Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: Standing as witness to Armenian martyrs

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian


Published: 04-19-2024 4:47 PM

My sister Gina had the proclamation framed and she displays it prominently on her wall. It means so much to our family. The Proclamation of the City of Northampton marking Armenian Martyrs’ Day, dated April 24, 2018, is signed by then-Mayor David Narkewicz. The proclamation contains appropriately strong language and identifies the massacres — for too long overlooked — as the terrible crimes they were.

“Whereas on April 24, 1915 a mass genocide of the Armenian population began in the Ottoman Turkish Empire, the first genocide in the twentieth century…” the proclamation begins.

It continues, “Whereas our thoughts, offered in memory of the 1.5 million Armenians lost during the genocide, will serve to remind everyone that persecution, torture, and killing must cease.”

On April 24, 2024, local Armenians and our allies will gather together again in downtown Northampton, as we have done every year for the past 29 years (with a brief pause during COVID), to mark Armenian Martyrs’ Day with prayers, Scripture readings, brief reflections, and many hugs. This annual gathering is important to the Armenian community as we look into each other’s dark eyes and know that we share a river of grief that flows through our veins.

My sister Gina and I stand together in the circle remembering our grandparents, Haig and ShenorigAyvazian, and our father Levon Fred Ayvazian, all of whom were survivors of the genocide. Our parents, Fred and Gloria, used to be part of the annual commemoration of Martyrs’ Day but they have both passed on. Our father would cry while he spoke of the “massacres,” as he called them.

Why April 24th? It was on that day in 1915, while the world’s attention was focused on World War I, that the genocide of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks began. On that day, armed men rounded up 300 Armenian political leaders, educators, writers, clergy and dignitaries in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and took them from their homes to be tortured and hanged or shot on the edge of the city.

Soon thereafter, Armenian men throughout the country were arrested, tied together with ropes, taken to the outskirts of their towns and shot or bayoneted by death squads.

At the same time, Armenian women, children, and the elderly were ordered to pack their belongings and leave their homes under the pretext that they were being relocated to a non-military zone for their own safety. In reality, they were marched toward the Syrian desert to die; most perished by the roadside from exhaustion and starvation. In the end, 1.5 million of the Ottoman Empire’s 2.1 million Armenians were killed or died on death marches to the desert.

Growing up, my sisters and I were told that, in 1939, on the eve of his march into Poland, Hitler said, “Who now remembers the Armenians?” What Hitler meant is that he could get away with any conceivable crime as long as the victims were powerless minorities like Jews and Armenians. But now we know better; Hitler’s crimes against the Jews and others have not been forgotten, nor have those committed against the Armenians.

Members of the Armenian community and our allies in the Valley will gather in a circle to commemorate the genocide, to be part of truth-telling and remembering, to bear witness to our struggle and our pain, and to hold, with pride, our Armenian flags in sorrow and in memory.

The Armenian Martyrs’ Day Proclamation clearly states that marking the Armenian genocide is also meant “to remind everyone that persecution, torture, and killing must cease.” And the Armenian community takes that calling and mandate very seriously.

Now, with the war in Gaza raging, we are also gathering on vigil lines and at rallies in solidarity with those crying out for a cease-fire in Gaza, a release of the hostages, and an end to the mass killing of Palestinians by the Israel Defense Forces. We Armenians understand the pain of being targeted and killed in vast numbers. Our hearts are breaking as we witness the unspeakable loss of life in Gaza, the destruction of homes and villages by the IDF, and the starvation of the Palestinian people. We also mourn the horrific loss of life inflicted by Hamas on Israel on October 7th and the continued imprisonment of Israeli hostages in Gaza. We Armenians have endured our own genocide, and we weep in solidarity with all those in Gaza who are experiencing a similar catastrophe.

Returning to the proclamation issued six years ago, the final words read: “I, Mayor David J. Narkewicz, do hereby proclaim April 24th, 2018, to be Armenian Martyrs’ Day, and urge all the citizens of the City of Northampton to take cognizance of this event and participate fittingly in its observance.”

In that spirit, everyone is invited to stand with us to witness to the pain, trauma, and scars of the genocide on Martyrs’ Day in front of Memorial Hall in downtown Northampton at 5 p.m. Our little circle of Armenians and allies will be joining, symbolically, with Armenians all over the world raising our flag and telling our story of loss and remembrance.

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, Ministerial Team, Alden Baptist Church, Springfield, is also founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.