NICOSIA, Cyprus — As Jews in Cyprus laid the cornerstone last week for a museum here that will chronicle the post-Holocaust internment of survivors in detention camps after World War II, leaders of another minority urged Israel’s leaders to condemn an earlier genocide that took place 100 years ago.
Cyprus is home to some 3,500 Armenians — about the same as the number of Jews who inhabit this predominantly Greek Orthodox country of 1.2 million.
“We go back to 578 A.D., during the Byzantine Era, when the first Armenians settled in Cyprus,” said prominent Cypriot businessman Vartkes Mahdessian. He officially represents his minority in the island’s Parliament as one of three non-voting members (the other two speak for Maronites and Latins).
Between 1915 and 1923, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottomans and Young Turks in a murderous wave of ethnic cleansing, an event the Turkish government denies to this day. During that time, some 9,000 Armenian refugees — mainly from Adana and Seleucia, as well as Istanbul, Smyrna and other cities — found refuge in Cyprus.
Like the later Ashkenazi Jews who arrived here from Poland and elsewhere in Europe, most of them eventually settled in other countries, though 1,300 stayed and made Cyprus their home.
The Armenian community grew, and the newcomers quickly established themselves as prosperous physicians, writers, merchants, entrepreneurs and civil servants.
“The eight million refugees this diaspora created didn’t go to all these countries to be tourists. They were forced to leave Turkey and their properties,” he said. “Compensation for these properties is a huge issue; maybe they don’t want to acknowledge the genocide for this reason.”
Not surprisingly, Cyprus was the second country in the world — and the first in Europe — to condemn the Ottoman Turks for what is arguably the 20th century’s first genocide. Since then, 27 more countries have followed suit.
“Unfortunately, Israel is not on this list,” Mahdessian lamented. “On a few occasions, we had a glimmer of hope, but somehow it has not been done.”
In 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, the Cypriot parliament unanimously passed a law criminalizing denial of the Armenian genocide. That law was spearheaded largely by Mahdessian, 67, who has lived here all his life.
“Israel should be the first nation to recognize the Armenian genocide because of the Holocaust,” he said. “Maybe if the correct recognition was given at the time in 1915, the Holocaust would have been avoided. When Hitler was instructing his generals, he said, ‘who, after all, remembers the Armenians?’”
Mahdessian spoke to this reporter from the grounds of the once-impressive but now abandoned Melkonian Educational Institute — built on a hill overlooking Nicosia, the divided capital.
The school was established as an orphanage in 1926 by two brothers, tobacco merchants from Egypt, who wanted to offer shelter to hundreds of Armenian children who had survived the massacres.
Later on, it became a secondary school for Armenians throughout the diaspora — including children from Albania, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Russia and Turkey. Adjacent to the property is a small forest full of trees, each one of them planted decades ago by an orphan in memory of a loved one who had died in the massacres.
The institute’s legal owner is the New York-based Armenian General Benevolent Union, which closed it in 2005 on the grounds that the school was no longer economically viable.
“They say they’ll open a school in Armenia, but there are already 1,500 schools there. This one services the entire diaspora, and it’s a center for the teaching of Western Armenian language, which is spoken throughout the diaspora,” Mahdessian explained. “I’d say 90 percent of the world’s Armenians are against the closure.”
At the port of Larnaca, there’s a sculpture marking the spot where thousands of Armenian refugees fleeing the atrocities of World War I first landed in Cyprus. The nearby Church of Sourp Stepanos — considered one of the oldest monuments of its kind in the entire Armenian diaspora — was built to honor the victims of the massacre. It was completed in 1913, even while the killings were still going on.
“When my family and all these other families came here in 1923 to Cyprus as refugees, with nothing in their pockets, they settled in the Turkish quarter and the Greeks asked us why. The reason was that these people had nothing, they had to trade to earn bread for their children, and housing there was very cheap — four families to a house,” said Mahdessian, who owns an electrical trading company.
“We never saw any animosity from the Cypriot Turks. They were very hospitable to us, and received us with open arms as neighbors,” he added. “Our problem is with the Ottoman Turks, the pashas who organized the genocide.”
Yet efforts by Israeli lawmakers to officially issue a condemnation of Turkey’s role in the events of 1915 have failed — even as the Jewish state’s relations with the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan get worse and worse.
The most recent attempt was a few months ago, when Tamar Zandberg, head of the Meretz party in the Knesset, withdrew a bill that would have done just that, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition and the Foreign Ministry insisted on replacing the term “genocide” with “tragedy” or “horrors.”
“With a heavy heart, I am forced to pull the bill that I had been due to present,” Zandberg told reporters in July, adding that recognizing the genocide involved a “historical justice unconnected to any politics.”
On the other hand, several U.S. and European Jewish organizations have issued their own declarations on the subject, including the Union for Reform Judaism (1989); the American Jewish Committee (2014), the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (2015), and the Central Council of Jews in Germany (2015).
Mahdessian isn’t giving up on an official Israeli condemnation, however.
“Israel and the Jewish people are very strong. Condemning the genocide would send a very big message. If that happened, I’m sure the U.S. would follow. Out of 50 states, 48 have already recognized the genocide,” he said (the last two holdouts are Alabama and Mississippi).
He added: “The difference between us and the Jews is that we don’t have the lobby you have. If we did, this would have already been recognized a long time ago.”