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Knights and Daughters of Vartan Grand Convocation in New York City: Taner Akçam and Ragip Zarakolu Men of the Year
By Aram Arkun
The Knights and Daughters of Vartan held their ninety-fourth annual Grand Convocation from July 4 to 7 in New York City. Members came from lodges throughout the United States and Canada to participate in workshops and plan strategies and activities for the future. Along with meetings, they enjoyed various social activities which culminated in an evening banquet in downtown New York. The Grand Convocation was hosted by the Mamigonian Lodge and the Anahid Otyag of Brooklyn.
Grand Commander Dennis Papazian and Grand Matron Agnes Sahagian hosted an inaugural reception at the Trinity Place Bar and Restaurant for the participants where they could observe New York’s world-famous fireworks on the Fourth of July. The next day, workshops were followed by a boat cruise around New York City and dinner at the Water’s Edge Restaurant accompanied with music by DJ Alan, while Friday’s entertainment included a luncheon hosted by the Daughters of Vartan and a “kef night” at Kavookjian Hall of the Armenian Diocese accompanied with dinner. Despite a long day, the attendees, including many in their seventies and eighties, danced up a storm to the Armenian music. The culmination of the weekend was a grand banquet on Saturday night at the Marriott Downtown, the New York base for the convocation’s activities.
The 2012 convocation was the culmination of the activities of the last two years under the leadership of Grand Commander Papazian. The motto of his administration was modernization. As Papazian declared later, the goal was “to bring the Knights of Vartan into the twenty-first century. To accomplish that, I wanted to adopt all sorts of modern communication techniques to make our operation more efficient and bring our people together, somewhat parallel to the Facebook model, through constant contact, videos, and virtual visitations, while protecting the venerable traditions of the organization.” A national office was opened in Peabody, Massachusetts, with a new national clerk. A digitalization process for the voluminous archives of the Knights was initiated. The organization’s journal was brought up to date and running.
Furthermore, the Knights and Daughters continued their programs to provide scholarships for Armenian Americans, and college assistance for young people in Armenia, while contributing to Armenian internships in Washington D.C., the construction of homes in Armenia and the rehabilitation of schools there.
The 2012 convocation was unusual in several ways. At the grand banquet, for perhaps the first time, a major Armenian-American organization gave awards to two people of Turkish origin, Professor Taner Akçam of Clark University and Ragip Zarakolu. They received the humanitarian “Man of the Year” award. As Papazian declared, “In some ways, it is earthshaking.”
Zarakolu, a prominent publisher and human rights activist in Istanbul, has published many books on the Armenians and the Armenian Genocide, as well as on Greek and Kurdish issues, despite the risks this entails in Turkey. He has been imprisoned and faced state persecution for his actions. While he was not able to attend in person, as his second recent trial was in progress, he sent his son James Seref Holle with the latter’s partner to accept the award on his behalf.
Akçam also was imprisoned in Turkey as a youth, but was able to escape to Germany, where he obtained a doctorate on Turkish nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. Dr. Vahakn Dadrian was an important mentor for Akçam on the Armenian Genocide. Akçam came to the United States sometime around 2000, and after holding several academic positions was appointed to the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian, and Stephen and Marion Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies in 2008. He is the author of several books on the Armenian Genocide.
In his acceptance speech, Akçam declared that “this is a very emotional moment, and the reason should be obvious.” It was in a sense an acknowledgment of the changes in Armenian-Turkish relations over the past twenty to thirty years. Akçam asked listeners to “view this award through a time tunnel.” If for Armenians a Turk in the past was “someone who murdered your ancestors…who supported the policy of denial that the Turkish government promotes today,” the Turks thought of Armenians as “‘traitors’ and ‘backstabbers’ who plotted against the Ottoman regime and murdered our innocent diplomats.” When Akçam first came to the United States many Armenians thought he had to be some sort of Turkish agent.
Armenians still live locked in the “time tunnel” by the policies of the Turkish government as victims of Genocide, while most Turks, as descendants of genocide perpetrators, “have no sense of history whatsoever. This thing that is frozen in time for you and which lives on today, doesn’t exist for us. Our youth have very little idea of what happened in 1915, or in history generally. … We wrongly believe that you accuse today’s Turk of being a murderer.”
Thus, Akçam concluded, “One side is frozen in the tunnel of history and the other side is completely unaware of its existence.” For him, the Knights of Vartan award symbolized “the creation of a new cultural space in which we develop a new language and a new discourse. The meaning of Turks and Armenians is different in this new space and time has a different meaning too….By reconstructing the past in our new present, we will build a beautiful future.”
In this future, “in this new space, we Turks and Armenians oppose and condemn the annihilation of human beings because of their ethnic or religious identity. The Armenian Genocide was a crime in human history, and whoever cannot condemn it has no moral right to denounce such crimes occurring today. … We have to fight for a better future not only for Turks or Armenians but for all of humanity.”
Mr. and Mrs Zvi Kichel, representing the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, generously donated copies of Taner Akcam’s most recent book, The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity, to the guests at the banquet, courtesy of Eduardo Eurnekian, the chairman of the foundation.
At the convocation’s grand banquet, Grand Recorder Leo Manuelian received a plaque from Papazian for his unique service to the Knights. Convocation General Chairman Antranik Platyan and Co-Chair Jaklin Platyan were thanked by Papazian for their yeoman’s work for the 2012 convocation. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, delivered the invocation, declaring: “For generations now, the Knights and Daughters of Vartan has been the seed-bed of leadership in the Armenian community. Through its outreach efforts, countless people have been drawn into the orbit of Armenian life. Bless, O Lord, these fine men and women, who have done so much to advance the Armenian heritage in this country.”
Grand Matron Agnes B. Sahagian of Worcester declared that the Daughters of Vartan had a new project, the support of the St. Tarkmanchatz School of Jerusalem. Though a new otyag or chapter was established in Costa Mesa last year, declining membership poses a challenge for the future.
Sahagian commented afterwards that she was able to meet with many present and past officials of the Daughters of Vartan in fruitful meeting at this year’s convocation. She exclaimed, “It was wonderful!” Significantly greater unity was achieved between the men and women in this year’s meetings. Sahagian explained, “When the men were going to have the installation of officials, I went alone but one of the girls from Boston wanted to join, so I said of course. Then I decided that if I let one come all should be able to come with me. … The men, I believe, were honored to have us there. Then the men came to our room to watch my reinstallation and the installation of other officials.”
Many former grand commanders, grand matrons, and other high ranking leaders of the Knights and Daughters of Vartan were present at the event, while Ambassador Garen Nazarian, representative of the Republic of Armenia to the United Nations, attended the grand banquet reception prior to traveling. Several scholarships were presented at the banquet.
Mezzo soprano Hasmik Meikhanedjian sang the national anthems of the United States, Canada, and Armenia at the start of the banquet, while fourteen-year-old Arthur Ipek ably performed a compilation of Armenian and classical music on the piano toward its end. Meikhanedjian is a graduate of the Gomidas State Conservatory of Yerevan and the soloist of the St. Vartan Cathedral Choir, while Ipek is a 2009 graduate of Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School.
This year’s convocation was important for the future direction of the Knights and Daughters. Nigoghos Atinizian began his term as the new grand commander for the next two years. He stated dramatically in his speech, “Today we mark a new beginning, a new beginning for the next hundred years. It is of vital importance that leaders, not only within the Knights, but as Armenians, regardless of organization, that we think where we want to go as a people, to make the greatest contribution, as Armenians. Let us not trap ourselves in the quicksand of history. Let us always take one step forward followed by another step forward, but always together, as one. Let us not live in the sins of the past. … Our legacy begins tonight.”
Papazian later declared, “It was a landmark meeting because the torch was passed to a new generation. Those of us who served long and hard needed to bring in the younger people, and we did. We have a very strong group taking over. They have energy; they are excited, and inspired. They have new progressive attitudes and techniques.”