Testimonies and the Socioeconomic Aspects of the Armenian Genocide: Reflections from 2019-2020 Junior Postdoctoral Research Fellow Mehmet Polatel
As a postdoctoral research fellow at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research in the 2019-2020 academic year, I carried out a research project focusing on the long-term impact of Hamidian Massacres of 1894-97 and the experiences of genocide survivors with regards to extortion, plunder, and robbery during the genocide of 1915. Since 2008, I have been working on socio-economic aspects of the genocide and of the deterioration of relations among different communities. In the course of my research I have utilized different sources like state documents and memoirs but this was the first time I found the chance to examine such a large group of survivor testimonies. Thus, this was a unique experience for me. Studying the testimonies at the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (VHA), I was able to look into this period from a perspective that includes the experiences and accounts of the survivors themselves.
During my time at USC, I also taught an undergraduate course, entitled Genocide and Human Experience. I included various testimonies from the VHA to supplement the reading material of this course, which focused on the experiences of survivors and perpetrators in the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Students also used the testimonies to prepare their papers. While teaching this course, I noticed that students found the testimonies very interesting and important, especially because they reflect these processes from the eyes of people who experienced them and because they provide unique insights concerning emotions and human experience in genocidal contexts. Thus, this experience showed me that testimonies can be very valuable materials for teaching, especially for courses focusing on genocides or mass violence.
Mass atrocities like genocides are life-shattering experiences for survivors. Many people become uprooted and find themselves in unfamiliar circumstances, struggling to identify places and people around them. This situation also affects the characteristics of testimonies. In some cases, perpetrators can only be identified in the most general sense – as people from a particular ethno-linguistic or religious group. Because of this, I was not expecting to find much detail about the perpetrators in the testimonies I would examine. However, over the course of this research, I discovered that there were numerous testimonies providing very thick descriptions of perpetrators. Almost all of these were the testimonies of child survivors who had stayed in their hometowns. Most of them were left alive by local perpetrators to be exploited as forced labor. Examining their testimonies, and tracing the people, events and places they talked about in the Ottoman archives, I was able to track the processes of property transfer during the genocide in some localities with a high degree of precision.
During this research, I came across various testimonies that helped me get a better understanding of people and events. For example, Arslan Bey, a local notable from the Çarsancak region of Harput, was a figure about whom I had been collecting data from different archives because he was a crucial player in land disputes concerning Armenians in the region. While examining the testimony of Ohannes Deukmedjian, I learned that Deukmedjian had stayed in Arslan Bey’s mansion as a servant for many years after the genocide. I had examined various documents about this local notable but this was the first time I was able to look into this figure from the eyes of someone who had such close contact with him.
While examining these testimonies, I noticed that the material aspect of the Armenian genocide was more complex than I had previously thought. I became aware that the labor imposed upon some Armenian children who were left alive was not always confined to manual labor like sowing the fields or grazing sheep – which were very common. For example, the testimony of Manaseh Kaprielian from the Hoghe village of Harput shows that some children and their knowledge concerning the borders and owners of agricultural fields belonging to Armenians were used to facilitate the processes of property transfer while these lands were being shared among local Muslims.
The testimony of Arsen Mahdessian from Yozgat highlights a similar issue from a very different angle. In this testimony, which affected me very deeply, Mahdessian narrates how he was separated from his family and how his community was massacred at a place near to the town. Some time after the massacre, there was a heavy rainfall and some people found gold coins around the swollen corpses. After this, locals had begun to dissect the bodies in search of gold. Mahdessian, who was forced into becoming a Muslim child servant by that time, was expected to take part in these efforts by watching the other servants of his master while they were dissecting and searching the bodies – some of whom belonged to his own relatives, and making sure that they would not hide the coins they were to find from the master. This testimony shows that the forced Armenian labor expected from children could take various, and sometimes incredibly traumatizing, forms. I am sure that this will be one of the testimonies that will stay with me for the rest of my life.