Learning from the past

4/21/2005 7:57:45 AM

Peter Bilezikian doesn't like to talk about the past. He used to have nightmares of Turkish soldiers pulling out his teeth and gouging out his eyes when he was a boy, and although the images stopped long ago, he is visibly affected when recalling his life during the Armenian Genocide.

But he recently gave an oral history of his trials, and someday soon, it will be available for the whole world to hear.

On Sunday, the Armenian Library and Museum of America hosted a presentation about putting oral histories online as part of their commemoration of the genocide. As fewer and fewer survivors remain, it is important to make sure their tales are accessible to as many people as possible, according to museum spokesman Alan Manoian.

"If we can get online, then people can, at their own comfort and leisure and pace, go deep into understanding the genocide," he said.

The genocide refers to a period from 1915-23 in Turkey when, by some estimates, 1 million Armenians were killed by Turks. Another million are reported to have been deported.

Armenian Genocide survivors in general have been reluctant to speak about their experiences, Bilezikian said, for fear of reprisals against family members still living in Turkey. But oral histories offer a powerful view that other sources leave out, according to Bethel Charkoudian, Bilezikian's daughter.

"These are eyewitness accounts interpreted through people who experienced suffering. They're not intellectual exercises," she said. "It's like post-traumatic stress syndrome. They remember every detail."

Bilezikian, who is 92 years old and lives in Newton, came to America in 1922 when he was 10 years old. He recalled watching his mother sign a document denying his family owned any property in Turkey, making it impossible to go back to claim the vineyards they once owned. He described seeing children with swollen bellies keel over in the streets, dying of hunger.

"I used to think it was a natural thing to die of starvation," he said. "Feeling hungry was nothing unusual."

The children of survivors have been more interested in their parents' stories than the parents often are, Charkoudian said. She took oral histories from many community members 30 years ago, but her father refused to talk with her. Only recently did he give a history to Roger Hagopian, a documentary filmmaker and second-generation Armenian.

"We're just trying to keep the story alive," Hagopian said. "It doesn't hurt us as much to go back."

But movies are hard to copy, as are the audiotapes that Charkoudian used to record her histories. The tapes had to be carefully stored and used infrequently to prevent wear and tear, she said, and she was constantly worried about them breaking and a survivor's story being lost forever.

Columbia University is trying to make survivors' histories more permanent by moving them beyond physical damage -- in cyberspace. Their Armenian Oral History Archive is placing its transcriptions and recordings on the Web, with the ultimate goal by next year of a searchable database for its collection of more than 140 interviews, according to archive curator Varoujan Froundjian.

"If a student is writing an essay about the genocide, just typing into Google will bring him to the archives and help him get the details," Froundjian said.

Even though her father does not like to dwell on the past, Charkoudian thinks it is important to keep his history alive. Her children are interested in their roots, and genocide is still a scourge today, she said.

"Every generation has its genocide," she said. "It happened in Rwanda, it's happening in Sudan ... people are only now just starting to take a political stance against it."

Dan Atkinson can be reached at datkinso@cnc.com.

Armenian Genocide commemoration events

The Greater Boston Committee for the Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, an umbrella organization of all area churches and major civic groups, announces the following communitywide commemoration events for the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. All events are free and open to the public, unless otherwise noted. For more information and periodic updates, log on to weremember1915.org.

"The Road to Redemption: Memories of the 1915 Armenian Genocide" -- Thursday, April 21, at 7:30 p.m., at Boston University's Morse Auditorium, 602 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. Presented by the Greater Boston Committee for the Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.

Massachusetts State House Commemoration -- Friday, April 22, at 11 a.m., in the Chamber of the House of Representatives, followed by an informal reception in the Great Hall. George Keverian, former Speaker of the House, will be honored for his service and his respect of the state's Armenian community.

Ecumenical Service and Memorial Service -- Saturday, April 23, at 6:45 p.m., at Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, 145 Brattle St., Cambridge. A service for 250 Armenian intellectuals who perished on April 24, 1915. Presented by the Honorable Clergy of Boston Armenian Churches.

Requiem and Memorial Concert for the 90th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide -- Saturday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m., at Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church. Presented by Erevan Choral Society, under the direction of the Very Rev. Oshagan Minassian.

Rally to Commemorate the Armenian Genocide in New York -- Sunday, April 24. Buses depart from St. James and St. Stephen's Armenian Churches in Watertown to Times Square, for those wishing to take part in the rally to commemorate the genocide and denounce the denials made by the Turkish government.

The Films of J. Michael Hagopian -- Friday, April 29 and May 6, various times, at Kendall Square Cinema, 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge. Screenings of "Germany and the Secret Genocide" and "Voices from the Lake." Presented by the Greater Boston Committee for the Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, with cooperation of Kendall Square Cinema. Tickets are $5.