April 25, 2012

The real legacy of the victims of the Armenian Genocide

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April 24 marks the Armenian massacre and deportation from the Ottoman Empire.

On April 24th, the Armenians in particular and the world at large commemorate the systematic massacre and deportation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.  The date is somewhat arbitrary, coinciding with an order given on April 24th, 1915, by the Ottoman authorities to arrest some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders, which by and large, opened the gates of hell.

To be sure, the forced death marches and brutal mass murders resulted in the death of 1,500,000 Armenians.

This unfathomable loss has created a huge void in the collective conscience of the Armenian people.  In Hebrew, the world “chalal” is used to describe a “slain person”, someone who died a “sudden, unnatural death”. “Chalal” also means “space”, or “void”, and this is exactly what all Armenians feel about their murdered ancestors.

As a son of the Armenian diaspora, I can say that each and every Armenian senses a tremendous “void”, which cannot be easily described by words.  I am sure this is something that the Jewish people can easily relate to, after suffering so much persecution, pogroms and the Holocaust. The Israelis too, who face an endless war and have paid such a dear price in terms of fallen soldiers and even civilians targeted by terrorism, would understand this dark sensation.

A few months ago, when I assumed my duties as Chairman of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, I started to learn first-hand what makes this organization so special. Its uniqueness lies in  the emphasis it places on the positive rather than the negative. From its very inception, ever since my friend Baruch Tenembaum, together with the late US Congressman and Holocaust survivor, Tom Lantos,have founded this NGO, they have focused on the saviors of victims of the Shoah, shedding light on their magnificent feats, unveiling their unknown stories of heroism. Others deal with the atrocities of the Nazis, and that is very well, needless to say, but the Wallenberg Foundation dedicates its mission to the saviors, to make their stories know and to thank them for having made a difference.

All my life I have upheld this philosophy. As an entrepreneur, I believe in building a better reality in which prosperity and human values are intimately intertwined.

Do not misunderstand me. The past is of cardinal importance. The souls of the 1,500,000 Armenians who were massacred in the beginning of the previous century, are entrenched in the hearts of all people of good will. Their voices can be heard loud and clear.

Negating the evil is preposterous. But this is not a matter of semantics or of legislation. A definition will not bring them back to life and a law will not punish the perpetrators.

Objective historians, jurists and scholars should analyze the tragic events of 1915 in a scientific fashion. Finger-pointing is a futile exercise. Same as the Germans of today are not to blame for the sins of their forefathers, we should not blame this generation of Turks. At the same time, they – the Turks – should not be afraid of recognizing the wrongs of the Ottoman Empire. This would make a great service not only to the Armenians, but above all to the Turks themselves.

As far as Armenia and Armenians are concerned, dwelling with the past without a clear vision of the future is pointless.  Geography has created a landlocked Armenia whilst its tragic history has given birth to a landlocked people, slave of its past.

The virtual wall separating Turkey and Armenia should be torn down and replaced by millions of bridges. These two neighbors deserve to build up a shared vision of peace, co-existence and prosperity. This is the only way to start healing the wounds and to shatter into pieces the poisoned atmosphere. New relationships will be established in a gradual fashion, leading to a new and common narrative that will replace almost 100 years of mistrust and hatred. New experiences will become a new reality worth living.

Following Raoul Wallenberg’s legacy and example, our foundation has launched a number of grassroots initiatives aimed precisely at creating bridges of understanding, dialog and mutual respect between the peoples of Turkey and Armenia.

At the outset, we have created a literary contest for University students from both countries, who will write essays around this very subject of bridge-building between the two peoples. For obvious reasons, engaging the young generations is of utmost importance.

This will be followed by further projects, involving scientists, artists and professionals from both nations.  They will sit together and exchange views. They will talk to each other like good neighbors do.

This is my personal vision and I am privileged to have the backing of the Wallenberg Foundation.

So if you ask me what is the legacy of the victims of the Armenian genocide, I think the answer is clear: “Remember us, but don’t forget the living.”

The writer is the Chairman of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a global-reach NGO with offices in New York, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Jerusalem.