L-R: Wolf Gruner, Stephen Smith, Evan Backer, Andrea Marootian, Vartkes Yeghiayan. Photo courtesy of AFP
USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research celebrated an important milestone today: its first-ever primary-source acquisition. Thanks to the generous donation of attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan, the Center is now in possession of over 40 boxes of documents from the historic Martin Marootian et al. v. New York Life Insurance Company class action lawsuit.
In 1999, California attorney Yeghiayan made a surprising chance discovery while reading the memoir of former U.S. ambassador to the ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau. Thousands of Armenians had purchased insurance policies from New York Life in the Turkish Ottoman Empire before the Armenian Genocide began in 1915, yet the survivors who attempted to collect on the policies left by their massacred family members were largely refused the money they were owed. New York Life had only paid the heirs of about one third of genocide victims who had purchased insurance before the genocide.
Yeghiayan was determined to file a lawsuit against New York Life to settle these policies with their rightful heirs, but he needed a client who could prove that a member of his or her family who had been murdered in the Armenian Genocide had purchased such a policy. He found one in Martin Marootian, a descendant of Armenian Genocide survivors and victims. Marootian became Yeghiayan’s lead plaintiff because he still had his deceased uncle Setrak Cheytanian’s original New York Life insurance policy documents, along with documentation of how he and his family had tried in vain to collect on it for years.
In 2004, the case was finally settled for $20 million, paving the way for Marootian and other descendants of 2,400 Armenian Genocide victims to finally receive the money they had been owed for nearly 100 years. The settlement also included $3 million earmarked for nine Armenian church and charity groups.
For Yeghiayan, Marootian and the Armenian community, the lawsuit was not just about the money. It was an opportunity to achieve a small measure of justice and public recognition for the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide.
Yeghiayan’s donation of the trial boxes to the Center for Advanced Genocide Research will give students and researchers the opportunity to learn about the case, including the many claimants, as well as the company itself, which employed hundreds of insurance agents to sell life insurance policies to Armenians in Ottoman Turkey before the genocide. The boxes include mostly personal documents from the insurance claimants covered by the class action lawsuit – birth and death certificates, policy papers, family trees, and photographs – as well as court papers.
Yeghiayan was present for today’s event at USC Shoah Foundation, when the boxes were ceremonially handed over to Center director Wolf Gruner. Marootian’s daughter Andrea and grandson Evan Backer also attended (Marootian died in 2011).
The documents reveal a unique and valuable perspective, Yeghiayan said: the observations of the insurance agents working in the Ottoman Empire during and after the genocide, who could see the injustices being committed against the Armenians from an outsider’s perspective. They could see, for example, how Turkish officials tried to collect on the insurance policies, claiming the money belonged to Turkey since the policy holders were dead.
“That is the real story [of the genocide]. It’s not from Armenians, it’s not from the government, it’s from the agents,” Yeghiayan said. “One said, ‘The nerve of these people. They not only go around killing the Armenians, then they come to claim their insurance policy?’”
Gruner said the donation of the New York Life documents is a big step for the Center. It is hopefully the first of many collections of genocide trial papers the Center will receive, which will position the Center as a hub for international scholars interested in researching genocide and law.
He added that he is excited to see what discoveries these scholars make when they start examining the documents.
“I think it is not yet imaginable what will come out of these boxes in the future,” Gruner said. “When we make these documents accessible for research and education, they really come to a new life.”
Stephen Smith, Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation, told Andrea Marootian that the files with her family’s name on them, and all the other files of the 2,400 claimants, represent their lives and who they were as individuals. They are no longer anonymous victims of genocide; at USC Shoah Foundation, they will be remembered.
“At USC Shoah Foundation we treat this file with great care and so does the whole USC community because it’s not just about the case, it’s about the lives behind the case,” he said.