When I was a child, my grandfather often told me about the Second World War. While he sat next to me, coloring or teaching me letters of the alphabet, he would sneak in a story about his days in the Soviet army. He would tell me about his post as a commander of a marine unit and how his forces liberated an Austrian town under Nazi occupation.
He mentioned the friends he had lost and how he himself had escaped that fate thanks to a Jewish doctor who performed a lifesaving surgery on him. Many years later I would study World War II in history courses, yet few of the details of what I learned in classes stayed with me the same way that my grandfather’s stories did. Although I was too young to understand at the time and regret not having learned more from my grandfather, as a result of interning at the USC Shoah Foundation - The Institute for Visual History and Education, I became aware of the power of personal narrative.
The stories and emotions I witnessed as I watched Holocaust eyewitness testimonies for the first time reminded me of my grandfather and awoke in me the type of feeling that textbooks rarely did. Numbers transformed into faces that I could relate to and commit to memory. These were not just statistics, they were human beings who had been deeply scarred by their traumatic experiences and whose words and body language demonstrated this pain. I was truly impacted by these testimonies and in order to understand the experiences of Armenian Genocide victims, I sought out testimonies from survivors.
At the time, I had to travel to Canada and Armenia, where archives of Armenian Genocide video testimonies provided me with a more tangible understanding of Armenian experiences before, during and after the 1915 Genocide. But students and scholars will soon have this resource right at their fingertips.
On April 21, 2014 the Armenian Film Foundation delivered a collection of more than 400 digitized Armenian Genocide testimonies to the USC Shoah Foundation. The goal is to integrate these testimonies into the Visual History Archive by 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Seeing Armenian Genocide survivors speak about their experiences gives students of history, psychology, politics and any other discipline the opportunity to hear personal narratives from those who themselves walked through the Syrian Desert with only their clothes on their backs, separated from all their family members and who were subjected to unspeakable torture.
Maya Angelou, a great American author has said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” We can easily forget details or facts about history, but we will never forget the faces and voices of survivors and witnesses and how they made us feel as they told their story. And by awakening sympathy and understanding, the collection of Armenian Genocide testimonies, along with other testimony collections, will be invaluable in promoting tolerance and preventing future atrocities.