April 24 is one of the most sober days on the calendar for the Armenian community. Armenian Genocide Memorial Day recognizes the onset in 1915 of the campaign of extermination in the Ottoman Empire, modern-day Turkey, that killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians.
Ara Najarian, a city councilman from Glendale, said his great-grandmother drowned herself in the Euphrates River rather than be assaulted and raped by soldiers. His grandfather survived but was an orphan raised by a Muslim Arab family before he discovered his Armenian heritage. His other grandfather also was orphaned by the atrocities and witnessed beheadings.
“Everyone has a story,” Najarian said of members of the Armenian-American diaspora after the genocide, which the government of Turkey still denies occurred.
This year, however, as Armenians gather to commemorate the 103rd anniversary of the onset of the genocide, they will be able to look forward as well as back. With the Glendale City Council’s April 17 approval of site plans and a lease of up to 95 years, a “tipping point” was reached, according to Najarian, for the building of an Armenian-American Museum in downtown Glendale.
In just three years since a museum committee was created, the path is open for the creation of a $30 million, 59,800-square-foot, three-story facility. The museum, on the southwest corner of Glendale’s Central Park Paseo, will be an educational and cultural center with permanent and traveling exhibits, a performing arts theater, demonstration kitchen, archives, cafe and museum store.
Los Angeles County is home to the largest Armenian community in the United States and second largest in the world outside of Armenian Russia. Although census figures estimate 166,000 of Armenian descent live in Los Angeles, many in the Armenian community feel that number could be two or three times that. Glendale — where some estimates put the Armenian population at 30 percent to 40 percent — is its hub, with numerous Armenian-American educational, religious, cultural and professional organizations.
While there have been discussions for decades about creating something to commemorate the Armenian-American experience and remember the genocide, it has been 50 years since the Armenian Genocide Martyrs Monument in Bicknell Park in Montebello was erected.
It wasn’t until a committee was formed to celebrate the centennial of the Genocide Memorial Day that the plan for the Glendale museum gained traction. According to Berdj Karapetian, who chairs the executive committee for the museum, the centennial committee initially mulled memorials with lighting or water before deciding to go big with the museum.
“What we landed on was a project that would leave a legacy,” Karapetian says. “We look at this more as a way to help all different immigrant populations have a better appreciation and collaboration with each other.”
Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, said it was important that the museum be forward-looking and inclusive. “My perspective from day one with the 100th anniversary committee was to create a new chapter in the life of our community. It’s to leave a new legacy not just for our community but the community at large. We want to make sure we’re fully integrating.”
For that reason, leaders say, they will be reaching out to different immigrant and diaspora communities to use the museum for displays from their cultures. And — note to foodie fans of international cuisines — that includes the demonstration kitchen.
Derderian said the museum will send “a clear signal that we are builders. I am very proud of my community.”
The process has not been hiccup-free, but obstacles that might have paralyzed such a project in other communities were quickly overcome.
At its new location, the museum joins the Central Library and the Adult Recreation Center on the Central Park block. Najarian says although the museum will take up about 40,000 to 50,000 square feet of park land, the city will actually gain green space by converting parking lots into open land. Of the existing park space, Najarian said, “It wasn’t used in a very efficient way. This will make it a much more usable area.”
While building on public land can be controversial, Najarian says there has been virtually no opposition to the museum. “It was pretty much a natural thing to move forward. The committee was dedicated and made it easy for us.”
Karapetian said the goal is to begin construction in the summer of 2019 and open in 2022. The funding for the museum is primarily coming from private donations, but the state provided a $4 million grant.
For all the talk of creating new vistas, organizers don’t deny that the museum and Armenian-American experience are rooted in the genocide. To Derderian, who leads the largest such diocese outside of Armenia with more than 1 million, that is something that can never be forgotten and is ever-present in his congregation. “If we are not aware, there will be dust on history and our souls.”
To Karapetian, who lost family to the genocide, the shared experience is inescapable. “You feel it differently,” he said. “It’s something inside you telling you you have to fight against the harshest bullying that exists.”
Armenian Genocide Memorial Day remembers the date in 1915, also called Red Sunday, when more than 200 leaders and intellectuals in the Armenian community in Istanbul (then Constantinople) were rounded up and sent to detention camps.
Over the ensuing eight years, it is estimated that 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire and refugees in nearby countries were killed. Men were slaughtered wholesale or conscripted into forced labor. Women, children and elderly were deported, often via forced death marches through the Syrian desert.
Many consider the systematic extermination to be the first modern genocide — the word genocide was coined by historian Raphael Lemkin to describe the event. To this day, the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan refuse to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Although 48 of 50 states in the United States officially recognize the genocide, along with 29 countries and countless religious, ethnic and social groups, the United States has shied away from officially recognizing the events as genocide.
In 1975, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution designating April 24 as a National Day of Remembrance of Man’s Inhumanity to Man, commemorating victims of genocide, particularly Armenians, but the resolution failed to pass the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Since 1997, California has recognized April 24 as a Day of Remembrance for the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923, and for the victims of the Sumgait Pogroms of 1988 and Baku Riots of 1990.
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Although the museum’s purpose is not to advocate for official government recognition of the genocide, its mere existence may be helpful. “We hope one day the U.S. government realizes it doesn’t have to cave in when it comes to Turkey,” Karapetian said.
Najarian said although most people accept the genocide as fact, “I think the needle is moving but very slowly at the executive level. There is still a lot of lobbying by the Turks.”
However, in the absence of affecting global politics, the museum will fight against modern genocide with its simple message. “This will be an education where we can teach that genocide should never happen,” Derderian said. “We have to learn to live together and share our God-given talents to distance ourselves from hatred and love one another."
For more information on the museum, go to ArmenianAmericanMuseum.org.