Although the Armenian genocide at the hand of Ottoman Turks occurred almost exactly 100 years ago, I have avoided coming to Turkey partly because of feelings similar to those I had when first traveling through Germany in 1975. Back then, as I felt the gentle swaying of the train and watched the beautiful German landscape slip past me, I couldn’t help but imagine myself being shipped off to a camp to be gassed, my lifeless body then piled in a mound with so many others who shared my fate. Even though that occurred 30 years after the holocaust ended, as a 21-year-old I couldn’t help but feel the fear that echoed inside me through the generations. Now, in Turkey, remembering stories of the murder of more than a million Armenians as the world looked away, I know the feelings that I share with my Armenian comrades are irrational; it is not as though the Turks living here today had anything to do with the behavior of their progenitors nearly a century ago.
In the book of Exodus we are told that the sins of the fathers will be visited on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. Somewhat mysteriously, future generations bear the weight of their ancestors’ sins. But that is certainly not to say they are responsible for their sins, as Ezekial clarified: The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
For many, apologizing for the behavior of ancestors seems altogether silly. But for others, it is an essential part of a healing process. In spite of the flak he received for it, when Bill Clinton apologized for American slavery, some healing occurred. When Tony Blair apologized for the Irish famine, when the Pope repented for the behavior of the Catholic Church during the holocaust, when the Japanese prime minister apologized for the Second World War, some healing occurred.
Years ago, when teaching a family therapy course at Antioch, I discussed the Armenian genocide in class. Afterward, a student came up to me and mentioned to me that she was Turkish. In fact, her father was a Turkish ambassador. She told me that I should be aware that there is also a Turkish side to the story. Ever since, I have honestly struggled to learn the Turkish side of the story, just as I have struggled to understand the roots of the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. There may be explanations, but I really don’t know that there ever can be an “other side” to genocide.
Healing occurs because genuine apologies make the world a safer place. Safety comes when we know ourselves and take responsibility for the harm that we are capable of perpetrating. Or, in the words of the great philosopher Charles Shulz, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Now, sitting on the terrace of my hotel room, overlooking the Bosporus on a warm, sunny spring morning in Istanbul, I think about the kindness, generosity, and sweetness of the four new Turkish friends who chose to spend their hard-earned day off with us yesterday. One of them proclaimed in a discussion about the enmity that resulted after 9/11 and the subsequent backlash that “terrorism has no religion.”
In six days from now elections will be held that will likely keep Turkey’s president in power. It is unlikely that this government will reverse its policy of selective memory and move toward truth or reconciliation. That is sad, but eternal optimist that I am, I can only hope that over time governments will come to better represent the kindness and compassion of the people they govern.
–written in April 2014 while in Istanbul on my way to Armenia