This opinion piece appeared in the Feb. 8, 2008 Watertown Tab and Press, Watertown, Mass.
Allying in hope
On a frigid afternoon three Sundays ago, 400 people gathered at the Armenian Museum and Library of America in Watertown to view both a new and a permanent exhibit of inhumanity.
Among them were State Senators Susan C. Fargo, Anthony D. Galluccio, Steven A. Tolman and Marian Walsh, and State Representatives Ruth B. Balser, William N. Brownsberger, Linda Dorcena Forry, Peter J. Koutoujian, Charles A. Murphy, Frank I. Smizik, Timothy J. Toomey and Alice K. Wolf, as well as WWII veteran and Dachau liberator Cranston Rogers and several Holocaust survivors. Martin Haroutunian and Ara Sarkissian performed traditional music, as did Cantor Robbie Solomon and Klezmer musicians Glenn Dickson and Grant Smith. Poetry was read by teenagers Sosse Beojekian and Shoshana Traum, with prayers led by the Rev. Gregory V. Haroutunian and Rabbi Moshe Waldoks.
Host Jordan Rich introduced keynote speakers Kevork Norian and Meyer Hack, both post-90-year-old survivors of genocide, who sat together with their wives. Each held the mostly-standing audience spellbound. Young and old, strangers and friends, representatives of varying cultures enjoyed Armenian and Kosher foods as reporters scribbled and cameras flashed. I believe that the Patriots playoff game was the last thing on anybody's mind.
The event was an organic and a natural progression. In my area readings with World War II veteran and Dachau liberator Chan Rogers, I had begun to explore links between the brave souls in my book and victims of other historic atrocities. On Oct. 7, I attended the Dream for Darfur rally at City Hall Plaza to photograph my friend Rosian Zerner as she spoke, in a great show of strength, along with five other survivors of 20th century genocides. A month later, at a book reading at the Worcester Senior Center, an elderly Armenian man told me of his mother's harrowing experiences in a concentration camp. He teared up as if it were yesterday, and as the similarity of suffering overwhelmed us, so did I.
I'm not sure I believe in a-ha moments. I like the Yiddish word, besheart, that means "meant to be, predestined." It was that week that Dean Solomon, a Watertown psychiatrist and co-congregant of Hack's at Kadimah Toras-Moshe in Brighton, called to tell me about the collection of valuables that Meyer had recovered from the clothing of doomed, incoming Auschwitz inmates. Hack, whose story took many visits to his home to aptly capture, had hid them for 62 years, but was now ready to tell the world what he had witnessed. They suggested exhibiting at a Jewish institution. I consulted John McGinness, a volunteer at Watertown Cable Access who was working on a documentary of the people in my book. "Offer it to the Armenians," he said.
Although I support House Resolution 106, the events of last summer were distressing, because I fully understood both the frustration and the injustice surrounding a beleaguered people with no recognition of the genocide against their forebears, and also the political and social concerns that delayed the measure's passing. I hope for its adoption - how would the Holocaust survivors I know feel if they didn't at least have verification of the horror they endured? And I had seen Germany's acknowledgement of its past for myself when the German government invited me to a 2006 seminar in Berlin. But as a Jew, I know nothing is easy.
The joint Holocaust-Armenian Genocide exhibit took shape with early support from politicians and sponsors and regular meetings with local Armenian officials, who were clear that all Jewish organizations, including the ADL, were cordially invited to attend as private
citizens. We drew major press and many inquiries. At all times, both sides aimed to stay above the ADL controversy and focus on the theme of two peoples who had suffered coming together in an alliance of hope for the future.
At the event, I explained to Kevork Norian that David Cohen had come anonymously on his own, not as Assistant Regional Director of the New England ADL. Norian shook his hand. He still suffers the searing pain of irresolution. But the hope was there.
I learned to pursue hope from my father, Bernard Davidson, a son of Russian and Romanian immigrants who moved eight times while growing up poor in Dorchester. He so loved the state that gave him equal opportunity, he penned a ditty called "Massachusetts, Because of You Our Land is Free." He sang it at the State House in 1988 and promptly made Boston Magazine's Worst of Boston list. A subsequent Page 2 spread in the Herald had him singing it with arms outstretched and the State House behind him. But he believed in Calvin Coolidge's dictum of persistence, and in 1989, it was signed into law as the Official Patriotic State Song of Massachusetts. He was also repeatedly defeated over a ten-year bid to regain his post as Department of Public Works Commissioner for the Town of Randolph, even appearing in local newspaper police blotters for campaigning inside a supermarket and for leaning a sign against a tree.
He won the seat back in 1986, holding the position until his death in 1996.
As a local journalist, I was able to attend the 2002 dedication of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. I was this close to Bruce Springsteen, but what touched me forever was the sight of city kids who had participated in Lenny's initiatives walking up the aisles to the stage, carrying the Jewish memorial ritual dirt and stones, while dignitaries led the crowd in a chorus of "We Shall Overcome." Lenny Zakim knew the importance of community ties, and it is with his work in mind that I begin planning the next event for mid-April, during the commemorations of the Rwandan, Armenian and Jewish Genocides, with the same stellar program and an invitation to all who have suffered.
The survivors I know are emotionally vulnerable people. They cry easily. But their strength is unsurpassed. When I first met them, I was astounded by their humor, their love of life. Their spirits had never been broken. They had gone on to rebuild their shattered lives and contribute to the same world they had suffered under. This is true for all survivors of genocide. Not wishing to squander the second chance they've been given, they don't wallow in misery. Like Kevork Norian and Meyer Hack, they educate themselves, work hard, raise families.
Descendants of survivors carry a tremendous psychological burden, and I am not so idealistic to think that genocide will end. But standing together, we can unite in our strength and help each other create a better future.
Susie Davidson, a local journalist, is the author of "I Refused to Die: Stories of Boston-Area Holocaust Survivors and Soldiers Who Liberated the Concentration Camps of World War II," "Jewish Life in Postwar Germany," and "Selected Poetry of Susie D" (all Ibbetson Street Press, Somerville). This spring, she will teach an 8-week course for Newton Community Education entitled "What Can the Stories of Holocaust Survivors and Soldiers Teach Us in the Face of Continuing Global Genocide?"