Campus staffer, in Turkey, marks Armenian genocide centennial

When Roxanne Makasdjian writes that “my whole life has led me to this moment,” she means the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide — being marked today in Armenia itself and throughout the Armenian diaspora — and her presence this week at commemorative gatherings in Turkey, including in her ancestors’ homeland in that country’s eastern region.

Roxanne Makasdjian

Roxanne Makasdjian

The UC Berkeley staffer is there, with other Armenian Americans, to honor victims and survivors of the early 20th century extermination of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces, and to demand that the Turkish government officially recognize the genocide.

“The government has reacted strongly to the pope’s mass and speech regarding the genocide, as well as the European Parliament’s resolution commemorating it,” she reports from Istanbul. “The story is on the news and talk shows constantly.”

Since arriving in Istanbul earlier this week, Makasdjian — who manages broadcast communications in the campus’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs — has taken part in press events and cultural happenings keyed to the centennial. After touring Armenian historic sites in Istanbul and holding commemorative gatherings in the city, she is traveling east “into the historic Armenian lands.”

All four of Makasdjian’s grandparents came from “the same region of historic Armenia, Karpert (now called Harpoort),” she says, and all survived what is known in Armenian as Medz Yegher, or “the great crime,” thanks to luck, sympathetic neighbors “and/or great personal ingenuity and bravery (not unlike all the survivors),” she says.

Her grandparents ended up in France and eventually the United States. Makasdjian grew up in Los Angeles, where she went to public elementary school, then Armenian schools and UCLA, before earning her master’s degree at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

“Although I had an ‘all-American’ childhood,” she says, “my family was also involved in Armenian-American community life” — joining Armenian youth organizations, athletic and performance groups and doing advocacy work.

These days Makasdjian is involved in the Genocide Education Project, which assists teachers in incorporating the Armenian genocide into their curriculum, particularly in 10th grade world history courses. “We also help teachers understand the phenomenon of genocide” and “recognize parallels between the Armenian case, the first genocide of the modern era,” and others that followed, she says.

Before leaving for Turkey, Makasdjian wrote the following piece about her journey:

It feels like my whole life has led me to this moment, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. As a granddaughter of genocide survivors, my life has been profoundly affected by it.

lighting candles in church

Roxanne Makasdjian lights a commemorative candle in the St. James Armenian church in Istanbul.

Beginning on April 24, 1915, the Turkish government carried out the first genocide of the modern era, murdering more than half of the Armenian population living on their historic homeland. All their properties were given to Turks, and until today, Turkey denies this great crime. With each passing decade, the wound has only worsened, and deeply unsettling questions continue to vex descendants like me.

Question: By the genocide’s centennial, will Turkey acknowledge it and begin the process of atonement and reconciliation? Will our U.S. president use the definitive word “genocide” on commemoration day? Will my teenage son and his generation finally be relieved of the burden of demanding recognition? Or will he endure more denial and complicity by those who’d say, “Just get over it!” — giving credence to Hitler’s rhetorical question: “After all, who today, remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”

The immediate question for my family this year was, “Where should we be on commemoration day?” In San Francisco at Mt. Davidson Cross, the memorial our community preserved to thank the city for welcoming our survivors a century ago? In Armenia, that tiny remnant that avoided the genocide? Or in Turkey, showing the government they have not completely succeeded?

We ended up choosing all three: My son will be in San Francisco, passing out flyers to educate his schoolmates; my husband will be in Armenia, with his ethnic countrymen at the genocide memorial; and I’ll be in Turkey, reclaiming my connection to my ancestral homeland and giving voice to the lifetime of unanswered questions that have led me there.