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Genocides remembered, forgotten, and denied

April always has been a month of hope and renewal, when the last snow disappears, the forsythia blooms, and leaves sprout on the trees. I’ve always been struck by the fact that America’s two worst wars came to an end in spring.

Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox 150 years ago. Seventy years ago, Adolf Hitler killed himself at the end of April, as the worst regime in history collapsed.

But April is also when we commemorate the two worst crimes in human history. Last Sunday, temples and synagogues across Michigan marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Armenian-Americans have been observing the 100th anniversary of their own genocide this week at the hands of the Turks, during World War I. Hitler, in justifying a policy of unspeakable brutality at the start of World War II, is supposed to have said to his generals,

“Who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

He thought mass murder could easily be forgotten. Well, that one hasn’t been, though the survivors are nearly all gone now. The Turkish slaughter of the Armenians was much less efficient than the Nazi murder machine. It largely consisted of driving more than a million men, women and children into the Syrian desert without food or water during the First World War.

And today, in an ironic twist, the Armenian Holocaust has not only not been forgotten, it remains a sensitive political issue. Nobody sane denies what happened to Europe’s Jews. But the Turkish government continues to deny there ever was a policy of genocide against the Armenians, and the United States government won’t contradict them.

Turkey was an important ally of ours during the Cold War and remains one against Islamic extremism, and Washington doesn’t want to make Ankara mad. President George W. Bush recalled our ambassador to Turkey nine years ago after he said the Armenian genocide was an undeniable historical event.

Even President Obama has gone no further than using Armenian words to label it a “Great Calamity.”

Pope Francis, however, flatly called the killings a genocide, which angered the Turks and comforted the Armenians. I am not an expert on that region. But over the years, I’ve interviewed enough survivors of the death march, including Detroit industrialist Alex Manoogian, to have no doubt whatsoever that mass murder occurred.

That doesn’t mean we, even the Armenians, should hate the Turkish people; after all, Israel and Germany are allies. It does mean we can’t forget. When American troops liberated their first concentration camp, a relatively minor one, General, later President Eisenhower did all he could to have the press see it and other liberated death camps as well.

Eisenhower said it was the greatest shock of his life. Though it made him sick, he forced himself to inspect every “nook and cranny of the camps” and to have as many pictures as possible taken so that nobody could ever deny that the Holocaust happened.

He was righter than he knew.

This week, we owe it to ourselves to remember both horrors, and the ones that have happened since, in places like Rwanda and Cambodia. We need to prove Hitler wrong, and, in a world still filled with hate, try to prevent it from happening again.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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