Commemorating the Armenian Genocide

Among the numerous commemorative events and publications for Gallipoli, it is easy to overlook that other centenary, the genocide of the 'Armenian tragedy'. As well as much else, it was also a 'cultural cleansing', and many writers and artists were among the victims. I'm very grateful to David Howard for putting together this blog, honouring Armenian poetry, and reminding us of what we often don't remember when 'Remembrance' is selective.

– Vincent O'Sullivan

Armenians are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Turkish soldiers. April 1915. From the diary of Maria Jacobsen.

It is a century since the governing party of the Ottoman Empire, the Committee of Union and Progress, initiated the Armenian Genocide. Inspired by an ideology, Pan-Turianism, that promoted an exclusively Turkish empire stretching from Anatolia to Central Asia, the ‘Young Turks’ directed the machinery of the state against its Armenian citizens; abductions, murders, and forced marches into exile reduced the Armenian population from 2,133,190 (1914) to around 387,800 (1922). In parts of Western Anatolia Armenians were not allowed to speak their own language except when reciting prayers. It is an exaggeration to claim that the four poems below, in translations by Diana Der-Hovanessian, are akin to prayers, however they may serve a similar purpose: to say, ‘We are still here, waiting to be heard.’

All translations are by Diana Der-Hovanessian and are used by permission

– David Howard

Missak Medzarents (1886-1908)

With an ear trained by the folk poetry of his native Western Armenia, Medzarents is regarded (with Vaclav Derian) as the most musical of Armenian poets. Diana Der-Hovanessian translates his work ‘with trepidation and admiration.’ Like Derian, he died early from tuberculosis.

My death

(the children talk to each other about it)

– Now they pass by the village spring.
– Now they pass by the vineyard.
– Now they’re at the graveyard.
– Now they bury him.
– Now the blessing is read. Does he hear it?
– No. He hears nothing.
– Now he doesn’t see either.
– Now he no longer can swallow his spit.
– Now he can’t shout.
– Now he crumbles to nothing.
– Now they come back.
– Now he’s left alone.
– Now he’ll never come back again.
– Now he’ll never come back again.
– Now he’ll never come back again.


Daniel Varoujan (1884-1915)

In 1914 Varoujan co-founded the literary group Mehian to promote ‘the Armenian spirit’. As a cultural leader he was one of the first to be deported on Red Sunday, 24 April 1915; after a forced march, he was murdered on 26 August 1915.

Coming home

We’re coming home tonight, singing together,
coming home by white moonlight.
Oh village houses, oh you village houses
wake up all the dogs
in all the yards.
wake up all the wells and fountains
and let them bubble up to fill our pitchers.
We’ve brought home flowers,
flowers for the holidays. And we’re singing.
We come singing of love.
We’re coming by the mountain road,
houses, oh, you houses.
Open the gates now as the oxen
horns push them in.
Let the ovens’ smoke rise
to mingle with the blue smoke
of the roofs.
And you young wives of the houses,
you shy “harser” with new baby boys,
bring milk in blue, clay pitchers.
we’re coming home.

(published 1921)

Vahan Derian (1885-1920)

Derian was born in an Armenian village that is now part of Georgia. An early friend of Maxim Gorky, with whom he edited an anthology of Armenian literature, after the Russian revolution he led the Armenian sector. In 1918 he accompanied Trotsky to the conference at Brest-Litovsk. Two years later he died of tuberculosis.

My work was light and full of humor

My work was light and full of humor.
It was my life that was so hard,
unwieldy, silent, helpless,
homeless, wandering and bleak.

My soul in its bright fever reached
out to a boundless world.
My art was bright; my deep faith jovial.
It was my life that was dark.


Vahan Tekeyan (1878-1948)

Vahan Tekeyan was travelling abroad when his colleagues were seized. Experiencing survivor guilt, through poetry he tried to make a spiritual home while exiled in Egypt, where he was politically active as a newspaper editor, teacher, and social worker.

‘The evil done to us by man and by you, God, will be forgotten and not mentioned again when we can sing and love, unchained as free men.’

To the Armenian nation

I know it. Only too well. You don’t need this.
But here, again, I give myself to you,
page by page. Forgive this useless gift.
What can you do with poems? They are not food.

Let the adolescent write himself out. That’s allowed.
But what about the grown man who insists
on stringing lines and meters to hang
on them the dark lanterns of his heart?

I know you don’t expect anything, you never have.
Except the unexpressable tribulation
of your children staying yours.

But take these away. To discard. To forget –
these pieces of a heart, worn out
with the burden of burdening you.


Worldwide reading in commemoration of the 100th anniversary

The international literature festival berlin (ilb) and the Lepsiushaus Potsdam are calling for a worldwide reading on 21 April 2015 – the day that marks 100 years since the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.

Several hundred Armenian intellectuals – poets, musicians, parliamentary representatives and members of the clergy – were arrested in Constantinople (today Istanbul) on 24 April 1915, and deported to the Turkish interior where most of them were murdered. It was the start of a crime against humanity. The extermination of the Armenians during World War One was the first systematically planned and executed genocide of modern times.

A great number of Armenian voices were silenced in 1915 and in the years thereafter. Since then, others have become loud and have spoken out against forgetting, among them an increasing number of voices from the democratic Turkish civil society. In remembrance of the victims and in association with the demand for international recognition of the genocide, we are calling for a worldwide reading on 21 April 2015, with literary texts from Armenian authors, among them Varujan Vosganian, Zabel Yesayan, Siamanto, Daniel Varujan, Krikor Zohrab, Rupen Sevag, Komitas, Yeghishe Charents, William Saroyan, Hovhannes Shiraz, Paruyr Sevak, Hakop Mntsuri, Silva Kaputikian and Hrant Dink.

– Lepsiushaus Potsdam

More information about the venues and times of the worldwide reading (German)