Saturday, August 31, 2013

Birth of William Saroyan - August 31, 1908

William Saroyan was, without discussion, the most important name of Armenian origin in American literature and, in the 1930s and 1940s, one of its dominant names. For this reason, he became an indisputable name of iconic stature among Armenians in America and throughout the world.

His parents, Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, had come to New York in 1905 and after a short stint in Paterson, New Jersey, they settled in Fresno, California, where William was born. His father died in 1911, and Saroyan, along with his brother and sister, was placed in an orphanage in Oakland. In 1916 the family reunited in Fresno, where his mother Takoohi had already secured work at a cannery. He continued his education on his own, supporting himself with various odd jobs.

Saroyan’s first stories appeared in the 1930s, in the English page of Hairenik Daily and then in the Hairenik Weekly (today The Armenian Weekly). He made his breakthrough with the story “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” in Story magazine (1934), which lent its title to his first book in 1935. Several collections followed; by 1939 he had published seven books and the optimist strain of his “Saroyanesque” prose, among the tribulations and trials of the Depression age, had established himself as a leading writer. Many of Saroyan's stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley. My Name is Aram (1940) became an international bestseller and was translated into many languages. His play “The Time of His Life” won him the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award, which he accepted, and the Pulitzer Prize, which he rejected on the grounds that commerce should not judge the arts. It was adapted into a movie in 1948, starring James Cagney.

He had worked on the screenplay for the film “The Human Comedy,” but he was dismissed from the project. He then turned the script into a novel, which he published before the movie’s release, in 1943. The movie won him an Academy Award for Best Story in the same year. It turns out, then, that the movie was the source for the novel and not vice versa. The novel was the source for the homonymous musical of 1983.

Saroyan served in the Army during World War II and was posted to London in 1942. He narrowly avoided a court martial when his novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, was seen as advocating pacifism.

Saroyan worked rapidly, hardly editing his text, and drinking and gambling away much of his earnings. This took a toll on his marriage with actress Carol Marcus (1924–2003), whom he married twice, from 1943-1949 and 1951-1952. They had two children, writer Aram Saroyan (1943) and actress Lucy Saroyan (1946-2003). After their divorce, Carol Marcus married actor Walter Matthau.

Interest in Saroyan’s novels declined after the war; their sentimentalism was harshly criticized. From 1958 onwards, Saroyan mainly resided in Paris. Since the 1950s he mainly published several volumes of memoirs and continued writing plays.

He visited Soviet Armenia for the first time in 1934. His interest for his roots never ceased, as evidenced in his writing. He visited Armenia two more times, in 1960 and 1978, and even visited the birthplace of his parents, Bitlis, in Western Armenia (1964).

Saroyan died in Fresno, of cancer, on May 18, 1981. Half of his ashes were buried in California and the other half was taken to Armenia, according to his will, and buried at Komitas Pantheon in Yerevan. To celebrate his 100th anniversary, a statue of Saroyan was placed in downtown Yerevan.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Adolf Hitler’s Armenian Phrase: “Who, After All, Speaks Today . . .” - August 22, 1939

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had an early awareness of the Armenian Genocide. One of his closest friends and advisors had been Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter (1884-1923), who was German consul in Erzerum in 1915 and had documented the annihilation in several diplomatic reports. He would be killed literally at Hitler’s side during the Beer Hall putsch in Munich (October 1923).

Hitler’s first documented reference to Armenians as a people that had “degenerated” came a year before the ill-fated coup, in November 1922, in a secret meeting with Eduard Scharrer, a former consul-general from Stuttgart and publisher of the newspaper Münchner Neuest Nachrichten. According to Scharrer’s notes, Hitler said:

“A solution for the Jewish question must come. If it is solved reasonably, it will be best for both sides. But if it is not solved reasonably, there are only two possibilities: either the German Volk will degenerate to the level of the Armenians or the Levantines, or a bloody struggle will break out.”

Nine years later, Hitler gave two confidential interviews to Richard Breiting, editor of the Leipziger Neuester Nachrichten, a conservative newspaper, in May and June 1931. (Breiting, who was allowed to take short-hand notes, died in unclear circumstances, probably by the hand of the Gestapo, in 1937.) In the second interview, Hitler announced:

“We intend to introduce a great resettlement policy; we do not wish to go on treading on each other’s toes in Germany. In 1923 little Greece could resettle a million men. Think of the Biblical deportations and the massacres of the Middle Ages (Rosenberg refers to them) and remember the extermination of the Armenians. One eventually reaches the conclusion that masses of men are mere biological plasticine."

The third and most famous reference came on August 22, 1939, one week before the invasion in Poland and the beginning of World War II. Hitler gave two speeches to the supreme commanders and commanding generals at Obersalzberg, which lasted several hours. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the German Abwehr (military intelligence), surreptitiously took notes. The paragraph, included in the second speech, said (Lochner’s translation):

“Our strength consists in our speed and in our brutality. Genghis Khan led millions of women and children to slaughter—with premeditation and a happy heart. History sees in him solely the founder of a state. It’s a matter of indifference to me what a weak western European civilization will say about me. I have issued the command—and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad—that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formation in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space [Lebensraum] which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

A copy of the speech was transmitted to American journalist Louis P. Lochner, who published the English version in his book What About Germany? (1942), while the German original was published for the first time in an émigré German newspaper in Santiago de Chile, Deutsche Blätter, in 1944.

Doubts about the authenticity of this copy (two other sets of notes surfaced, which were introduced by the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials, but did not contain the Armenian reference) have been frequently raised. The consistency of Hitler’s thinking between 1931 and 1939 and the logical deduction that there was no particular reason to manufacture the Armenian reference (Hitler’s thought and intent were clear, even if he had not used it) are enough evidence that the phrase was authentic. It remains a testament to the impunity of the Armenian Genocide in World War I that led to the Jewish Genocide in World War II.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Birth of Megerdich Beshigtashlian - August 18, 1828

Megerdich Beshigtashlian was a pioneering writer and public figure of Western Armenian society, considered the founder of modern lyric poetry among Armenians. He was born in Constantinople, and received his primary education at the school of the Mekhitarist Congregation in the suburb of Pera (today Beyoglu) from 1834-1839. He continued his studies at the Samuel-Moorat school of Padua, in Italy, until 1845. The atmosphere of the Italian liberation movement would greatly impact over his intellectual formation.

He returned to Constantinople and became a widely-sought teacher. He taught Armenian language and literature, as well as French in the Tarkmanchats, Loosavorchian, and Hripsimiants Schools. He was particularly successful in teaching the language to Armenian children who spoke foreign languages. For instance, since the late 1850s he was the Armenian teacher of Serpouhi Vahanian (1842-1901), who at first disdained the language, as she had grown speaking French. However, Beshigtashlian’s patient work engaged her student, who later would become a pioneering feminist writer in Armenian literature, Serpouhi Dussape (after marrying her French music teacher, Paul Dussape, in 1870).

Beshigtashlian is considered the founder of Western Armenian theater on a permanent basis. He organized a theater group in 1856, which started to stage plays in ashkharhapar (Modern Armenian). This was an important advance, as plays were performed in krapar (Classical Armenian), becoming an obstacle for popular success. He wrote various plays with historical subjects, seeking to awaken national feelings among the public. He also translated various pieces from French and Italian with similar subjects. He also wrote musical comedies.

Beshigtashlian was particularly active in the public sphere in the 1860s, with an important role in the preparation and approval of the National Constitution (1863). The writer also participated in the foundation of the Abnegated Society (Antznever Engerootioon), which functioned from 1860-1863 and was devoted to education, but also helped financially and morally the rebels of Zeytoon in 1862. He was also the driving force behind the Alumni Association of the Moorat-Raphaelian school between 1858 and 1868.

However, Beshigtashlian’s main contribution to Armenian literature was his poetry. His output was not very big, some 60 poems, but it was quite varied. His poetry, in Classical and Modern Armenian, touched subjects such as love, nature, and homeland. He wrote children’s poems, elegies, etcetera. He published his first poem in 1849. His two most famous poems, “We Are Brothers” and “Spring,” were later set to music. The first was a call of unity to Western Armenians, while the second was a romantic love song to the homeland. He wrote several poems dedicated to the rebellion of Zeytoon.

Beshigtashlian passed away at the age of 40, on November 29, 1868. He inaugurated a list of famous Armenian poets who died from the “romantic disease”: tuberculosis.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Signature of the Treaty of Sèvres - August 10, 1920

The victory of the Allies in World War I imposed the signature of a series of treaties to end the war and legalize the defeat of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria). The Peace Conference of Paris, which opened in January 1919, prepared a package of treaties. Four treaties were signed with Germany (Versailles, June 1919), Austria (Saint-Germain, September 1919), Bulgaria (Neuilly, November 1919), and Hungary (Trianon, June 1920). The fifth and last was with the Ottoman Empire.

Negotiations about the terms of the treaty with Turkey dragged on until mid-1920. They started at the Peace Conference, continued at the Conference of London (February 1920), and took definite shape only after the Prime Minister’s meeting at the San Remo Conference (April 1920). The delay was the result of the inability of the triumphant powers to come to an agreement, and in turn, this allowed the beginning and development of the Turkish national movement, which by the time of the signature of the Treaty of Sevres was seriously challenging the authority of the Ottoman government.

The treaty was signed in an exhibition room at the famous porcelain factory in Sèvres, outside Paris. It was signed by Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Belgium, Greece, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Armenia, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Hejaz, on one side, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Avetis Aharonian, as President of the Delegation of the Republic, signed on behalf of Armenia.

The treaty liquidated the Ottoman Empire. In Asia, Turkey renounced sovereignty over Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine (including Jordan), which became British mandates; Syria (including Lebanon), which became a French mandate; and the kingdom of Hejaz (now Saudi Arabia). Turkey retained Anatolia but was to grant autonomy to Kurdistan. Armenia became a separate republic, and Smyrna (modern Izmir) and its environs were placed under Greek administration pending a plebiscite to determine its permanent status.

In Europe, Turkey ceded parts of Eastern Thrace and certain Aegean islands to Greece, and the Dodecanese and Rhodes to Italy, retaining only Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and its environs, including the Zone of the Straits (Dardanelles and Bosphorus), which was neutralized and internationalized.

Armenia was recognized de jure as an independent republic by Turkey. Both countries agreed to leave the delimitation of the borders in the provinces of Erzerum, Trabizond, Van, and Bitlis to the arbitral award of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, including his proposals for an outlet to the Black Sea for Armenia and the demilitarization of the border. (The award was presented to the Allied powers on November 22, 1920, and left to Armenia a territory of 90,000 square kilometers, which, including the actual territory of the independent republic, would become a total of 161,730 square kilometers.) The Armenian borders with Azerbaijan and Georgia would be resolved through direct negotiations among the sides. The Ottoman law of 1915 on abandoned property was declared illegal, while the Ottoman government ensured its cooperation to deliver war criminals, including people responsible for massacres, to military courts and to find and rescue people who had disappeared or been deprived of their liberty after November 1914.

The treaty was accepted by the government of Sultan Mehmed VI at Istanbul but was rejected by the rival nationalist government of Kemal Atatürk at Ankara. Atatürk's separate treaty with the USSR and his subsequent victory over Greece during the “war of independence” forced the Allies to negotiate a new treaty in 1923 (Treaty of Lausanne), where the Treaty of Sevres was superseded. Nevertheless, Wilson’s award became law of the land, while the U.S. Congress never ratified the Treaty of Lausanne.

The Treaty of Sevres, despite having never been put into practice, remains grounds for Armenian territorial reclamations.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Birth of Gurgen Mahari - August 1, 1903

Modern Armenian literature had three major enemies: tuberculosis, Turkish genocide, and Stalinist repression. The so-called “second April 24” harvested the lives of many remarkable Armenian intellectuals and public figures between 1936 and 1938, who were shot, died in prison, or in exile. Many others suffered short or long years in prison, labor camps, internal exile, and were fortunate enough to survive until the death of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin when they returned.

Poet and novelist Gurgen Mahari (Ajemian) was born in Van. His father, Krikor Ajemian, was an important member of the Armenagan Party (the first Armenian political party, founded in Van in 1885). Mahari became an orphan in 1907, when his father was shot by his brother-in-law, an A.R.F. member, in a confusing incident. In 1915, after the heroic self-defense of Van during the genocide, the future writer migrated to Eastern Armenia with his family. They lost each other on the road of exile, and Mahari lived in orphanages in Dilijan and Yerevan until he found his family again.

He published his first poems in the press during the first republic, and later, in the Soviet period, he studied at Yerevan State University. He published five collections of poetry and short stories between 1924 and 1931, but his fame in the 1930s was cemented by the first two books of his biographical trilogy, “Childhood” and “Adolescence” (1930). Meanwhile, he had married and had a son. He became a member of the Writers Union of Armenia in 1934.

The wave of repression unleashed in Armenia after the assassination of Aghasi Khanjian in 1936 reached Mahari too. Trumped-up charges were brought against him and he was condemned to a ten-year exile from 1936-1946 in Siberia. After returning to Yerevan, in 1948 he was condemned, through new trumped-up charges, to life exile. In Siberia, he met Lithuanian student Antonina Povilaitite, who had also been condemned to life exile. They married and lived with the hope of change. Stalin died in 1953, and Mahari and his wife, together with their newly-born daughter, managed to return to Yerevan in 1954. Their daughter would die shortly thereafter, and they would later have a son.

After seventeen years of exile, the writer returned to his homeland in bad health, but with the inner strength to continue his writing. He became one of the leading voices in the literary life of Armenia during the 1950s and 1960s. He published the third part of his trilogy, “On the Eve of Youth” (1956), a volume of poetry in 1959 and a collection of short stories, “The Voice of Silence” (1962), where he reflected the Siberian years. Another Siberian memoir, “Barbed Wire in Flower,” was first published posthumously in the weekly “Nayiri” of Beirut (1971); it was published in Yerevan only in 1988. He received the title of Emeritus Cultural Activist of Armenia in 1965.

Mahari published his most important book, the novel “Burning Orchards,” in 1966 (there is a translation in English), an account of Armenian life in Van before World War I, during the self-defense of the city, and afterwards. It created a lively controversy because of some of his views, and he was forced to rewrite it; the second version was published in 1979 in a curtailed form. The final edition was only published in 2004, edited by Grigor Achemyan, Mahari’s eldest son, who has published several unpublished volumes and has prepared an edition of unpublished works in thirteen volumes.

Gurgen Mahari passed away in Palanga (Lithuania), on June 17, 1969, and was buried in Yerevan. He concluded one of his autobiographical works with a characteristic paragraph: “[If] the terrible and omnipotent Jehovah entered this moment, sat in front of me, lit a cigarette and said: ‘I’m giving you a second life; trace the path of your second life from cradle to tomb, as you wish, and your wish will be accomplished . . . How would you like to live?,’ I would answer him, without hesitation: 'Exactly as I lived it.'