The Armenian Genocide: Witnessing the Weight of Living History

This is Ramela Carman, Michigan's only living Armenian Genocide survivor, and she turned 102 years old today. I went to visit her on her birthday, flowers in hand, so that she could tell me not just the story of her survival, but everything that came after. "I am antique" she said. "I've seen everything, the good and the bad." We talked about the past and the present and ate chocolate together. She's hard of hearing, but her memory is impeccable. She spoke in a perfect mixture of English, Armenian and Turkish.Ramela is the second Armenian Genocide survivor I've met. With the 100th anniversary of the tragic events that transpired in 1915 taking place last year, there are fewer and fewer survivors left. Many of them don't even remember what exactly happened, since they were infants when the massacres occurred.

It is a strange and anxiety-inducing feeling to meet with someone who was there at such a critical moment in history, and who survived to share their story with you. The Genocide, its legacy and its continuing denial are things that have real life implications for not just Armenians but for regions and countries and how policy, human rights and other social issues are governed. But I've always tried to approach the topic with a heightened sense of self-awareness, with a way forward that does not rely on victimhood, with realizing that it is a somewhat abstract concept that often does not factor into our daily far away lives.

But meeting with someone who was there, who lived it, whose entire family was lost and who went on to live a different, yet ordinary life afterwards despite being born during a dark time in history puts things into another perspective. It makes things real, it brings the past into the present, it bridges that feeling of abstractness. Before I left Ramela, she insisted I take the box of chocolates we were eating from with me. I protested, but she would not relent until I promised I'd be walking out of her room with it. She showed me a recording she had of her mother's voice from the 60s, the last remnant from her past.  I asked her if I could come visit her again, to hear more of her stories. "The door is always open," she said.

She's part of a larger project I'm working on that explores a different, untouched aspect of the Armenian Genocide and its legacy, an attempt to show things through a different narrative path, to bridge the past and the present the same way Ramela bridged it for a few brief moments for me.