Armenia Genocide UMass Medical School MD candidate
Whenever I write about Armenia, I feel as though I am writing a letter to my mother and father. It is they who gave me life; it is they who gave me Armenian blood. It is they who have never seen Armenia with their own eyes; it is they who gave my sister and I the means to see Armenia and more. It is my mother who tied her Yankee roots with my father’s Armenian-ness; it is my mother who learned Armenian to “fit in”; it is my mother who drove me to Saturday Armenian school. It is my father who calls our puppy manchus emeen (“my boy”); it is my father who begins each phone conversation calling me hohkees emeen (“my soul”).
I am here – on the cusp of becoming a physician like my father, about to achieve my dream – because my great-grandparents were orphaned in 1915 during the Armenian Genocide. I am here because my great-grandfather, escaping the Genocide, found a passport and translated it from Arabic to Armenian. My family name was Gedigian – it is now Sadaniantz. There are five of us in this world.
I feel I have lost my “Armenian-hood” during my four years of medical school. My brain has been inundated with pharmacology and pathophysiology – and yet, I have only taken my baby steps into the role of Physician. But now, a month and a half away from graduation, I take pause to reconsider what else is important.
As many of you may know or may not know, there have been rising tensions among Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as the Republic of Artsakh. Every few years skirmishes break out between Azerbaijan (supported by Turkey) and Armenia. In 2020, the skirmish turned into a war. A “peace treaty” signed in November 2020 required Armenia to return lands gained in 1994 to Azerbaijan.
On April 12, 2021, Azerbaijan opened the “Military Trophies Park” in Baku. Displayed here are tanks, weapons, and helmets captured from Armenians and the Artsakh Defense Army. A sign, made of 2,000 Armenian license plates, declares, “Karabakh is Azerbaijan!” Wax figurines display Armenian soldiers dying, chained, and in anguish. The Azerbaijani president and the Azerbaijani populace stand proudly in front of these “trophies” for photo-ops.
Back in college, I took a course on Modern History, which, of course, addressed the Holocaust and Stalin’s Great Terror. In one of the readings, “Bloodlands” by Timothy D. Snyder, I was bombarded with numbers and maps and plans for three-hundred and seventy-seven pages. (This is not meant to discredit Dr. Snyder – I quite appreciated the book). But in his concluding chapter, entitled “Humanity,” Dr. Snyder notes, “Each of the living bore a name…each of the dead became a number.” I interpret this as: life has individuality and meaning; death has conformity and obscurity. He goes on, “To join in a large number after death is to be dissolved into a stream of anonymity.” I interpret this as: lives must be remembered. Lastly, he writes, “the moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.” This needs no interpretation.
I am not asking you to become an expert on the Armenian Genocide or other atrocities. I do not write this letter to shame those who do not know. I hear my neighbors, patients, and people in the grocery store exhausted from the chaos of this past year. There is only so much horror our minds can handle.
I ask you – on April 24th, or in May, or from time to time – to pause for fifteen minutes and ask yourself one thing: “how can I be kinder?” (Do not guilt yourself, it gets us nowhere – though I am guilty of this too). How can I be more generous and more thoughtful? How can I be softer in a world that wants me to be hardened? I will ask this of myself, too.
And, if you find yourself in the presence of an Armenian (look for the ‘ian’ at the end of their last name), tell them parev eench bes es (“Hello, how are you?”). When they respond in Armenian, the jig is up. Ask them how their family came to America. Ask them about their favorite Armenian food. See if they will make the food for you. Ask them about their favorite song. If their favorite song is “Hey Jan Ghapama,” just know that it is a love song to an Armenian stuffed pumpkin dish.
As for myself, I will remain vigilant as I enter my intern year of residency. I will see my patients as “fellow creature[s] in pain,” not numbers. I will be present, patient, and grateful in my profession. I will hug and kiss my mother and father and make sure that they feel my love. I will kiss our puppy on the nose and accept his slobbering licks. And, every few months I will take pause, and remember to be softer in a world that wants me hardened.
Katherine Sadaniantz is student and MD candidate at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.