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Armenians at Home

UCLA historian Richard Hovannisian instructs local K-12 teachers on more than a century of Armenian migrations to Southern California and elsewhere. His archive of interviews with 800 survivors of the Armenian Genocide is now digitized, with transcriptions and translations in the works.

Armenians at Home

By Kevin Matthews, Senior Writer

"That's where the village was," locals said, pointing at mounds of earth. "That's where the church was."

A history teacher and curriculum coach at Glendale High School, where roughly half of the multiethnic student population is Armenian, Nancy Witt says she attends training sessions at UCLA partly to keep up with her students—not just the subjects she's been teaching for 14 years. At an Aug. 8 session led by UCLA Professor Richard G. Hovannisian, the discussion centered on the changing character of Armenian immigrants who have arrived in Southern California from various spots in the Ottoman Empire, Arab Middle East, Iran, the Caucasus region, and Europe over more than a century.

Armenians traveled far and wide: the next UCLA conference to be organized by Hovannisian and the UCLA Armenian Studies Program will focus on Armenian trade and communities in and around the Indian Ocean. Still, Southern California and Greater Los Angeles have the highest concentration of ethnic Armenians outside of the Republic of Armenia. At the session, Hovannisian highlighted diversity within a local minority group that has been broadly but unevenly affected by migrations and a genocide perpetrated in the last years of the Ottoman Empire.

Just back from his first-ever trip to eastern Turkey, to ancestral Armenian land where his parents were born and where reminders of the 1915 genocide persist, Hovannisian also had new stories to recount.

The Aug. 8 session was part of a five-day workshop for educators organized by the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies and supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, by the UCLA History-Geography Project, and by the California Geographic Alliance at UCLA. Under this year's theme of "Migration," the workshop included curriculum planning and three history lessons by UCLA faculty. CEES and other member centers of the International Institute regularly sponsor K-12 training workshops. In turn, teachers in leadership positions such as Witt's use the experience to train and assist colleagues.


Hovannisian, who holds the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA, visits Armenia regularly and has traveled around the Middle East and to Istanbul, but his recent two-week trip to eastern Turkey was different. He was "going back to see a civilization that doesn't exist," he explained to about 15 LA-area teachers.

"That's where the village was," locals would tell him, pointing at mounds of earth. "That's where the church was." Disturb the surface of the Syrian desert, where much of the killing took place, Hovannisian said, and you immediately find human bones. On this trip, he traveled with a Turkish colleague, something that would have been almost unthinkable twenty or thirty years back, he said.

The Armenian Genocide began in 1915 as the Ottoman Empire sought scapegoats for the defeats of World War I. By 1923, when the Republic of Turkey was founded, massacres and deadly forced marches had reduced a pre-WWI population of some two million Armenians in the empire to about 200,000. Fewer than 75,000 live in Turkey now, and almost exclusively in Istanbul. The holocaust's legacies include repetitions ("Who remembers the Armenians?" Hitler said to his generals before invading Poland), the travels and traumas of survivors, denials by the Turkish government, and failures by others to acknowledge the enormity of the facts.

In the latest U.S. chapter of this tale, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have been unable to get the State Department to say whether the Bush administration's recall in May of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans was related to Evans' public and pointed uses of the G-word in early 2005, in place of officially sanctioned descriptors such as "tragedy" and "calamity." A delayed hearing on the nomination of Evans' replacement is set for today, Sept. 7. According to Hovannisian, Evans acknowledged the Armenian Genocide both at a faculty luncheon and a public event on Feb. 17, 2005.

Over some of his more than 40 years at UCLA, Hovannisian and colleagues gathered taped testimony from some 800 genocide survivors, all but a very few of them now deceased. More recently, he reports, the long project has advanced. The entire archive has been digitized, about half of the interviews have been transcribed, and perhaps 100 have been translated from the relevant languages--Armenian, Turkish, Arabic, Russian.

Three Waves

Hovannisian's focus for the Aug. 8 session was on Armenians who eventually came to Southern California—beginning with a few agricultural workers who arrived in the San Joaquin Valley in the last decades of the nineteenth century. A pre-WWI U.S. population of less than 40,000, concentrated in New York and New England, swelled after the genocide, reaching 100,000 by the time of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924.

Two more large "waves" of immigrants would affect the development of communities such as Glendale. After World War II, Armenians began an exodus from the Middle East, fleeing turmoil and rising nationalism. Emigration from Iran, where Armenians had lived for centuries in relative quiet, spiked after the 1979 revolution. Finally, the numbers of Armenians leaving the Soviet Union from the 1970s increased dramatically following the unraveling of the USSR in 1991.

So Glendale, for example, is populated largely by Iranian and, more recently, former Soviet Armenians with very different cultural heritages—­their cuisines, dialects, and behavioral patterns. In contrast to the more recent post-Soviet immigrants, many Armenians of Iranian descent arrived with significant financial assets and a family tree untouched by the genocide.

"We've got the waves," Witt said. According to Witt, the Glendale district has put resources into educating high school teachers about the Armenian Genocide. Last year, a group of tenth grade world history teachers visited Washington, D.C., to hear Hovannisian and other scholars on the subject.