The story of genocide carved in stone

I grew up within a mostly Armenian American community, where the stories of the genocide were retold and never forgotten. My grandmother too, survived this time. The Assyrians called it the time of the sword or Seyfo. So when I wrote about this memorial, I was quietly overcome with sorrow. To me, it was the perfect way to remember a horrific event: silent yet powerful, somber yet resilient.  As Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks observe the formal start of the Genocide today on April 24, I offer my story from last year. The photo below is from SCPR (KPCC): (Daily News, Sept. 16, 2016): 

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Their story can be found within the sculpted volcanic tuff rock imported from the Ararat Valley of Armenia.

Now set in downtown L.A.’s Grand Park, the massive blackened stone bares the history of a people forced from their homes and killed. In its shape, sculpted at 4, 24, 19 and 15 degrees, there is the date when the cleansing began: April 24, 1915. And its form, split in two, symbolizes how the first genocide of the 20th century left lives fractured.

“The monument has meaning at every level of its conceptualization and construction,” said architect and sculptor Vahagn Thomasian, who along with Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, will unveil the Armenian Genocide memorial Saturday.

Though not the only monument dedicated to the Armenian Genocide in the county, it’s the first one for the city of Los Angeles and marks a continuation of the iwitness public art installation that was featured at Grand Park and the Music Center last year. That exhibit included 24 sculptures ranging in height from 8 to 15 feet with photographs of Armenian Genocide survivors. They were installed in observance of the centennial of the start of the massacres and marches. Antonovich said the response to iwitness was well received, so the county teamed up with its creators again: Thomasian and photographers Ara Oshagan and Levon Parian. The monument was donated by the Sarkisov Family Foundation.

Saturday’s unveiling at 5 p.m. at Grand Park between Grand Avenue and Spring Street also will include speakers and musical performances.

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“This remarkable memorial honors the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide, and Grand Park is a superb venue for reflection and solemn contemplation,” Antonovich said during Tuesday’s board meeting in announcing the unveiling.

He called the monument both organic and conceptual, “sourced from the earth itself and blends in with the natural flora and fauna of Grand Park.”

Split in two, each side is different.

“The rough side represents the past, the struggle of Armenians,” Thomasian noted. “The smoother side says we survived and represents the present and the future.”

The sharpest corner points toward Armenia, but the memorial is meant to have universal meaning, Thomasian said.

“Part of this is a memorial to the Armenian Genocide, but we didn’t want it to be just for Armenians, but about the whole human condition,” added Parian, a photography professor at Cal State Northridge.

Oshagan said the rock, ancient and rich with layers, can be been seen as a witness to what happened to the Armenians.

“It was there, and that history is embedded in it,” he said. “A witness need not speak to be a witness. Just like the trees around Auschwitz are witnesses to the Holocaust.”

Parian said the monument also stands for the injustice to the 1.5 million Armenians killed under the command of the Ottoman Turks starting more than a century ago. From 1915 to 1923, Armenians were forcibly deported from their homes and killed as part of a systemic ethnic cleansing that also affected Assyrians and Pontic Greeks.

Historians, scholars, human rights activists and many countries call it the first genocide of the 20th century, but the Turkish government maintains the deaths were a result of betrayal and civil unrest in what was then a collapsing Ottoman Empire.

Despite its somber reminder, the monument also offers advice. Engraved around it is a saying made famous by novelist, playwright and short story writer William Saroyan:

“In the time of your life, live — so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”

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