My experience with ‘transgenerational trauma’ as a descendant of Genocide survivors

This is a personal story of my own thoughts and experiences of being a 3rd generation descendant of Genocide survivors and does not speak in the name of other Armenians, nor does it necessarily represent the experiences of other Armenians in similar situations.

I didn’t give the phenomenon of “transgenerational trauma” much thought when I first came across it while doing research about the Holocaust, around two years ago. Then I came across an AJ+ video late last year about how the traumatic experience of slavery has passed on from one generation to the next; that’s when I began to wonder if the children and grandchildren of Armenian Genocide survivors suffer such trauma as well. It is now apparent that later generations of Genocide survivors do in fact inherit this unfortunate psychological phenomenon and suffer a different kind of trauma than what the survivors themselves had experienced; but others, do go through identical post-traumatic disorder the survivors themselves had faced.

The collective trauma of Armenians, most of whom are descendants of Genocide survivors has altered the history of our people. Armenians are a tight-knit resilient — angry — family, who have been mourning the loss of their compatriots who perished 100+ years ago, and also mourning the loss of their churches, homes and land. Denial has been a big part of this collective trauma and as such prevents healing and reconciliation. Post-Genocide Transitional Justice never occurred, as the perpetrators have since died. The continuous aggressive denial of the Turkish authorities with this regard exemplifies our collective suffering. It is, in fact, hurtful and stressful to have the historical suffering of a whole nation (regardless if it is imagined or not) continuously being denied by the descendants of the perpetrators and very often ignored by the rest of the world, which dishonors the memory of the victims.

My father told me about the tragic events early on, unlike what my friends have told me about their parents’ and grandparents’ refusal to speak about the events. Although, I must add that almost all Armenians today are ardent advocates for justice for the Armenian Genocide and want to see Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, be held accountable. I am not sure if such an approach from my dad was a good thing or a bad one. On the one hand, it is important for an Armenian to know of the Armenian Genocide and the threat of annihilation his/her people faced; but on the other hand, I have come to realize that this has impacted me and my mental health immensely.

The death marches, the drowning, the live-burning, the murder of infants, and the stabbing of pregnant women as fun games by soldiers to know the sex of the baby inside; the beheadings, the mass graves and the rivers of blood. I see it all. I think of the crypto-Armenians (Armenians who were taken into Turkish or Kurdish families and have since assimilated into mainstream Turkish/Kurdish society and who do not know of their Armenian past) and the young girls taken as slaves by Arab beduins. It’s as if I can vividly see these atrocities with my bare eyes. I am horrified. I often can’t sleep and cry my eyes out thinking of these events. As an aspiring academic and scholar of Genocide research (and nationalism), I have been so much invested in the study of these tragic events, the Armenian and Jewish Genocides especially, that it does more harm than good to me, personally. I come from a region with immense conflict, pain and suffering — but nothing (in this region) compares to the genocidal campaigns which were perpetrated against my people. I fear a potential war in my countries, Lebanon and Armenia, both of which are susceptible to go through some form of disaster at any moment. I fear the loss of loved ones.

I often pray to be relieved of these feelings. I do not want to be a descendant of Genocide survivors. It’s a burden and I am tired of carrying it. Why us? Why the Armenians? Why anyone in the world, for that matter? What can a population do to deserve annihilation from the face of the earth?

I found around 20 books at my university library that deny the Armenian Genocide, all published by “The Turkish Historical Association”. I spoke to a librarian there and they basically said that nothing can be done — at least they were nice (not that it mattered). Apparently “academic freedom” in the UK and mainland Europe have different definitions. Regardless, finding these books, in an institution that I had the utmost respect for, felt like I was being stabbed with a knife in my heart.

I try so hard to distance myself from these strong emotions. I want to be as neutral and objective as possible — I always regarded neutrality and lack of emotions in research as vital for any self-respecting academic who wants to be objective in their research. I’m still working on myself with this regard.

I also dislike my lack of resentment towards the descendants of the perpetrators, the Turks. In fact, I can humbly say that I love them. It’s quite weird. This positive feeling towards those who are supposed to be my enemies gives me solace and comfort; yet, I want to hate them, as is expected of me. I always say that forgiveness comes with an apology and remorse, but to be honest, deep down, I have forgiven them without ever hearing an apology.

I went to Armenia for the first time in my life with my dad and sister in September of 2019. I loved it. But I didn’t feel anything with regards to what I was expecting. I ignorantly thought I’d go randomly hugging people on the street because that’s what family members do. I felt no connection to these people. I have more in common with a non-Armenian Lebanese person than with an Armenian from Armenia. How different have our experiences been? — Ottoman Armenians suffered from Genocide and Soviet Armenians suffered from Communism (better yet, Stalinism); but we are one, are we not?

I am beyond ashamed of having been forced to speak English with the Armenians I met in Armenia, since I had absolutely no idea what they were saying. I was surprised as to how different Eastern and Western Armenian are from one another. I am even more ashamed by the fact that I cannot read nor write Western Armenian. It breaks my heart to know that the language, whose continuity my ancestors tried so hard to protect and were persecuted for, is classified as endangered by unesco.

I just cannot get over the fact that I was not supposed to be alive. Talaat Pasha, the mastermind of the Genocide, himself said “it is settled. There are no Armenians.” — Well, joke’s on you, Talaat; there are around 10 million Armenians in the world and you are rotting in the seventh depth of hell for eternity.

My birthday is the 24th of April, 1997. The 82nd anniversary of the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, a day which represents the loss of a million and a half souls. The loss of a nation. Yet, there I am. Some random kid who happened to be born on this day of mourning. But maybe it is some sort of a sign, a good omen of sorts. It grounds me and reminds me of the little things in life, it reminds me of the importance of family, of friends, of faith and of belonging. It honestly makes me feel like I have a million and a half angels watching over me.

I’ve been told that at the hospital where I was born, on my birthday in 1997, my dad got pretty upset that I was born on this date. “Heroes have died and heroes have been born!” exclaimed an elderly Armenian woman to my dad, to comfort him.

Who knows… I might be destined for great things. Everyone keeps telling me to believe in myself and in my capabilities; I should work on my self-esteem and know my self-worth, they say. Easier said than done, to be honest.

Three generations on, and I can feel the suffering of a people — if not in my veins, then in my heart. I ache. I hope that with coming to terms with my transgenerational trauma, I have taken the first step towards healing.

May all those who perished find eternal peace.

Photo: At the Armenian Genocide Memorial Wall in Yerevan, Armenia. I’m facing the word “Urfa”, the name of the city my ancestors lived in.

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