… Listen, O Lord, to the lament that rises from this place,
to the call of the dead from the depths of the Metz Yeghérn …
–John Paul II (2001)
Words matter. Some people try to keep them meaningful, while others render them meaningless. And while some struggle to preserve memory, others fight to impose amnesia.
“Medz Yeghern”1 is the most common term used by survivors of the Armenian Genocide and their descendants to identify what befell the Armenian nation in 1915. Over the past decade, American, European and Turkish news outlets have consistently translated Medz Yeghern as “Great Calamity.” The Turkish media has repeated this seemingly innocuous translation over and over again in an attempt to deny the genocidal intent inherent in the meaning the victims themselves have given to the phrase.
In a parallel development, influential Armenian-American writers and editors have uncritically adopted this translation. We have come to the point where many readers and writers, Armenian and non-Armenian alike, appear to be sincerely convinced that the word “yeghern” has meant “calamity” over the past hundred years. This article, the first in a series, will explore the birth of “calamity” after Pope John Paul II and President George W. Bush used Medz Yeghern.
‘Chart’ and ‘Medz Yeghern’
Armenians across the diaspora have heard and applied the word “chart” (“massacre”) to describe the events of 1915. It has been widely used colloquially and is sometimes even seen in writing: Early on, journalist Sebouh Aguni, a survivor of the genocide, used the word chart in his 1920 book Milion me hayeru charti badmutiune (“The History of the Chart of a Million Armenians”). In 2009, British journalist Robert Fisk wrote the following when President Barack Obama first used Medz Yeghern in his April 24 address: “Like Presidents Clinton and George Bush, [Obama] called the mass killings ‘great atrocities’ and even tried to hedge his bets by using the Armenian phrase ‘Meds Yeghern,’ which means the same thing—it’s a phrase that elderly Armenians once used about the Nazi-like slaughter—but the Armenian for genocide is ‘chart.’ And even that was missing.”2 Fisk was, in fact, mistaken in his choice of the word; nowadays, there is a clear-cut difference between the legal terms to designate a non-systematic massacre (chart, or “massacre”) and systematic mass killing (tseghasbanutiun, or “genocide”). Sabra and Shatila during the Lebanese Civil War was a chart; Rwanda was a tseghasbanutiun.
Medz Yeghern, frequently shortened to Yeghern in writing, is not an esoteric phrase used only by the highly literate. It was indeed adopted by Armenian intellectuals to describe a massacre much greater in scale and destruction than the Armenian massacres of 1895-96 and the Cilician Armenian pogroms of 1909 (the latter were also called yeghern in the 1910’s and later), but it soon became the most widely used and heard phrase among all classes of Armenians, even after tseghasbanutiun, the loan translation of “genocide,” was coined in 1945. Although the usage of Medz Yeghern may have quantitatively decreased in books and the media since the late 1980’s to early 1990’s,3 it is still very much alive in many Armenian-language periodicals and books in both Armenia and the diaspora.
Pope John Paul II and ‘Metz Yeghérn’
Long before 1915, the definition of yeghern had shifted to the primary meaning of “crime” or “evil.” A yeghernakordz was defined as a “criminal” (vojrakordz) or “evildoer” (charakordz) who was brought to trial before a yeghernatad adean (“criminal court”), this last word being used only in Western Armenian.
In a book chapter first published in 1986, Rev. Levon Zekiyan (signing as Boghos Levon Zekiyan), a scholar and former member of the Mekhitarist Congregation who remains an Armenian rite priest of the Catholic Church, had sensibly noted when speaking of the “catastrophe of the Metz Yeghern”: “The genocide was consummated by a total uprooting, which the Armenian language simply wants to indicate with a proper name, Aghet (catastrophe) or Yeghern (crime), within the corresponding metaphysical radicality. These nouns are normally accompanied in the common use by the qualifier Metz (great) to simply underscore their wholly singular scope and signification in the history of the Armenian people.”4
Around a decade later, in 1995, the Italian translation of a short book by French-Armenian historian Claude Mutafian appeared under the title Metz Yeghérn: Breve storia del genocidio degli armeni (“Metz Yeghérn: A Short History of the Armenian Genocide”). The phrase was transliterated using Classical/Eastern Armenian phonetics and used as a synonym of genocide. The back cover provided its translation: “Metz Yeghérn, the ‘Great Evil’: That’s how the Armenians remember their holocaust, with a word which means, together, physical and also moral evil that hurts, tortures, kills.”5
In 2000, Pope John Paul II was not “struck with senile dementia”—as the Turkish newspaper Milliyet headlined6—when he issued a joint declaration in English with the Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II during the latter’s visit to the Vatican, and stated: “The Armenian Genocide, which began the century, was a prologue to horrors that would follow.”7 On Sept. 26, 2001, in a short speech given in Yerevan at the Genocide Memorial on the hill of Tzitzernakaberd, the head of the Roman Catholic Church said, “We are appalled by the terrible violence done to the Armenian people, and dismayed that the world still knows such inhumanity,” and read the following prayer in English:
“O Judge of the living and the dead, have mercy on us!
Listen, O Lord, to the lament that rises from this place,
to the call of the dead from the depths of the Metz Yeghérn,
the cry of innocent blood that pleads like the blood of Abel,
like Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more.”
The English version of L’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican, quoted the prayer and gave the literal translation of Metz Yeghérn for the benefit of its readers: “great crime or great evil.”8 The Pope used the same transliteration found in Mutafian’s book (in its fifth print by 2010), which contained a postface by Rev. Zekiyan.
But it is here where the comedy of errors begins. The BBC rushed to report the same day of the prayer that, “The Pope has skirted controversy [with Turkey] on his visit to Armenia by avoiding the word ‘genocide’ in his prayers for those who died at the hands of Ottoman Turks… His use of the Armenian term, ‘Metz Yeghern,’ which means great calamity, to refer to the murders staved off the potential diplomatic storm which the word ‘genocide’ might have provoked from Turkey.” Its analyst Felix Corley repeated the equation “Metz Yeghern = big calamity,” and stated that it is “the term the Armenians have used which has the same resonance as ‘Shoah’ does for Jews.”9
The next day, a correspondent for the The New York Times reported: “In the end, the pope said nothing to whitewash the issue. … But in his remarks, in English, he used not the word ‘genocide’ but the Armenian term ‘metz yeghern.’ This signifies genocide to people here, but translates literally as ‘the big calamity.’ … Later in the day, Turkish officials said they were satisfied, in part because the word ‘Turk’ had not been mentioned, either. … Armenians had no complaints, either. At an ecumenical service tonight, Catholicos Karekin II, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s supreme patriarch, used the same term the pope had, ‘metz yeghern,’ in an address in Armenian, though the remarks distributed in English did translate the phrase as ‘genocide.’”10
But on the same day, The Guardian published an article that showed more of an understanding of the Armenian phrase: “The entire prayer was in English except for metz yeghern, which means great crime or great evil in Armenian. … For more than 75 years the Armenians have used metz yeghern to refer to what they say was genocide, a word coined during the second world war in response to the Holocaust. Some dictionaries say that over the years yeghern has come to mean genocide.”11 It was echoed in a dictionary of political and economic terms of Eastern Europe published in 2002: “Armenia, as an independent State since 1991, has lobbied persistently for ‘the Armenian genocide’ (Armenians use the term ‘metz yeghern,’ meaning great crime or great evil) to become an internationally accepted part of the historical record.”12
That same day, on Sept. 27, the Pope signed another joint declaration with the Catholicos of All Armenians that addressed “the extermination of a million and a half Armenian Christians, in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the Twentieth Century.”13 His signature beneath the word “genocide” for the second time in less than a year was further proof of his full endorsement of the content and wording of the speech. The BBC failed to report it, while The New York Times did not consider it suited for all the news that’s fit to print.
The Armenian National Committee of America had taken note of the joint declaration and its use of the word “genocide,” and did not take offense to the Pope’s use of Medz Yeghern. Their press release that day was entitled, “Pope Condemns Armenian Genocide; Rejects Turkish Government Pressure,” and stated, “In a short speech at the Genocide Memorial the Pope noted that ‘The horrible violence that was brought onto the Armenians, repels us,’ and later referred to the Armenian Genocide, in Armenian, as the Medz Yeghern.”14
Ironically, selective reporting of the Pope’s actions became a memory for Armenian-American journalists. In 2009, Harout Sassounian, the publisher and editor of California Courier, and Edmond Y. Azadian, a permanent columnist of the The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, would cite the BBC to support their contention that the Pope had skirted the issue.15 Khatchig Mouradian, the editor of The Armenian Weekly, would declare that Medz Yeghern had become “‘a four-letter word’ once Pope John Paul II and President Barack Obama began using it in order to avoid saying ‘genocide.’”16 Completely omitted was the fact that the Pope had used Karekin II’s same word (officially translated as “genocide”), and had backed it one day later with their joint declaration, even though Turkey had protested its use in 2000 and “the Turks had asked that he avoided using that word [in Armenia].”17
George W. Bush and ‘Great Calamity’
The source for the semantic guesses of the BBC and the New York Times remains unclear. The latter may have inspired some White House speechwriter hungry for ideas, for the translation made its way into the following sentence from President George W. Bush’s April 24, 2003 address: “Many Armenians refer to these appalling events as the ‘great calamity.’” His statement in April 2005 again tiptoed around the word “genocide” with the following line: “This terrible event is what many Armenian people have come to call the ‘Great Calamity’…”18
These exercises in rhetoric were not lost on Armenian commentators such as Sassounian, who in 2003 remarked: “Here is a sample of the verbal gymnastics that the president engaged in this year: ‘horrible tragedy,’ ‘mass killings,’ ‘forced exile,’ ‘appalling events,’ ‘great calamity,’ ‘the suffering that befell Armenians in 1915,’ ‘a tragedy for all humanity,’ and ‘horrendous loss of life.’” Bush’s 2005 statement prompted Sassounian to write the following: “Once again, the president’s handlers have put in his statement just about every euphemism in the English language to avoid saying genocide, such as forced exile, mass killings, terrible event, Great Calamity, horrible loss of life, human tragedy, and suffering.”19
Former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch unveiled the mystery of the Armenian source for “Great Calamity” on June 19, 2008, in response to questions from Obama, then a junior Senator from Illinois, during her Senate confirmation hearing:
Obama: “How do you characterize the events surrounding the Armenian Genocide?”
Yovanovitch: “…The United States recognizes these events as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, the Medz Yeghern, or Great Calamity, as many Armenians refer to it.”
Obama: “If confirmed, what actions will you take to remember the victims of the Armenian genocide?”
Yovanovitch: “If confirmed, I will continue the tradition of participating in the official memorial event held in Yerevan every April. I will refer to this great historic catastrophe as the Medz Yeghern, the term often used within Armenia to refer to that dark chapter of history.”20
Yovanovitch, currently deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Eurasian and European Affairs at the State Department, had conveniently forgotten half of the story: The term is often used within (and outside) Armenia as a synonym of the word genocide to refer to that dark chapter of history. Among many examples, the detailed entry of Medz Yeghern in the authoritative Encyclopedia of the Armenian Question, published by the Haykakan Hanragitaran (Armenian Encyclopedia) in 1996, begins: “Medz Yeghern: The massive deportation and annihilation of the Armenian population of Western Armenia, Cilicia, and the other provinces of the Ottoman Empire, executed by the governing circles of Turkey during the First World War of 1914-18. The Turkish policy of genocide [tseghasbanutiun] of the Armenians was conditioned by a series of factors, of which the ideology of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism, carried by the governing circles of the Ottoman Empire since the mid-19th century, had premiere significance.”21
To conclude this introduction of our investigation, we may thus state that:
1) Pope John Paul II, the first non-Armenian dignitary who used the phrase Medz Yeghern, was inspired by an Armenian source and consistently used both Medz Yeghern and “genocide” one after the other in 2001. Medz Yeghern, as stated by the Vatican semi-official newspaper, meant “great crime” or “great evil,” and not “big” or “great calamity,” as some international media misleadingly suggested. Armenian commentators believe that the Pope avoided condemning the genocide.
2) President George W. Bush picked “great calamity” and used it twice in his addresses on April 24. As his appointee Ambassador Yovanovitch later showed, the source of that expression, ascribed to “many Armenians,” was Medz Yeghern. The Armenian media never challenged the translation while criticizing Bush’s “verbal gymnastics.”