turks and speak only Turkish... The Armenian nation was isolated and was in a tragic situation. The Armenians lost their historical native land; millions of Armenians were martyred ruthlessly. And all that took place before the eyes of civilized humanity, by their knowledge and permission. The Great States acted as Pilates for their future material interests and willy-nilly allowed the Grey Wolf - the Turks - to torture and devour an unarmed and defenseless nation. They encouraged the Turks, thus becoming accomplices in the Armenian Genocide..."
The wealth of eye-witness testimonies that Svazlian has accumulated over the decades was meant to be absorbed by future generations, both to give them a knowledge of their past and to counter historical revisionism and genocide denial. She used the testimony of Dikran Ohanian, born in 1902 in Kamakh, to illustrate her purpose. Ohanian said, "...My past is not only my past, but it is my nation's past as well."
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