Activism Through Education – An Interview with Levon Marashlian
March 30, 2014 1 Comment
APRIL 2014 GENOCIDE AWARENESS AND PREVENTION MONTH:
Remembering the Past toward Healing our Future
A six event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children
Living Ubuntu, in collaboration with Amnesty International – Irvine and six local academic institutions, presents a six-event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children. April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, and each film commemorates a genocide that started during April. Living Ubuntu provides education about global traumas as part of its mission to heal trauma in order to promote peace. All films are free and open to the public.
Below is an interview with Levon Marashlian, a third generation Armenian genocide survivor who will be a featured speaker at the Armenian genocide event.
An Interview with Levon Marashlian
Born: Beirut, Lebanon
Degree: B.A.-University of Illinois. M.A. and Ph.D.-UCLA
Occupation: Professor, Glendale Community College, Glendale, CA
Q: When did you move to the U.S.?
A: In 1956 when I was 7 years old. We moved to from Beirut to Chicago. It was just my immediate family. All my grandparents stayed behind. That’s why I lost contact with them, which is too bad, because I never had a chance to talk to them about their experience during the deportations and massacres. By the time I visited Beirut in 1973, they were all gone.
Q: Did you have any other family left in Beirut other than your grandparents?
A: A few family members, but no one from the survivor generation. If I had known then what I know now, I would have had them recorded. Armenians started this late, not until the mid 1970s. I did over 20 interviews myself as part of a course at UCLA. By the time oral histories were recorded in the 80s and 90s most of the people who were still alive and able were children during the genocide so they knew things from the perspective of a child. That’s still useful, but the most valuable witnesses would have been people who were adults in 1915. The memory of the most valuable generation was lost.
Q: Why did you become a history major?
A: My family background was not a factor in my becoming involved in history or the genocide. My parents weren’t highly educated, and I didn’t really know anything about the genocide in a political or intellectual way. I just knew that we would attend a commemorative event once a year. I grew up in Chicago and volunteer drafted into the US Army right after finishing high school. I was in Vietnam as an infantryman for one year, 1968-69. I went to college only to get out of the Army three months early. I had never intended to go to college. I thought I was going to continue as an auto mechanic. I enrolled in the YMCA Community College, and during my first semester, I wound up liking it because I saw that I was learning something. I then transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago where I majored in history. One of my professors, not an Armenian, encouraged me to write my term paper on the Armenian Question instead of the French Revolution, which is the topic I had picked and which I preferred. I resisted, but he finally persuaded me. And that was my first formal introduction to the Armenian Genocide.
Q: What do you know of your grandparents’ experiences during the genocide?
A: I know only what my parents related to me. On my mother’s side, my grandfather, Bedros Keushkerian, was from a town called Dortyol in the southern part of Turkey, to the west of today’s Syrian border. He would tell my mother a lot about his life. He owned a huge orange grove and was very wealthy. He also had some gold buried. He was forced out of his home and lost everything, and ended up in Iskenderun. There are a lot of holes in Turkey today, from people looking for gold and other valuables left behind by Armenians.
My grandmother, Aghavni Ateshian, was from a place called Tokat, which is in the far northern part of Turkey. She had an arranged marriage at age 13 or 14. Around seven months after their marriage, World War I started and her husband was drafted into the Ottoman Army. She never saw him again. He was probably killed along with all the other Armenian soldiers in Ottoman Army who were disarmed and used as slave labor and eventually killed. Then orders came to remove Armenians from their homes. She remembered people asking the soldiers if they could get dressed before leaving since they were in their pajamas. She remembered being told: “It doesn’t matter. You’re all going to be die anyway.” At the time she had a six month old baby boy. As she walked with the caravan she would try to eat everything she could to have milk for the baby. But eventually the baby died of starvation. She dug a shallow grave with her bare hands, and then put a few rocks on top of the dirt so that no one could step on him. She said that was all she could do to give her baby some peace. The rest of her family also perished. One day she and another girl found themselves in a field, at roughly age 15. They had become separated from the group somehow, and ended up in the vicinity of my grandfather’s neighborhood, near Dortyol (about 300 miles from Tokat). A kind Turkish man saw them, and told them he would give them a home if they wanted. He took them in, and treated them well. After the war, around 1919, an Armenian woman came to the Turkish man’s house. She may have been working for the American Committee for Relief in the Near East (ACRNE). She said she was there to take them away. The Turkish man said to ask the girls what they wanted, and if they wanted to go they could go. Both girls agreed to leave when the woman said she would take them to other Armenians. My grandmother asked: “Are there any Armenians left?” What she and her companion had witnessed during the deportation made them think they were the only Armenians left in the world. Soon afterward, Aghavni married Bedros in Iskenderun and that’s where my mother, Makroui, was born.
My paternal grandfather, Oskan Marashlian, was born in Marash but moved at some point to Adana, for a better job opportunity, and eventual he had a restaurant. The mayor, or maybe it was a another high level Turkish city official, liked the food there so much that he asked him to cook for him personally. When the deportation orders came, this official told my grandfather: “I’m not going to let them deport you or your family.” When my grandfather said his wife does not want to stay in Adana because her family already was deported and she wants to follow them, the Turkish official told him: “Oskan, think about it carefully. They did not go to a flower garden.” My grandfather understood, and stayed in Adana. That’s how my father’s side of my family survived. My father, Stepan Marashlian, was born in Adana.
My paternal grandmother, Arshalouys Bachjedjian, had two brothers named Serop and Levon. They worked as butchers in a butcher shop along with Turkish friends for a very long time, for years. They went to work one day, and their Turkish friend said: “Today we’re going to butcher you two.” When Serop and Levon pointed out that they were old friends, their Turkish friend said: “The time for friendship is over.” And then they slit their throats. She had two other brothers, who survived, in separate orphanages. Eventually, Edvart Ateshian ended up in Istanbul and Penyamin Ateshian in Soviet Armenia. For many years, the two brothers didn’t know that the other was alive. Years later, when my mother and one of my aunts from my father’s side were pregnant, my paternal grandmother told them both that if they had boys, one of them had to name their baby Serop, and the other Levon, in honor of her two murdered brothers. That’s how I got my name.
Q: Why do you think genocide resolutions in the U.S. Congress continually fail?
A: Not all have failed. HJR 148 passed in the House of Representatives in 1975 but failed in the Senate. But yes, most have failed. One reason is that the official denial by the Turkish government has created the false impression that the evidence is not reliable, so some congressmen opposing a resolution would question the validity of the word genocide applied to this case. And the second, most frequent argument has been that even if it’s a genocide, it wouldn’t be a good idea to pass a resolution because it would anger Turkey and harm US-Turkish relations. Turkey being a member of NATO is frequently used as a reason, because Turkey is an important ally, we have a military base there, etc. During the Cold War, the main consideration was that if we go to war with the Soviet Union, anti-Communist Turkey will be on our side. During the Korean War, a small contingent of Turkish troops fought on our side.
During the debates over the most recent resolutions, the first reason, doubting that it was a genocide, has virtually disappeared. The justification for opposing a resolution has become almost solely Turkey’s strategic value. I see this as progress. The overwhelming evidence presented over the years has largely won the academic debate. It is generally accepted now.
Ironically, every time a resolution comes up and fails, it’s still damaging to Turkey because the issue gets wide press coverage. It’s an embarrassment to them. Which is why it would be beneficial to Turkey also to recognize it. Every year there are commemorative events around the globe and a demonstration outside the Turkish consulate in L.A. and other places, and the world is reminded that Turkey is tied to the word genocide.
Q: Aren’t there other NATO countries that have recognized the genocide?
A: The French government officially recognized it in 2001. In response,Turkey recalled its ambassador from Paris and sent the French ambassador home, cancelled business contracts, and inside Turkey, Turks burned the French flag and French products in the streets, a French restaurant stopped serving French food, and a university eliminated its French curriculum. But around nine months later, things went back to business as usual. The French government, it seems, was more aware than the American government that a relationship with Turkey is a two-way street. American policymakers do not seem to understand that although Turkey does have value for the U.S., Turkey also benefits from the U.S. So Presidential candidates promise to recognize the genocide, but once they’re in office the State Department takes control. Presidents, Republican and Democrat, come excessively under the influence of the State Department, Defense Department, and defense contractors that give campaign contributions. It’s sad to see our government officials and corporate executives become enablers for a foreign country’s denial of a genocide that is so well documented in American archives. And we’re just talking about a commemorative resolution. It’s not a bill. It’s non-binding.
Q: Why do you think Turkey continues to deny the genocide?
A: One reason is that some of the Turks that established modern Turkey at the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 were actually participants in the genocide and were sitting on stolen Armenian property. They are considered among Turkey’s ‘founding fathers’. It would be damaging and embarrassing for the reputation of those men, who are viewed as national heroes today. But today’s Turkey could say that the previous Ottoman government committed the genocide, just as Germany acknowledged that the Nazis committed The Holocaust (not modern-day Germany). By acknowledging the Holocaust and paying reparations for it, the German people have benefitted. They walk with their heads held high today.
The main reason for Turkey’s denial I suspect is the issue of reparations. If Turkey admits to the genocide, there is fear that the next step might be some kind of compensation. So the denial is based on a combination of embarrassment and material liability. On the other hand, if today’s Turkey acknowledges the genocide and offers some form of justice, the prestige of the Turkish people will soar. The world will admire them for having the courage to own up to this crime against humanity.
Q: Aside from recognition of the genocide, what do you hope to accomplish by speaking out and from educating students?
A: Our young people today may become elected officials or other people in power or they may have connections to people of power. By teaching them about previous genocides, maybe they can help prevent new crimes against humanity in the future.
Alicia Buly works in San Diego County and volunteers for Living Ubuntu.