Hard to forget
Debate over ADL stance unleashes painful memories
Kevork Norian wanted the Arlington selectmen to hear the truth about the Armenian genocide, (Globe Staff Photo / John Blanding)
On a Monday evening last month, 90-year-old Kevork Norian and his wife, Helen, left the comfort of their two-family home in Arlington Heights, walked down the hill to Massachusetts Avenue and boarded the MBTA bus to Arlington Town Hall to join the debate over whether their town should maintain its connection with the No Place for Hate program.
A few miles to the west, on the same evening, 58-year-old Rita Goldberg drove from her Lexington home to Carey Memorial Hall in the town's center to address her town's Board of Selectmen, which was considering the same issue.
The lives of Norian and Goldberg, who do not know each other, each have been touched by genocide, and so they both felt compelled to attend the public hearings, speaking from deep emotional reservoirs that stretch across generations.
Norian survived the Armenian genocide; Goldberg's mother, Hilde, is a Holocaust survivor. Hilde's parents died in a Nazi concentration camp.
For Norian and Goldberg, the debate over No Place for Hate is personal as well as political.
Both Arlington and Lexington have decided to pull out of the program that advocates tolerance because of the program's connection with the Anti-Defamation League, which created it. Armenian-Americans and others have argued that the ADL has not sufficiently recognized that the killing of millions of Armenians during and after World War I was a genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks.
Other local communities have also left the program as the national leadership of the ADL prepares to consider the issue this week.
For Norian and Goldberg, the debates in their local communities offered an opportunity to share their personal stories that shed light on why this issue is such an emotional touchstone for Armenians and Jews, who each look back on histories of suffering and fear.
Setting history straight
Sitting at his dining room table, Norian, who uses a hearing aid, said he went to the meeting to bring out the truth about the Armenian genocide. For him, the issue is not No Place for Hate but setting history straight.
"If history is not accurate, then it is fiction," he said.
"When you are ailing and people deny it and say, 'It's a fabrication. It is wrong,' it hurts. . . . I wanted people to know the truth," Norian said.
He said that although the genocide is a central topic among his family and friends, this is the first time he has told his story publicly. "Nobody asked me," he said.
The story Norian tells is woven together from his family's decades-long struggle for survival and from historical records recounted in books on the Armenian genocide he has read and reread and which he brought to the Arlington selectmen's meeting.
Born in Aintab, Turkey, in 1917, to an Armenian family, Norian was a baby at the close of World War I when the widespread massacre of 1.5 million Armenians began.
Norian's immediate family was initially exempt from deportation because his father was forced to manufacture wartime clothing for the Turkish military. During the political upheavals and turmoil that dominated Turkey after the end of the war, and over the next decade, Norian said, his family was subjected to harsh treatment and some, including his grandparents, cousins, and several uncles, died either from brutal mistreatment or from cholera, the result of poor living conditions.
"There are so many stories," Norian said, holding back tears.
Along with thousands of other Armenians, Norian's family was forcibly deported in 1924 to Syria, where Norian spent his youth. He met and married his wife there, and three of their children were born in Syria.
They joined some of her relatives in the United States in 1964, settling in Arlington, where a fourth child was born, and where they raised their families. Norian worked in several jobs, eventually retiring in 1981 from a company where he supervised the production of chemical instruments.
Coming to America changed his life, Norian said.
"When I came here I learned so many things. When you learn more and more, it gives you more satisfaction," he said.
The move allowed him to escape to a place where he could be free and prosper.
"I told them [the Arlington selectmen] 'Thank you, USA, for saving us from hell,' " Norian said.
The experience of speaking out about the Armenian genocide is incredibly important and empowering for survivors and their children, said the Rev. Gregory V. Haroutunian, pastor of the First Armenian Church in Belmont, which Norian and his wife attend.
Many people are not able to overcome the pain and horror to speak publicly, as Norian did, Haroutunian said in a phone interview.
"It is literally unspeakable," he said.
"That the public would dignify this with a hearing and respond with appropriate outrage, that is so important," Haroutunian said. "It validates their suffering."
Advocate for tolerance
On an unseasonably warm day, Goldberg sat on her porch and said she believes that the ADL should be pressured to recognize unequivocally the Armenian genocide. But she came to the Lexington meeting to speak against ending No Place for Hate, because she sees it as a unique advocate for tolerance and a buffer against anti-Semitism.
"It seems very hasty," Goldberg said of the board's decision to leave the program, especially given that the national ADL will consider this issue this week.
Goldberg, who teaches writing at Harvard, has lived with her husband, Oliver Hart, in Lexington for nearly 25 years. Their two grown sons attended public schools. She credits the regional ADL with having a profound, positive impact on the town and its schools.
The call to recognize the Armenian genocide resonates powerfully with Goldberg, who learned about the massacres at an early age from her parents.
As a young girl, Goldberg's mother fled her native Germany with her parents in 1929. They settled in Amsterdam. Her mother's best friend was Margot Frank, the elder sister of Anne Frank, whose published diary exposed the world to the horrors of the Nazis from the point of view of a young girl.
As a teenager, Hilde Goldberg went into hiding and was separated from her parents, who were later killed by the Nazis in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
In 1945, she volunteered with the British Red Cross to help with displaced orphans at the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It was there that she met her future husband, who had volunteered to work as a medic at the displaced persons camp. Hilde, Oliver, and Rita, who was only 2, came to the United States in 1950.
Goldberg was exposed to her family's history, and the horrors of the Holocaust, from an early age. Unlike Norian, whose personal family history has remained largely private, Goldberg's mother's history is part of the archival records at the US Holocaust Museum and has been featured in a documentary film. Goldberg herself has written a family memoir, not yet published.
"My background has been completely dominated by that and I have complete sympathy with the Armenians," Goldberg said, recalling that one of her closest childhood friends in New Jersey was an Armenian-American whose family held strong nationalist beliefs.
"I was totally outraged by the attitude of the ADL, but it is not the whole issue," Goldberg said in explaining why she urged the town not to cut its ties with the No Place for Hate program.
Goldberg said that she is concerned with a certain amount of prejudice and anti-Semitism embedded in the emotional rhetoric expressed in letters to local newspapers by some supporters of severing ties with the ADL.
"It pits two groups, each with a Holocaust, against each other," she said. "Groups which should be united always."
'We are all better for this'
Haroutunian said he was excited about the way the Jewish community has responded to the public debate and pleased that the local ADL has recognized the Armenian genocide. He is disappointed that the national ADL has not been as clear-cut in its support of recognition. The pastor said he is encouraged by cooperation between Armenian and Jewish Americans over issues such as the genocide in Darfur.
Meanwhile, Scott Martin Kosofsky of Lexington, a historian of American Judaism, said the local debates over the Armenian genocide and the ADL position on it have served as community adult education at the highest and deepest level.
"We are all better for this," he said. "It is seldom the case that big issues such as this affect us in our daily lives."