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Armenian-Americans

By Maggie LewisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 1980



Watertown, Mass.

Mrs. Kimball's English as a Second Language class is hard at work making booklets about how animals move. They put the animal sticker on the page, then find the right animal name on one list and the proper verb on another and write a caption for the sticker. A little boy with bright brown eyes and fluffy brown hair who has been working with quiet intensity comes to Lynne Kimball's desk.

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He can just see over her stack of books and lesson plans, but his bearing is dignified, his accent strangely cultivated for a first-grader. "Can a skunk swim?" he asks.

Mrs. Kimball must be calling on all 12 years of experience as an English as a Second Language teacher when she looks him straight in the eye and says earnestly, without so much as a giggle, "I don't know. But I'll try to find out."

She did the right thing. He had just arrived here from Soviet Armenia. What is crucial to this little boy's education is not skunk locomotion but being able to ask about things in English and get sympathetic discussion. He seems satisfied, sits back down at his desk, and, lowering what are probably the world's longest and blackest eyelashes, manfully wields his large first-grader's pencil, struggling with a new alphabet.

After the three-year program, one third of which is taught in Armenian, he may never write in the curvaceous, twigged characters of the Armenian alphabet again. He won't forget them, though, because the anniversary of the invention of that alphabet (in AD 404) is celebrated every year in Watertown.

In fact, he won't forget much about Armenian life, even Armenian life he never experienced. He will probably always be reminded to be proud of his ancient culture and religion. And he will have a hard time ignoring the dream of an independent homeland, or the memories of the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks, passed down by parents and grandparents. These are very much a part of Armenian life, wherever in the world families ended up after the Turks tortured, massacred, and "deported" Armenians living in Turkey, historically their homeland. One and a half million were killed in Turkey or on the march through the deserts of Syria. Those who survived had to find a new place to live. These events happened from 1898 to 1915, but you don't get a sense that they are over from talking to Armenians. The Turks have yet to admit their guilt, the Armenians yet to forgive them.

Memories of this attempted genocide came up, whomever I talked to. The die-hard radicals insisting on reparations and a homeland, more "Americanized" people happy to be in Watertown, or as one woman reminded me while I was asking about the spectrum of Armenian politics, the majority "who are just trying to get through the day like everyone else" -- all have memories of cruelty.

I read the horor stories of the massacre in Michael J. Arlen's "Passage to Ararat": about how Interior Minister Talaat Bey decreed that all the Armenian community leaders were to be killed and the rest deported, and how Turkey has yet to acknowledge this atrocity. (Hitler, when he ordered the extermination of the Poles in 1939, is reported to have told his army commanders that there was nothing to worry about as far as world opinion was concerned. "Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?")

Arlen started out only faintly interested in the Armenian identity his father always refused to talk about, and ended up trying to understand how to deal with his rage at injustices committed against his people. The memories are not just national, but personal. Every Armenian eventually gets around to talking about the grandparents who were killed, or the one who escaped, just barely.