April, 1915. Disturbing reports began to reach the U.S. Embassy in the Turkish capital of Constantinople, and the desk of Henry Morgenthau, Sr.
The ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and a Jew, Morgenthau was learning of the mass deportations, and mass executions, of the Armenian population. Dispatches from the U.S. consulates in the interior of the country streamed in with eyewitness accounts of the horrors.
Alarmed by the reports, which one of his consuls described as “a carefully planned scheme to thoroughly extinguish the Armenian race,” Morgenthau forwarded the reports to Washington. He even cabled the Department of State on July 16, 1915, saying, in no uncertain terms, that “a campaign of race extermination is in progress.”
To little avail.
When he returned to the United States in 1916, “drained by his failure to avert this disaster,” as one account put it, Morgenthau spent the remainder of the war raising funds for the survivors. He also published Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, a memoir of his time in Turkey. In it, he included a chapter about the Armenians in which he described “The Murder of a Nation.”
“I am confident,” Morgenthau wrote, “that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this.”
He could not have imagined that the Holocaust would befall the Jews of Europe more than 20 years later. But to this particular crime against humanity he was a witness.
The Armenian Genocide, which killed approximately one million people (the estimates vary), has long been denied by Turkish authorities, and the scope of the crime has escaped official recognition by the U.S. government.
On Saturday, April 24, President Joe Biden, fulfilling a campaign promise, became the first U.S. president to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
“We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern (Armenian for the “Great Evil Crime”) so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history. And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.”
He chose Armenian Remembrance Day to release his historic statement.
While this gesture – 106 years after the fact – will likely chill relations between the United States and its NATO ally, Turkey, Biden said that is not the intent of his statement.
“We do this not to cast blame,” the president said, “but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
And as Jews know, 80 years after the Holocaust, Germany is also a NATO ally; it has diplomatic relations with Israel; and Jewish life is again taking root in that country.
Recognition of a historic fact need not be the end of the road, but the beginning of a journey.
Jews should celebrate this statement by Biden, which comes two weeks after the annual observance of Yom HaShoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day. After all, history should be about nations, races and ethnicities coming together to shed light on all crimes against humanity.
And no one should compare the level of suffering in one genocide to that of another. There’s no point. It shouldn’t matter that six million Jews were murdered compared to one million Armenians, or that the Nazis turned killing into a science compared to the tactics of another era.
What matters is that human suffering must be recognized no matter the scope or the victims – a lesson that is slowly being learned in this country with regard to racial justice for Black Americans.
When Morgenthau chose not to be silent in the face of Armenian suffering, he did the most Jewish thing he could, whether he knew it or not. Today, Jews should follow his example, and the president’s, bearing witness to the suffering of others – here and abroad, now and in the future.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)