Book Review: The Grandchildren: The Hidden Legacy of 'Lost' Armenians in Turkey

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The Grandchildren: The Hidden Legacy of ‘Lost’ Armenians in Turkey

A Book Review by Lucine Kasbarian

February 2020

In "The Grandchildren: The Hidden Legacy of ‘Lost’ Armenians in Turkey” (edited by Ayse Gul Altinay and Fethiye Cetin; Transaction Publishers), we read the (often heartbreaking) stories of 25 individuals in Turkey who discover that they have an Armenian ancestor, usually a grandmother.

In the days of the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian Genocide, those who survived the slaughters in the Ottoman Turkish Empire were called "remnants of the sword." They were largely beautiful women or children young enough to be "resocialized" as Turks. These survivors were converted to Islam by force, out of fear, +/or for lack of having any surviving relatives upon which to cleave. Every conversion may be considered forced because the alternative was death. Some were enslaved as concubines, farm hands or domestics, while others were "married" to Turks in order to justify the confiscation of their family's lands/wealth. These individual stories are considered a representative sample of a larger segment of the Turkish population that carries some Armenian genes as a result of the Genocide.

Co-editor Ayse Gul Altinay, a professor of Anthropology at Sabanci University, claims in her thesis that these descendants of an Armenian ancestor are the "lost statistics" of Armenians who have been disinherited or disqualified by their own ethnic peoples in the Diaspora or present-day Armenia who no longer consider them Armenian. In the estimation of this reviewer, many of the interviewees themselves divorce themselves from their Armenian roots.

Indeed, when the peoples of "modern" Turkey have been indoctrinated through schooling and social structures to believe the "great lie" -- that the ancient, native, civilized Armenian peoples of modern Turkey were NOT occupied by Turkic invaders more than 600 years ago but were instead presented as savage interlopers and untouchables in the Turkish empire, this narrative is a very difficult false stereotype to dispel from a Turkish citizen's worldview...even if that citizen happens to carry Armenian genes.

Quite a few of the books’ interviewees struggle in vain to discover their family histories, especially in an environment where the ancestors with information to impart refuse to do so out of fear and self-loathing and while the Turkish state suppresses any information that does not align with revisionist ideology. Some interviewees are curious enough about why their ancestor has no relatives of her own, and feel there is a big mystery to unravel. This takes interviewees into many directions (shock and dismay, public ostracization, research into the past, etc). Of those interviewed, a very small sample consider their Armenian ancestry to define who they are.

Nearly all interviews chosen for publication reject the idea of returning confiscated homes and properties to the descendants of native Armenian owners. Is this, too, a representative sampling? Many interviewees -- understandably -- do not have the tools with which to step out of the Turkish state's official stance on "the events of 1915."

When genocide survivors are assimilated into a different religion and culture, that itself is considered an act of genocide. The American phrase "Kill the Indian, save the man" comes to mind. When genocide survivors are put into permanent Turkish bondage; traumatized into silence and refuse to tell their stories to even their own descendants; refuse to use their given Armenian names; refuse to pass on their language, customs and traditions; and are continually belittled for being infidel converts (the word "Armenian" is used as a curse word in Turkey), the psychological damage that results from living in such an oppressive environment -- and the mental barriers they create -- are often impossible to reverse or penetrate.

Some survivors were too young to remember their roots let alone practice their native customs. Thus, an alien civilization becomes enriched by these 'infidel converts.' Personal histories do not appear in Turkish text books and revisionist history becomes the national narrative. Turkey itself does not openly acknowledge these individuals as having Armenian ancestry unless code words are found in official records about survivor converts in order to prevent such individuals or their descendants from advancing in the government or military.

One of the main thrusts of Altinay's thesis appears to be that these people are rejected because Armenians do not want them. From what we read, it is the interviewees themselves who frequently do not wish to identify themselves as Armenian. The global Armenian community could certainly embrace them, but you cannot reclaim someone who does not wish to be reclaimed.

Based on these circumstances, how can such individuals who deny their Armenian identities – and who also possess Turkish, Kurdish, Alevi, Zaza or Kurmanji backgrounds -- be considered "the hidden Armenians of Turkey" or self-identifying Armenians who are not included in official world population numbers of global Armenians? It is a wobbly theory and epilogue for an otherwise eye-opening book.