How I Learned About the Forgotten Genocide

Posted by Mary Hendra on April 21, 2015

I am not Armenian.


I did not grow up learning about the Armenian Genocide.

I attended schools in two of the best public school districts in Southern California and achieved not just an undergraduate degree, but two master's degrees. I had been teaching for several years before I ever learned about the Armenian Genocide.

The “forgotten genocide” seems a very appropriate name.

The genocide wasn't in the World History textbooks either, but I attended a workshop with Facing History and Ourselves. With Facing History, I spent an evening exploring historical sources that show the process as it unfolded, how it was reported on, and the choices individuals made.

  • Henry Morgenthau, American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, campaigned actively and consistently for the American government to take action. When he didn't get the response he'd hoped for, he wrote to friends and business leaders and mobilized one of the largest humanitarian efforts in American history.
  • A German medic, Armen Wegner, took photographs of what was happening, risking his own life to document it and share the news.
  • Individuals within the Ottoman Empire, such as Senator Ahmed Riza, stood up within government meetings to appeal for compassion to the Armenians.
  • And out of the country, the New York Times and other international papers wrote regularly about what was happening "under cover of war."

I went back to my classroom convinced it was important to teach this history. I'd already finished most of my World War I unit, so I planned a day at the end of the unit. We watched a short film excerpt from The Great War series. The video ends with a famous quote from Adolf Hitler, "Who still talks nowadays
of the extermination of the Armenians?"

While that is not available online, here is a new piece from Facing History, which could be used in a similar way:

I asked students to write a very short response—their immediate reaction. It was brief—I had them write on a Post-it so we could all see the response.

There is one Post-it I'll never forget.

One of my students wrote, "Hitler was right. I'd never heard of Armenians." This was a student who was taking World History for the third time. Granted, that clearly means he hadn't paid all that much attention the first and second times. But still, it epitomizes the shock of my students. Their reactions ranged from surprised to enraged that in a high-achieving school district, where they studied the Holocaust multiple times by 10th grade, they had never heard of the Armenian Genocide.

They wanted to know more.

They wanted to do something.

In this first year, we focused on the choices of individuals, reading sections that had struck me in the workshop from Facing History's book, Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians.

Each year after that, I found myself spending more and more time on the Armenian Genocide. It is in the California state standards, even if little to nothing is in the textbooks. Students were so curious, they wanted to understand more. It became the lead-in for me to explore with them man’s inhumanity to man—delving deep into the genocide, before exploring the totalitarian regimes of the '30s and the Holocaust.

At the end, students would write a "take action" letter sharing what they had learned with the person of their choice, and asking for action. Many wrote Hollywood movie execs asking them to create a feature film that would bring this history out of the shadows and more into common knowledge. Others wrote government officials—Turkish or American—advocating for acknowledgment.

When we learn about an injustice, we often want to do something.

This is the power of Facing History's approach—students enter safely into difficult historical cases, explore them in depth, and exit the case study with the inspiration and hope to act for a better community, rather than a resignation that the world is an evil place.

That's why we're proud to be an educational partner with LA2DC as they leverage a pivotal moment in history—the Armenian Genocide Centennial—to elevate visibility of the genocide and atrocities that are still happening today in order to accelerate genocide prevention and change.

Here are the resources Facing History and Ourselves offers on the Armenian Genocide.

This is an edited version of a blog post originally published on LA2DC.

Topics: Armenian Genocide, Facing History Resources, Genocide/Collective Violence, Teaching Resources, Video, History

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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