Originally Posted on the Huffington Post UK, 28 December 2011
In almost every memorial site dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, one finds sections honoring non-Jews who saved Jews from extermination. They are referred to as 'righteous among the nations' or righteous gentiles. The movie Schiendler's List was one account of such a story. A new book, the Lion's Shadow, recounts the story of another righteous gentile, Abdol-Hossein Sardari, an Iranian Muslim diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from a certain death.
Honouring heroism of non-Jews universalises the memory of the Holocaust and ensures that we do not simply see horrific events of WWII as an episode of evil Germans killing Jews. It helps us locate it within its historical setting and draw lessons for the future; lessons of how a continent can get carried away and lead millions of people to their deaths and how even in the most coercive settings, we human beings can rise up to a higher moral level.
Sadly, I have never seen any such section honouring Turks who risked their lives to save their Armenian friends and neighbors in all of the Armenian memorial sites I have seen. There were, however, sections honouring non-Armenians who have helped the Armenian cause in raising the issue of 1915 massacres. Only a handful of Armenian historians mention them, often in passing. Yet, we do see their traces in almost all biographies written by surviving Armenians.
Whenever I raised this with various Armenian activists and academics, I got two main responses. The most common one was relativization; well, yes, there were very few Turks who helped Armenians, but most of them did so to make money or even adopt the young kids so as to use them as free labor. Thus, their acts or their presence in the complex web of history was placed back into the neat and clear category of the eternal perpetrator Turk.
The second most common one was refusal; as long as Turks refuse to acknowledge what happened in 1915 as genocide, no one should ask Armenians to honour or sing praises of Turks; to do so will be glorifying the Turks and victimizing the Armenians further. Sadly, the same refusal to break down the a-historical category of the 'evil' Turk we see in relativization is also at play in refusal, albeit in a morally coated discourse.
Both of these responses are fundamentally flawed. First of all, the greatest portion of Armenians who survived the massacres and deportations did so with the help of people around them, may they be Turks or Kurds . And yes, while surviving children and woman might have been remarried or as it is with every orphan or poor kid in rural life worked as part of being offered shelter, there were many who simply had no motivation other than the desire to protect innocent people.
Secondly, at the pure moral level, it is a complete moral failure not being able to thank or respect or honour those who chose to do right thing and took serious personal risks. To say that one will do the morally right thing if only when someone else do a morally right thing completely undermines and destroys the morality it demands to start with. An act is moral and worthy on its own, not because another act is required in return.
Thirdly, honouring such Turks does not take away or diminish the depth and scope of hundreds of thousands Armenians who perished during the turbulent collapse of an empire. Far from it; it enables their suffering to be part of a common human history that can be shared and mourned for and remembered by not only Armenians today, but also the entire world, including the Turks. This makes sure that history does not remain the collective memory of a particular group in conflict with another's, but an episode, which we can co-process and own.
Currently the Armenian activists seem more resolved to communicate their hurts and pasts to everyone in the world but the Turkish public. Yet, they don't realize that unless the Turkish public sees their pain and urges the Turkish government to act, no Turkish government can ever address 1915 and no amount of legislations passed at world parliaments will bring us a step closer to absolution and acknowledgement. Their misguided efforts find their mimesis in over zealous Turkish activists, who see demonizaton and judgment of an entire group of people in calls for facing the past and vehemently refuse to accept it.
It is high time to bring the conversation to Anatolia, not to Washington DC or Paris, and find ways to make the past an integral part of the story of this land. And in that process, honoring Turks who saved Armenians would be a major break through. It will depolarise an extremely intense conversation and help us to discover the deep common humanity we all share.