THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Watertown center helps survivors tell their stories to following generations

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / April 20, 2008

WATERTOWN - The way survivors see it, the tragedy of genocide is magnified when the history remains untold. If more had been done to recognize the Armenian genocide, which killed the family of 98-year-old Asdghig Alemian, perhaps Edgar Krasa, 87, would have been spared the horrors of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Had the history been better remembered, they believe, there's a chance that 21-year-old Marie Carine Gakuba would not have had to suffer through an ugly chapter of her own national history - the Rwandan genocide.

Alemian, Krasa, and Gakuba were brought together last Sunday to share their stories of survival. The program, called "Genocide Committed, Genocide Denied, and Genocide Repeated," was hosted by the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, North America's only permanent memorial to the Armenian genocide.

Krasa and Gakuba are sad witnesses to what happens when history is ignored and forgotten, say the descendents of the first genocide of the 20th century, in which more than 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of Turkish soldiers between 1915 and 1917.

"The question we are always asking ourselves is, 'What can I do personally so that genocide never happens again to anyone?' " said Mariam Stepanyan, the 32-year-old director of the Armenian Library.

Armenians "carry the memory of loss in their hearts," she said.

With only a handful of the Armenian genocide survivors still alive, the responsibility for keeping that memory alive has fallen squarely on the shoulders of Generation X. Stepanyan is among a small group of 30- and 40-something Armenian-Americans at the core of a burgeoning local genocide-awareness movement, one that has united them with victims of the Nazi Holocaust, their descendants, and survivors of more recent genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda.

Armenians have lived longest with the heavy cultural and moral obligation to prevent genocide. The almost missionary zeal to educate the public about the massacre is an unshakable part of their cultural identity, said Ara Nazarian, a 36-year-old researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

"We are an ancient people and this is a fresh wound because it is only 93 years old," said Nazarian, who as a teenager growing up in Iran helped collect oral histories of the survival stories of his elderly Armenian neighbors.

"It doesn't define everything about being Armenian, but it's ingrained. These are stories told at the most personal levels by your grandma, and it is a human link that you can't forget," he said.

Young Armenian activists are the new faces pushing forward a decades-old effort to get the US government to officially acknowledge the massacre as a genocide, and also to seek an apology and reparations from the Turkish government.

They are also increasingly reaching beyond their own cultural group to join forces with people like 52-year-old Jewish community organizer Susie Davidson, who pulled together last Sunday's program with Alemian, Krasa, and Gakuba.

"Reaching out to others alleviates the feeling of suffering and aloneness. It's a natural emotional progression to empathize with other victims of genocide," said Davidson, who became interested in forming intercultural alliances with Armenians after meeting some last year at a "Dream for Darfur" rally at Boston City Hall. The event brought together a mix of genocide survivors to raise attention to the ongoing massacre of an estimated 500,000 people in western Sudan.

"There is a certain strength to be realized from coming together," said Davidson, author of "I Refused to Die," a collection of stories from Boston-area Nazi Holocaust survivors. "The experience is similar, and this can only lead to strength in numbers."

Armenians are eager to collaborate because they hope the suffering of their ancestors can make a difference for the future, said Stepanyan.

Sharistan Melkonian, 39, who works for the Armenian National Committee of Massachusetts, said she feels efforts among the next wave of next-generation Armenian activists are beginning to bear fruit, citing a bruising, high-profile philosophical battle last year with the Anti-Defamation League over the national Jewish group's refusal to formally recognize the Armenian genocide.

More than a dozen local communities dumped the Anti-Defamation League's "No Place for Hate" antiprejudice program in protest of the organization's reticence, and earlier this month the Massachusetts Municipal Association broke off its sponsorship of the program.

"I do feel like we are making a difference," said Melkonian.

Beth Israel's Nazarian said he hopes he can raise his own infant son in a country that has learned lessons from Armenia's painful history.

"I'm hopeful that when he's old enough to understand we won't still be fighting for recognition," he said. "I can teach him about the history and culture, and any time he sees injustice - especially of such magnitude - he needs to do something about it."

One of the few Armenian survivors healthy enough to attend the gathering on Sunday, Alemian was orphaned as a small child. Frail and wheelchair-bound, her voice ringing with anguish, she showed the crowd of more than 100 people a photograph of her late parents - the only way she has to remember their faces.

Krasa, a Czech Jew, was imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp by German Nazis, who exterminated an estimated 6 million Jews between 1937 and 1945.

He survived the camp, but more than 90,000 Jews died there.

"Everybody says, 'Never again,' but we see how power-hungry men can start a genocide," said Krasa, referring to post-World War II genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Africa.

Gakuba was only 8 when her family was chased into hiding during the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Rwandans were murdered over a 100-day period.

She watched armed men shoot her 12-year-old brother to death while she and her siblings huddled for safety in a swamp.

Now studying political science at the University of New Hampshire, she speaks about her experiences at genocide-awareness events.

As a child, Gakuba believed the horror around her "was happening all over the world, that's why nothing was being done to stop it. You can imagine how disappointed I was when I found it wasn't," she said ruefully.

As an adult, she is more sober and cynical about the cruelty she witnessed, and about the world's indifference.

"I guess I am hopeful. I am crossing my fingers that something might get done. But if nobody is going to do something to stop [genocide], they should stop saying they will," said Gakuba.

"It gives people a false sense of security."

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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