Stirring the Ashes: A Conversation with Harry Harootunian

By Halis YildirimDecember 7, 2019

Stirring the Ashes: A Conversation with Harry Harootunian
BORN IN 1929 in the United States, Harry Harootunian is a professional historian of East Asia, focusing on Japan’s early modern and modern history. He is the author of Marx After Marx: History and Time After Capitalism (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Uneven Moments: Reflections on Japan’s Modern History (Columbia University Press, 2019). He was formerly the Max Palevsky Professor, Emeritus of History and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, the dean of Humanities at the University of California, Santa Cruz, editor of Journal for Asian Studies, and co-editor of Critical Inquiry. His newest book is The Unspoken as Heritage: The Armenian Genocide and Its Unaccounted Lives.


HALIS YILDIRIM: The title of your book is very striking and at the same time very telling because it puts the emphasis on the experience of the survivor generation as well as the generations that followed. The silence, the catastrophic experiences of survival, the survival itself, and the denial, the loneliness, the desperation, all irreversible consequences of a genocide — these and much more remained on the shoulders of the survivors, whose stories did not matter, to say the least, in those countries where they continued their struggle of survival. Your title made me think of all these things. Would you like to talk about your life as a second-generation American born into an Armenian survivor family?

HARRY HAROOTUNIAN: The initial purpose that prompted me to make an attempt at recomposing somebody else’s life and experiences occurred to me, on later reflection, as something which might be described as a fool’s errand. My reason for raising this possibility of embarking on a fool’s errand stems from the realization that I really didn’t know much about my parents and was never prompted to ask questions that might have filled in many of the gaps of knowledge about them and their early lives. Worse still, they left us no records, papers, letters, or photos from their early years. My principal purpose was to undertake an account of my parents’ survival of the genocide and the years my two sisters and I lived with them in the United States. While growing up in their household, I knew nothing of their respective experiences of survival and escape from the horrors of mass murder in Anatolia. At the time I made the decision to undertake this project, I was particularly aware of the fact that I was neither a historian of the Ottoman Empire nor of the formation of the modern Turkish state. In other words, I was mindful that I possessed no convincing qualification such as professional training in Ottoman imperial history or the necessary language competence to carry out original research. I had read a number of general histories by specialists of the period and its subject and I had lived in a family whose parents came from the region where the mass murders took place. Once I began to learn something about the genocide, I found that it is a subject in which a good deal of the professional historiography is still satisfied to attribute the instance of genocide to the occasion of World War I and define the actually killings as collateral damage or even a sideshow to the war.

Yet it occurred to me that there was an unbridgeable divide between living in a family whose parents escaped to survive imminent death and the historical event of a global war which seemed to permit the reduction of the Turkish dedication to eliminate its entire Armenian population as well as Greeks and Assyrians to a mere sideshow. The problem was the difference between two modes of cognitions, history versus experience and memory, whereby the former addressed the status of events and had traditionally distrusted memory and experience while the latter was rooted in an everydayness and the primacy of uneventfulness.

But as a historian, I recognized that the kind of stories I wanted to recompose and the voices I wanted to hear could not or, better yet, should not be reduced to the form of a historical narrative devoted to the importance of a world historical event. I wanted, as you suggest, to recount the experience of my parents' generation and the memories I could retrieve of what it was like living as second-generation children of immigrant parents in Depression-era Detroit who had barely escaped, unlike so many of their relatives and friends, the certainty of mass murder. Like my sisters, I only learned of the Armenian Genocide as I grew older and began to hear fragmented shards of episodes discussed by people who had managed, like our parents, to flee and make their way through circuitous routes to the United States.

My mother never spoke about her early years before she entered a German missionary school in Marash (Maraş). What we experienced as children was our parents’ silence, a virtual void, where we never even learned the names of their parents, siblings, and other relatives who apparently had perished in the genocidal frenzy of 1915–’16. To this day, I still do not know the names of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles who died in Anatolia. Nor do I know how and where they died, though I can make an educated guess that the men were killed on site while the women died in deportation marches.

You are right to highlight that as a disaporic community in the United States, nobody was interested what the survivors endured and the losses they continued to remember. In the US, where major cataclysmic events are easily erased and forgotten after a few days, the calamity of genocide in a distant land involving an ethnic group nobody knew or cared about would never register on the national consciousness, much less be remembered. As a child and even in adulthood, I recall that most people in the United States referred only to the “Starving Armenians” as a way of inducing their own children to eat everything on their plates. Growing up in a large American city (Detroit), I also encountered in school and the outside that this was no welcoming country for migrants and certainly one that had trouble instituting forms of belonging that rarely exceeded momentary and meaningless gestures of patronization. Yet, I’ve also continued to be puzzled by a discourse of post-colonial theory that appears to have conveniently sidestepped attending to the genocidal impulse of historic colonial empires — like the Czarist, Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Belgian — where the subalterns were simply destroyed, instead of worrying about their subject formation. Overlooked is the real vocation of colonial expropriation and dispossession that ultimately led to the killing fields in Europe.

I had the sense, as I still do, that being Armenian meant belonging to a reviled race that derived from the brutal socialization of 500 years of Ottoman oppression, matched only by the Irish under British rule. I am trying to determine how my parents got out on the basis of the meager information I have at hand. I also know what happened to so many of them that were made into laborers by Ottomans. I have one chapter that deals with the genocide as an instant of “primitive accumulation.” That is to say, despite appeals to religious sanctions and ethnic imperatives employed to mobilize people to participate, the genocide, like so many mass murders, was about expropriation, dispossession, and theft. I’m sure this will bring an avalanche of denunciation and protest from both non-Turkish and Turkish historians, but I’ve had the sense that a good deal of historical narratives have used the war as a displacement and/or opportunity to mask layers of events that remain unseen in the eclipse of a world historical event.

Given the void of silence in which we lived, I was faced with the prospect of resorting to the procedure of recomposing their experiences and memories, and especially the context of their everyday lives in Anatolia. It became my intention to also show that migrating to the United States became for my parents another challenge of economic survival, especially once they encountered the Great Depression. I found by reflecting on my parents’ lives that America was not really welcoming to immigrants, as it was ideologized in my youth, but always used the same historically worn-out myths of the national narrative to fit them in a place they could never see or recognize themselves. I think this habit still persists. 

Your parents, Ohannes and Vehanush, are survivors. Can you tell us about your family history?

This question is really the purpose of my attempt to recompose the lives and experiences and vocalize the memories that my parents refused to share. As mentioned, in writing the memoir I really had little hard evidence or primary documents of their early lives. What I was able to recall from fragmentary conversations and what my sisters were able to supply from their recollections became the basis of this recomposition. In our household, neither our mother nor father ever discussed their lives in Anatolia. I don’t know when either parent was born, but my father was clearly older than my mother. He used to guess he was born in 1895, but I suspect recordkeeping must have been unreliable. My father was from a small village near Harput, from a large family in which his father and grandfather were priests. My father, in time, began to tell us tales of growing up in a large family in a village and then later stories of how he came to the United States before World War I. My father went to the US on two different occasions as a contract worker on a railway and worked in a factory outside of Chicago. In the meantime, he appeared in this region and fought in the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) brigades in eastern Anatolia with the Russians against the Ottoman Empire. It is not at clear to me where he was and when he joined the brigades and how he was able to make this move. Upon returning to his village, while still in the brigades, he discovered his entire family had disappeared and so left again for the United States. Nevertheless, we cannot correctly construct this period of my father’s life because we lack the necessary vital information to fill in the gaps (I have included a photo of him and two other comrades taken while they were members of the brigade). He joined the American Expeditionary Force and was sent to France, where he was wounded in World War I. He was evacuated from the front lines and sent back to a field hospital and ultimately discharged when the war ended. As a result of his service in the US Army, he received American citizenship. My mother was from Marash, where her biological father died when she was two years old and her mother remarried. She had a brother, whose name I’ve never learned, nor whether he was older or younger than her.

My mother’s mother put her in a German missionary school in Marash, where Armenian children from the area were enrolled as a form of safe-keeping and where she spent the duration of the genocide years. Her brother was put in a Jesuit school, possibly in the Marash area. My mother’s mother said she would return for her but never did, even though my mother survived by making her way to Beirut. I have no idea when, where, and how she was able to make this escape. Her fears of a mother who might not return and the knowledge of what was happening outside of the school were unimaginable and permanent terrors for a child in her early teens. Her brother was apparently killed. Along with other girls, my mother was eventually taken out of the school, probably at war’s end, and accompanied to Greece by teachers, some of whom were Armenian. My mother and father were brought together probably as a result of an arranged marriage and were married in Marseilles, France, where they lived for a time until my father was able to get her into the United States.

I assume that in different stages of your life you had different approaches to your family history. How have you dealt with it?

Growing up, I increasingly identified with schoolmates, principally a cohort of second-generation working-class migrant kids like myself. I had no real interest in or knowledge of the historical fate of the Armenians. As I said, I knew nothing about the genocide. My father, despite his familial religious background, had long dissociated himself from the Armenian church, which, even in disaporic communities like ours, continued to be a center of cultural dissemination. My mother had no prior affiliation with the Armenian church and no nostalgic sentimentality about her life in Anatolia, which meant we never heard her even speak of her early years before coming to the United States. Once settled there, she turned her back on Anatolia, unlike my father, who was seized by residual romantic attachments to his early life as he grew older. It was precisely because of the absence of their combined refusal to speak of that world and their experience that none of us were ever encouraged to ask the kind of questions that would have provided me the answers I have tried to clarify in the memoir but fear I have not been able to penetrate the void their silence produced.

My parents often spoke Turkish between themselves when they didn’t want the three of us to know what they were talking about. There was a brief period in my teens when I began to study the Armenian language — that is, learn how to read and write — and identify with the historical culture. I joined the youth division of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and was active in it for a time until I wrote an article for its newspaper suggesting that there might not be a substantial difference between Armenian and Turkish music played at dances or the foods served, even though the names would differ. This brought an avalanche of criticism and denunciations, which persuaded me to conclude that one could not be an Armenian American yet self-critical. I decided at the time that I didn’t want to lead a life circumscribed by constant considerations of a genocide I had not experienced but knew of only through discussions among elders I overheard at Armenian social functions while growing up. It was only in later years that I began to think about how little I knew of my parents, how little I actually knew them, and what they had gone through before confronting the challenge of a second survival in the United States, how little I knew of the world they came out of and the relatives whose names I never knew and will undoubtedly never know that perished with that world.

I came to the delayed recognition that the genocide was very much a part of my legacy. In fact, it had always shadowed my life, even though I had not experienced it, and that my sisters and I had lived with its effects and its unaccounted lives represented by our parents’ silence.


Halis Yildirim is a philosopher graduated from LMU Munich. His fields of research are the conception of history in Hegel, Gramsci, and Benjamin, and the Armenian genocide.

LARB Contributor

Halis Yildirim is a philosopher graduated from LMU Munich. His fields of research are the conception of history in Hegel, Gramsci, and Benjamin, and the Armenian genocide.


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