Wanted: Stories of Turks who saved their Armenian Neighbors

Published in Turkish Daily News, 15 September

The 20th century is full of things that we wish never happened, but they happened and nothing can undo them. Even though both Plato and Nietzsche urged us to start tabula rasa with a mighty and necessary lie that will enable the youth to forget the past completely, we know all too well that what is left in oblivion is always more present than we would ever want it to be. Forgetting is not an option, if not impossible, but mere remembering alone does not guarantee that things will happen “never again.” The battle we need to fight is not only against “too much forgetting” and “too much remembering,” both of which destroy the present and any chance of a better future, but also against how and what we remember.

“Righteous Gentiles”:

I don't remember at what age I first came to learn about the Holocaust, but I vividly remember what I felt when I read each page Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl wrote. As my academic interests took me deeper into genocides and ethnic violence, my realization that normal people like me had turned out to be mass murderers has shaken my trust completely in my own and human beings' goodness. However, it was also within the same darkness that I have come to find hope in the deep and profound human potential to love and sacrifice for the other.

Hanna Arendt recounted the story of a German soldier, Anton Schmid, who disobeyed his orders and helped the rescue of 250 Jews till his execution by the Nazis. In his last letter to his wife, Schmid told her that he “merely behaved as a human being” when he risked his own life. After sharing the effect of listening to the story of Schmid during the Eichmann trial, Arendt noted; “How utterly different everything would have been in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told."

This is exactly what Holocaust memorials have tried to do. With the Jewish concept of ‘Righteous Gentiles', Jews have found the moral backbone to not only remember the destruction and brutality but also the great courage and virtue that has been showed by non-Jews in risking their own lives to save their Jewish neighbors. There is a section dedicated to them in memorial sites, and Holocaust movies almost always include helpful Gentile characters.

While remembering the human truth in all of its beauty and darkness at the same time, the memory of the Holocaust has moved from being exclusively a Jewish memory. It is now the memory of our old race, the memory of the moment that humanity failed, not just Nazi Germany. It's because it has shifted from being exclusively a memory of ‘perpetrator Nazis' killing ‘Jews', both Jews and Germans and all of us can mourn together for what has happened.

'‘Righteous Turks':

I similarly don't remember when I first came to hear about massacres of Armenians, but I remember how I cried in the memorial in Yerevan for hours for all that has happened. I still shiver with pain each time I see pictures and hear stories of families scattered around the world. However, as I continued to read and reflect on memorial practices and sites, I have come to be increasingly worried that there were hardly any mention of ‘righteous Turks'- Turks who risked their lives to save their Armenian friends or even complete strangers – in the literature and commemorations. This is disturbing, given that a significant portion of Armenians who survived deportations would testify to the roles played by such Turkish friends in their escapes.

Failure to acknowledge the presence of these people not only betrays the truthfulness of the recollected accounts, but also reduces a historical event to its darkest moment without showing us all of its complexities. This failure automatically prepares the ground for dehumanization and stereotyping, which would have us believe the opposite of what we all know about the human condition: the line separating good and evil goes through the heart of each individual and given the right set of conditions we - regardless of race, nationality, gender, education, class and religion – are all vulnerable to commit the most grotesque violence against our neighbors.

For this reason, I have personally begun a web-based initiative, named Project Common Humanity, or PCH, to gather the untold stories of courage, virtue and sacrifice. My humble and limited attempt is in no way meant to undermine the suffering of the victims or even getting involved in debates on whether or not what happened was genocide. My only desire is that as we remember not only the pain but also the human beauty, we will come to see what happened under the broken shadow of Ararat not in terms of ‘Armenians' and ‘Turks', but as ‘our story'.

So if you know any such story, published or not, please consider sharing it with all of us. Visit PCH's amateurish blog and send your stories in Turkish or English. And join me to celebrate what unites us in an age that is obsessed with fixing what separates us.