Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 7, 2021

Declaration eases pain of Armenian survivors

Dumitru explains enormity of U.S. recognition

Miller & Martin attorney Mike Dumitru with his family. - Photo by Janie Beth Photography

Many historians believe Aldolph Hitler concluded his Aug. 22, 1939, briefing with his generals about the impending invasion of Poland by saying: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

In his chilling statement, Hitler was referring to the extermination of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1916.

The stage for what is known today as the Armenian genocide was set on April 24, 1915, when the empire’s minister of interior, Talaat Pasha, ordered the arrest and deportation of Armenian intellectuals in what is now Istanbul. Most were ultimately murdered.

A month later, the Ottoman Empire began the mass deportation of ethnic Armenians, sealing a terrible fate for more than a million human beings.

Just more than 80 years after Hitler callously cited this event, the United States government spoke of the annihilation of the Armenians.

On April 24, 2021, both houses of Congress passed resolutions formally recognizing the killings as genocide.

That same day, President Joe Biden referred to the events as genocide in an official White House statement that compared the atrocities, which followed decades of Armenian persecution in the Ottoman Empire, to those committed in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Armenians in the U.S. had pursued this affirmation since the 1960s, says Miller & Martin attorney Mike Dumitru.

Dumitru and his family were among those who had sought the U.S. government’s acknowledgement that the slaughter – which involved mass shootings, starvation, dehydration, exposure and disease – constituted genocide.

As a Chattanoogan, Dumitru is far removed from his roots in the New York City borough of Queens, and even farther removed from the origins of his mother’s family in Armenia, which the Ottoman Empire absorbed.

But Dumitru is not removed from the long reach of Armenian history, nor was he detached from the enduring impact of the genocide as he grew up.

Rather, Dumitru listened to his grandmother tell stories about how her father and grandfather were the only members of their immediate family of 25 to survive the genocide, he shared his family’s grief over its loss and joined his mother, grandmother and others on an annual pilgrimage to Times Square to implore the U.S. government to simply call what happened genocide.

“Every April 24th, the Armenian community would congregate for a rally to convince the U.S. government to recognize what happened,” Dumitru remembers. “We wanted our country to call a spade a spade.”

But nothing in the world of politics is simple. Turkey, which insists the death toll has been inflated and claims those killed were victims of civil war and unrest, rejects classifying the event as a genocide, says an NPR article published the day of Biden’s declaration.

Nevertheless, Turkey is an ally of the U.S. in a part of the world where the nation has few friends, and over the years people in the seats of power on Capitol Hill and in the White House were reluctant to imperil the relationship, Dumitru suggests.

“The closest we came was Ronald Regan using the ‘g’ word in a letter or speech.”

After Biden ended decades of foot-dragging by U.S. presidents and issued his proclamation, Dumitru expressed his gratitude on Facebook:

“Today was a monumentally important day for my family, not just because it’s the 106th anniversary of the commencement of an historical event not even referenced in ... [most] history books, but because it’s the first time the government of the country to which my family immigrated to find a better life acknowledged the gravity of the persecution their ancestors endured.”

Nearly a week later, Dumitru says he can only speculate as to why Biden, along with Congress, chose this moment to avow the true nature of the darkest chapter in the history of the Armenian people.

“Perhaps the current administration wants to assert itself as a moral compass,” he says. “Regardless, 32 countries now recognize what happened as genocide, and the U.S. is one of them.”

Calling what the Ottoman Empire did to the Armenian people genocide (a word that didn’t exist until Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined it in his 1944 book, “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe”) is critical, Dumitru adds, because it speaks to the intent of the entity that ordered it.

“Turkey will say there was internal strife and a relocation of Armenians and several died; Armenians will tell you the Ottoman Empire intended to exterminate them, they simply found a way to do it that didn’t just involve using bullets.”

Dumitru also speculates he’s sitting in a conference room in Chattanooga because his great-grandfather, Avedis Carabelayan, was elsewhere when the bullets began to fly.

“He and his dad survived the genocide because they were in Romania doing business when Pasha signed the decree ordering the gathering of Armenian intellectuals,” Dumitru explains. “Everyone in their family said, ‘Don’t come back; this is really happening.’”

Carabelayan and his father stayed in Romania, and in the years that followed, Carabelayan settled in Bucharest, married and had children.

In 1977, Carabelayan, his daughter and his two granddaughters – including Dumitru’s mother, Arshaluys – fled what had become communist Romania and made their way to the U.S. via Beirut and a plane that took them to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Dumitru’s father, a Greek named Christian, was already there, having arrived at Ellis Island on a boat in 1966. He had also been born in Bucharest, but he and Arshaluys didn’t meet until they were both living in New York.

Someone who claimed to be clairvoyant said they were destined to marry, Dumitru laughs.

“A Turkish tea leaf reader told my mom she was going to marry a man with a moustache, and the next date she had was with my dad, who happened to have a moustache.”

Dumitru was born into this rich cultural brew in 1982 and grew up in a home that included flavors of Greek Orthodoxy, Armenian Orthodoxy and foods from various ethnic backdrops.

Although the Armenian genocide haunted the family like a ghost it refused to exorcise, Dumitru says he and his parents were happy and their home was a place of spirited debates, festive holiday gatherings and the warmth of loved ones.

Still, April 24th was a solemn annual occasion in which Dumitru’s family locked arms and called for its government to “call a spade a spade.”

“The more you don’t acknowledge an historical event, the greater the likelihood it will recur,” Dumitru explains. “It’s another arrow in the quiver of those who want to push others down based on characteristics that are uncontrollable, like their ethnicity or skin color.

“It’s another tool for the wicked.”

When Biden issued his statement, Dumitru says each surviving member of his family felt different emotions based on their age, even as joy and sadness collided within all of them.

“With every generation that’s removed from the genocide, there’s a fading of memory and pain. For my grandmother, it was one emotion; for my mother and her sister, it was another because they had lived a different part of it.

“My cousins and I are the farthest removed and probably know the least about it, so we had different emotions. But at the end of the day, we were all thrilled.”

Although three generations of family separated Dumitru from the epicenter of the genocide, he felt the aftershocks growing up, and says they are part of what drove him to practice law.

For context, Dumitru tells the story of his family’s connection to another chapter of Armenian history: The assassination of Pasha in Germany in 1921.

“When the empire fell, Pasha read the writing on the wall and fled to Berlin. Later, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation started a project called Operation Nemesis, which was designed to find and bring to justice the people responsible for the genocide,” Dumitru begins.

“My great-great-grandmother’s cousin Soghomon Tehlirian was a member of the ARF. He traveled to Berlin, found Pasha and killed him in broad daylight with a single bullet.”

Dumitru says Tehlirian didn’t try to escape, but rather allowed himself to be arrested on the spot. He was subsequently tried in a German court and found not guilty.

“Tehlirian brought a killer to justice, which is great, but at the same time, he felt compelled to do that because he didn’t have faith in the justice system,” Dumitru notes.

“So, it means a lot to me that people in this country have faith in its justice system, because without the barricade of the judiciary, people might desire to take things into their own hands, which is a terrifying thought.”

Dumitru says some in the Armenian community say Biden’s proclamation falls short because it doesn’t name Turkey as the perpetrator of the genocide, but he doesn’t agree.

Rather, he says he’s grateful to have an ending for a story he will someday share with his currently 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.

“My wife and I told them about what Biden said and why it was important to our family, but we left out the grisly details,” he says. “When they’re older, we’ll have a conversation about what happened between 1915 and 1917 and our family’s connections to it. And, hopefully, they’ll do the same with their kids.”

Dumitru’s Facebook profile contains a photograph of him and his wife watching their children running joyfully across the grassy carpet of a sunlit patch of green forest.

The image is full of life and stands in lush contrast to the grainy black and white photographs of heaps of dead Armenians snapped in the wake of the genocide.

A famous excerpt from a 1935 short story by Armenian novelist William Saroyan adds even more weight to the photograph of Dumitru’s children.

Regarding the survival of the Armenian people following the genocide, Saroyan wrote:

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard and prayers are no more answered.

“Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again.

“For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

Dumitru displays this passage from Saroyan’s story in his home as a reminder of not only the genocide of the Armenian people but also the triumph of their survival – a triumph in the country where he and his family live as citizens now celebrates with them.