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Jews and Armenians: Survivors who are thriving

On this Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, so soon after Yom HaShoah, take comfort in people's capacity for grit and resilience
Amir Kh via Unsplash

This week, we mark Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. It comes right on the heels of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s day of commemorating the Holocaust. The unusual near-confluence is worth noting, especially as on the surface this year seems particularly gloomy for both Armenians and Jews.

The former are braving the ongoing siege of Artsakh, where more than 120,000 Armenians are facing widespread shortages of food, medicine, and electricity, and struggling to cope with an ongoing blockade and what is already a full-blown humanitarian crisis. This, after the 2020 war launched by neighboring Azerbaijan left thousands of Armenian soldiers dead and hundreds more wounded, rattling a population that still grapples with the memory of attempted annihilation.

Hearing Azerbaijan’s despotic ruler stating that he wishes to finish the historical task of the Ottomans does very little to comfort and sooth.

Things aren’t much brighter on the Jewish side of the divide. Antisemitic attacks in the United States alone, the Anti-Defamation League recently reported, soared by a whopping 36 percent last year, putting the number at an all-time high. The same grim trend is evident around the world, and Israel continues to deal with terrorism and regional instability.

And yet.

In Tel Aviv, throngs of Israelis are taking to the streets every week for months now. They do so because they believe in the future of their nation, in the strength of their democracy, and in the resilience of their society to overcome even a serious and deep political divide. In Yerevan, GDP growth hit a remarkable seven percent last year, the national debt is shrinking, and investment is pouring in from all over, a testament not only to the local economy’s strength but also to the raw talent and ambition on display.

Why are these two nations, with so much suffering in common, going strong when so many around them are stumbling into tyranny, poverty, despair, or some bleak combination of the above? The answer is stark: Because they survived the unimaginable, and because survival taught them a valuable lesson about what truly matters in life.

Years ago, a close friend’s father who was liberated from one of the Nazis’ death camps, shared a powerful insight. After the war, he said, it became immediately evident that survivors came away from their ordeal with one of two outlooks. Some were paralyzed by the past, reliving their most ghoulish memories, unable to extricate themselves from the horror. And some were moved by their suffering to make sure that not a single moment of life was wasted.

Both ways were natural, and both completely understandable—no one can ever judge those who lived through the greatest cruelties conceivable. Survivors who focused on tomorrow, he added matter-of-factly, were significantly more likely to be happier and at peace than those mired in yesterday. Sounded so familiar.

This insight, I believe, helps explain why Israel and Armenia alike are able to maintain such remarkable optimism, even in the face of so much adversity and even with the weight of so much trauma on their collective shoulders.

Both are faith-based societies—Armenia the world’s first Christian nation, Israel its only Jewish state. Both are young. And both have decided, early on in their journey out of darkness and into great light, to use the memory of tragedy as a catalyst to growth, not an occasion for unending grief.

Talk to second and third generation Armenian genocide survivors, for example, and you won’t hear rage, bitterness, or contempt – only great sadness coupled with the understanding that the only imaginable answer to something as unimaginable as genocide is to grow a robust and joyful Armenian nation free and independent and thriving.

Talk to Israelis who have grown up with survivors of the Shoah, and they’ll tell you something very similar. Millions of our people may have died, they will say, but we triumphed.

Every Armenian start-up, every Israeli television show, every wedding in Yerevan, every bris in Tel Aviv are proof that we overcame.

As so much of the world is teetering on the verge of chaos, with political unrest gnawing even at the strongest of democracies and with war still raging in the heart of Europe, Armenia and Israel stand as twin engines, not only of survival but also of something much more precious: hope.

Ours is not the hope that comes from closing our eyes and wishing for the best. It’s the hope that is nurtured by tears and sweat and blood, by acknowledging our suffering but knowing that it compels us to work harder to make the future better. It’s the hope that makes it possible to build and believe even in the midst of war and uncertainty, the hope that fuels goodness when so much around us is drowned by the bad.

Let’s hope that the world, having largely ignored both the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust at the time, is paying attention now to the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the survivors, and perhaps even finding much-needed comfort in their grit.

About the Author
Arda Nazerian an adjunct professor in business communications and cross-cultural leadership at Queens College in New York, and also is a board member of the Armenian General Benevolent Union.
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