SAN FRANCISCO—On April 24, San Francisco’s first official Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day was held with San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Armenian clergy, Armenian church and youth organizations, and local politicians, all coming to remember the tragedy of the Armenian people in 1915. A total of 1.5 million perished in death marches and executions by Ottoman Turkish forces during World War I. The commemoration was held at the Armenian Genocide memorial Mount Davidson Cross.
Armenians indicate the Armenian Genocide was underplayed by Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, which refuses to recognize the tragedy as an organized systematic killing aimed at destroying an ethnic group. Today, former Western Armenia is Eastern Turkey. KRON 4 News Anchor and ethnic Armenian Ella Sogomonian facilitated the event, as “Mistress of Ceremonies,” giving the opening speech and introducing the audience to the various guests, speakers, and performers who came to share opinions and mourn.
There were speeches that spoke of true reconciliation and healing as a goal, and with the US recognition of the Armenian 1915 Genocide as a step.
San Francisco County board members passed a resolution designating April 24 as “Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day,” vowing to teach the historical facts in their public schools. The official documents were presented at the commemoration.
The commemoration started at roughly 1:20 p.m. with Ella Sogomonian giving thanks to United States President Biden, for recognizing the Armenian Genocide, which Turkey, as mentioned above, denies.
“For the first time, the United States President has called the atrocities in 1915 committed against Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks by the Ottoman Empire, rightfully by its name: a genocide,” said Ella Sogomonian. She preceded to read President Joe Biden’s statement.
“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian Genocide. Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination,” said President Biden.
Biden went on describing how Armenian refugees came to the United States, how they “enriched” the nation in “countless ways,” but have not forgotten the tragedy. Biden implied that Armenian people were given platforms in the US to voice their experience with tragedy, inspiring others to prevent similar occurrences anywhere in the world. “We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history. We do not do this to cast blame, but to ensure what happened is never repeated. Today as we mourn what we lost, let us turn our eyes towards the future. Let us renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world, and let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world.”
The national anthems to the United States and Armenia were played, and youth organizations did a color guard ceremony, presenting the flags of Armenia, the United States, California, and the self-declared Republic of Artsakh.
After reading Biden’s statement, Sogomonian went on to describe the issue of dismissing the past:
“It is important that the United States, home to one of the largest populations of Armenians outside of Armenia, and a global superpower, finally proclaim the atrocities for what they were: a genocide. It is maddening to say the least that to this day the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge that our ancestors were victims of an organized plan to wipe us out.”
In the light of Biden’s statements about Armenian contributions and the broader significance of the incident, Sogomonian gave a list of professions that Armenians excelled in, and thanked supporters. “We are a driven people who seek to bring justice not just to our own, but others who suffer the same plight: the right to live on indigenous land.”
The mayor of San Francisco and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who supported the resolution spoke at the event, expressing solidarity with the Armenian people, and making mention of the hate crimes against Armenians in San Francisco, which occurred during the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, which was another theme of the commemoration. The war was over lands internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, and deemed illegally occupied by Armenia, known as the self-declared Armenian state of the “Republic of Artsakh.”
The mayor called the Armenian community “resilient.” She went on, and said, “For over 100 years, this community has been waiting for what I believe is the truth about what your ancestors have suffered through. I am so greatful that President Biden chose to acknowledge it, and call it out for what it is. It was a genocide. It is time that not just this country recognize it, but the entire world.”
Mayor Breed spoke about hate crimes carried out against the Armenian community last year. The St. Gregory The Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church at 51 Commonwealth Avenue in the Laurel Heights neighborhood caught on fire by arsonists in mid-September 2020. The Armenian KZV School on Brotherhood Way was also vandalized with pro-Azerbaijan graffitti in July 2020.
“We were at St. Gregory’s and the cultural center there, and what happened at the KZV School—where your children go every single day. The fact that this school was vandalized and this church was vandalized, was heart-breaking,” she said. “What I want this community to know is that we are with you. We stand with you in solidarity. We have been working with this community to keep you safe, to make sure you feel supported and uplifted, and to make sure that you stand with an entire community that supports you and condemns hate and xenophobia every time it tries to stand against us.”
“As we commemorate and acknowledge what has occurred, it is definitely an opportunity to recommit ourselves to build stronger and more resilient communities; to demonstrate with the way we lead our lives that we are for inclusion and support,” stated the mayor. She thanked attendants for making the journey to mourn in honor of the perished and “celebrate the hope” for love and inspiration in the coming generations.
San Francisco Board of Supervisor Aaron Peskin of District 3, was present to speak, and it was he who sponsored the Armenian Genocide Commemoration Resolution, having introduced it for the preceding 14 years. Peskin successfully pushed in passing it this year, committing to “teaching school children historical facts” regarding the tragic history. As a descendant of Holocaust survivors, Peskin spoke of need to accept facts of the Armenian Genocide so that future atrocities of similar nature can be avoided.
“Had the world recognized the first genocide of the first century, the second genocide arguably would not have happened. Arguably, we would have what we had in Rwanda, Serbo-Croatia, in Myanmar, and with the Uighurs in China, had the world recognized that 106 years ago. So, today is a profound day, not only for the Armenian community in the United States and around the world, but because President Biden has reclaimed the United States’s position as a champion of human rights.”
California Lieutenant Governor, who is of Greek ethnicity, Eleni Kounalakis, expressed solidarity with the Armenian people, mourning for the victims stating:
“It is my solemn honor to stand with you here today to remember and honor the lives lost today, over a hundred years ago. I am so pleased that the President of the United States has joined us in formally recognizing these acts as genocide.” She also described her “moving” experience planting a tree in Armenia, honoring those who perished at the hands of “cold blooded oppressors.”
Referring to the 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani war, she called it “aggressive military action launched in Artsakh.” Closing her message, she said, “We all stand with the Armenian people in mourning your losses, recognizing your resilience, and sharing your commitment to work tirelessly to ensure that humankind never endures what your forebearers so grievously suffered.”
Speakers later in the commemoration expressed desire for Turkey to recognize the genocide. A youth message by 8th grader Alique Momjian of the Armenian Youth Federation, said she hopes for Turkey to pay reparations. “Dear reverend clergies, Armenian community members, friends, and allies, 106 years after the genocide, we as Armenians believe we have a duty to give back to our community and country, to make sure Turkey recognizes the genocide and pays reparations; to make sure our home country can stand up on its two feet.”
Her speech was centered on Armenian independence, making mention of the war in Artsakh, and Armenian military commanders who fought the Turks during WWI, whom Momjian said were seeking to establish a “free and independent Armenia.” She went on: “We must take our most recent victory of genocide recognition from the United States and use it to forge deeper geopolitical relationships for Armenia. We must connect with Armenians in Artsakh, and send aid to ailing families after Azerbaijan ripped their lives apart.”
Emily Avetisyan, representing St. John Armenian Church Youth Organizations spoke, including themes of Armenian cultural resilience stating, “I am the great granddaughter of Armenian genocide survivors. I am living proof that what the Turks set out to do over a hundred years ago failed, and despite all odds, our culture and language continue to flourish to this day.”
Avetisyan made representing God another theme of her speech. “We fight for our culture and faith because of our direct connection with Christ.” She went on describing how because of the faith, they are a resilient people who continued to thrive and represent Christ:
“His [Christ’s] disciples, Matthias and Bartholomew, took his teachings and brought them to Armenia, where our country was the first to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Our identity is intertwined with our faith. To this day, we keep God the forefront of our lives. We carry the truth of our ancestors and honor them in our hearts. We continue to pray, sing, dance, speak our native tongue, and will continue to do so because we have proven despite all odds, we continue to exist, continue to thrive, and will continue to tell our stories to the world. Our fight is never ending, and our strength is in our unity with our brothers and sisters around the world.”
Speaking on reconciliation, she spoke about the Armenian Genocide and the 2020 conflict in this way: “The 44-day Artsakh war showed how denial is a continuation of genocide. We seek justice for the 1.5 million Armenian lives. Although recognition will not bring but what is lost, it will begin to heal our open wounds.”
Kahren Eloyan, representing St. Vartan Armenian Church Youth Organizations, delivered a 10 minute speech, more political in nature, with more harsh language when describing the perpetrators of crimes against Armenians, both during World War I and during the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict, making use of words such as “fascist.”
Representing Armenian KZV School on Brotherhood Way, there was a poetry recitation by Daron Kalebijian, who performed the Armenian language poem “Mountains of Artsakh.”
The musical selection included a performance of the Armenian song “Yerani” by Armenian KZV School 8th grader Danielle Zaroukian.
The final speaker was lecturer of Homboldt University, Maral Attalah, whose remarks were more political in nature. “Artsakh strong,” she said, a political slogan used during the 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in support of the self-declared Armenian state in internationally-recognized Azerbaijani territory.
Mistress of Ceremonies Ella Sogomonian delivered closing remarks and introduced the Armenian clergy, who did closing prayers. Their prayer booklet was titled “Prayers for the Intercession of the Martryed Saints of the Armenian Genocide.”
The prayers were conducted in Armenian, and included the Lord’s Prayer as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 6:5-15, readings from Psalms, and a selection from the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 10, verses 32-39. The prayers and readings included the following themes: the Lord’s will being done on earth, forgiveness of sins, forgiveness to those who trespass against the oppressed, enduring suffering, insult, persecution, and conflict while taking refuge in the Lord, and how despite losses in this life, the righteous have better possessions in heaven which they will receive as their inheritance.
Clergy members represented St. John Armenian Church in San Francisco and St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church in Oakland. Father Krikor of St. Vartan said he would answer email interviews with the San Francisco News about his personal convictions during that day and hopes for the future. Emily Avetisyan, representing St. John Armenian Church Youth Organizations, also agreed to be contacted.
The final scheduled segment of the commemoration was the flower offering. Community members put flowers at the cross and lamented the suffering of those who endured the Armenian Genocide of 1915.