“Time heals all wounds,” they say.
It’s difficult to find any other element in our daily lives that possesses the sobering effect that time does. It tames emotions and calms nerves. It allows for much needed reflection and analysis. And, perhaps most importantly, it brings with it resolution and closure. By any account, a century would be more than enough time to heal even the deepest wound, but, surprisingly, time’s impact isn’t always as thorough as we’d expect it to be.
The late Dr. J. Michael Hagopian was fully cognizant of time’s limitations. When he passed away in December 2010 at the age of 97, his wounds hadn’t yet healed. He was still busy doing what he had done best; using filmmaking as a tool to tell the world what had happened to him and his people. Unfortunately, the world didn’t always listen.
Hagopian was barely 3 years-old when it happened – the targeted destruction of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Able-bodied men were isolated and murdered and community leaders, educators, and clergy were rounded up and slaughtered. The rest of the population – the elderly, women and children – were led through the “open air concentration camps” of the Syrian deserts where, as one contemporary observer described, “in a few days, what had been a procession of normal human beings became a stumbling horde of dust-covered skeletons, ravenously looking for scraps of food, eating any offal that came their way, crazed by the hideous sights that filled every hour of their existence, sick with all the diseases that accompany such hardships and privations, but still prodded on and on by the whips and clubs and bayonets of their executioners.” The treatment of the Armenians was so extreme that it would help inspire the creation of a new word, genocide.
Almost as quickly as the killings started, the perpetrators began using denial as a shield. When the facts were simply too overwhelming and denial not an option, they would place blame on the victims – “they deserved it because [enter excuse here].” Simply put, their motto became, “it never happened, and what did happen wasn’t our fault.” In adopting this attitude, the perpetrators and their heirs prolonged the process of genocide, and, as a result, the wounds associated with the experience were never allowed to fully heal.
Over the course of his career, Hagopian filmed the testimonies of over 400 survivors and eyewitnesses to the Armenian Genocide. Facing denial and distortion, he understood that these accounts would help set the record straight. When I interviewed him shortly before his passing, he told me, “my main aim in life…was to [capture] our history for the future…I hope that these films can be used as testimony in some future world court. I’m sure that someday the Armenians will have an opportunity to confront the Turks…at that time; there will be no survivors left. The only ones we have are on film.”
I was attracted to Hagopian’s work because of my own family history – my grandfather was also a child during the genocide and managed to survive the horrors of 1915. And, like Hagopian, he too left us before his wounds could completely heal. I’m hopeful that my work at USC Shoah Foundation to preserve the testimonies Hagopian collected will help inform many generations to come, reversing the trend of denial, and allowing the wounds that we’ve inherited to fully heal.