The Australasian Orphanage in Lebanon was an unexpected outpost of Antipodean generosity in the years after World War I.
Two Cantabrians, John and Lydia Knudsen, opened the orphanage in 1922 in the pretty seaside town of Antelias, long since absorbed into greater Beirut. John had served in World War I and stayed on to do relief work in the Middle East. He married Lydia in Cairo in 1920.
As London-based New Zealand journalist James Robins outlines in his fascinating new book, When We Dead Awaken: Australia, New Zealand, and the Armenian Genocide, the Knudsens arrived to find a displaced crowd of Armenian boys, homeless and parentless after the war and the genocide, who helped them build the orphanage.
Supplies arrived by ship from Australia, where, as in New Zealand, the immense tragedy of the Armenian Genocide had become a popular cause.
t’s almost a running joke that you can find New Zealanders everywhere, no matter how unlikely or remote the setting. But our connections to the killing of more than 1 million Armenian people by the Ottoman government between 1915 and 1923 are uncanny and often highly emotional, which makes it all the more surprising that both New Zealand and Australia still refuse to join other countries in formally recognising the genocide.
Historians agree that this was the first genocide of the 20th century, although the word “genocide” would not be coined for another three decades. New Zealanders could not have failed to know what was going on. Here, for example, is news wired from London on September 13, 1915, that was carried in local newspapers:
“Armenians in Geneva have issued an appeal to the civilised world to make an effort to save the remnant of a martyred people. The inhabitants of Armenia have been driven into the interior of Mesopotamia, and most of the able-bodied men massacred. The Armenians protest against this appalling crime, which is without a parallel in history – even in the age of barbarians.”
Four days later, another story: “The Salonica correspondent of ‘The Times’ says all witnesses agree as to the terrible character of Turkish atrocities in Armenia. It is believed that the official intention is a campaign of extermination, involving the murder of a million persons.”
Two words went together again and again: Armenian and atrocities. When Robins searched the archives he counted more than 13,000 stories about the genocide in New Zealand newspapers over the course of World War I and more than 27,000 in Australian newspapers. Other than the war itself, it was the big story of the age.
The book is the culmination of about five years of work for Robins, who also produced articles and a podcast titled The Great Crime.
He resists being called a spokesperson, which is too strong a word, he says.
“My ultimate goal is a more general awareness. New Zealand history as it’s often portrayed rests on very shaky ground.”
To him, the Anzac myth is especially shaky. He was struck by a peculiar synchronicity in which the Ottoman Empire began killing and displacing Armenians and other minorities in large numbers at exactly the same timeas the Anzacs launched themselves at Gallipoli.
He writes: “And while those soldiers scrapped for mere inches of Gallipoli’s soil, killing squads swept swiftly through hamlets, cities and towns, hunting Armenian men. Those left behind – women, children and the elderly – were corralled south, to the desert wastes of Syria. Endless convoys. Death marches.”
And now, more than a century later, the same Gallipoli connections seem to have made it impossible for New Zealand and Australia to fully confront and acknowledge this genocide. It is a paradox that needs explaining.
Thirty-two countries officially recognise the genocide, including the United States, Canada, France, Germany and Russia.
Hoory Yeldizian, chairperson of the Armenian National Committee of New Zealand, explains why recognition is so important.
“There is a three-pronged theory to bringing closure to crimes against humanity, which is recognition, retribution and restitution,” she says. “So when you have recognition you’re closing a chapter acknowledging that a crime has been committed, just as a family going to a trial of an alleged murderer sets up a system that recognises a crime has been done.”
Born in New Zealand, Yeldizian is currently living and working in Sydney, which has a substantial Armenian population. While there are 264 Armenians in New Zealand, according to the last census, there are around 30,000 in Sydney alone, including New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian, whose grandparents were orphaned in the genocide.
And while Australia does not recognise the genocide, the state of New South Wales does, along with South Australia.
The shared experience of the atrocities remains central to Armenian identity, Yeldizian says.
Along with the maintenance of language and culture in the diaspora, “there is a whole other side to Armenian history which is not as spoken about, and that is intergenerational trauma.
“It’s still inherently in our behaviour. Making feasts of food because tomorrow we may not have food. Packing up pantries with food because there will be war tomorrow, and other symptoms of trauma that are passed through our bloodline, from the Armenian Genocide.
“So we are geographically displaced around the world and have to integrate into other cultures to survive, and we still harbour trauma from over 105 years ago from the Armenian Genocide.”
In New Zealand, the Green Party is alone among major parties in having a policy about the genocide. It called for a day of remembrance in 2015 and official recognition in 2018.
On the second occasion, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that while “we’ve always acknowledged that significant loss of life”, whether or not to call it genocide is up to “those parties who were involved”.
Green MP Golriz Ghahraman, who is the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, recalls meeting the Armenian National Committee with former Green MP Gareth Hughes and others during the last parliamentary term. Like Yeldizian, who saw former Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters as “a roadblock”, Ghahraman hopes there will be progress now that Nanaia Mahuta has replaced Peters.
“It’s certainly on my list when I meet with the new minister,” she says.
The issue is personal for Ghahraman, who is the Iranian Kurdish daughter of refugees. The Kurdish people have also been persecuted by Turkey, she says.
Aside from the personal link, there is a moral imperative for Ghahraman: “If we don’t recognise the atrocities of the past, then these things continue.”
The Gallipoli problem
The New Zealand government’s bland line about the genocide was designed to avoid offending Turkey on the eve of the Gallipoli centenary, as Robins shows in his book. New Zealand officials saw that Turkey was incensed by New South Wales’ position and wanted to avoid any upsets in 2015.
As Yeldizian explains, a threat hangs over both Australia and New Zealand: call it a genocide and you may find it harder to get visas to visit Anzac Cove every April.
She sees the relationship between Turkey, New Zealand and Australia as “an abusive one and a manipulative one”. While there are “proven crimes against humanity”, visa status is used as a dangling carrot to maintain denial of the genocide.
The official denial of the genocide in Turkey is seen by historians as central to the emergence of the modern Turkish state from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, with founding president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as a heroic figure.
Ataturk also fought at Gallipoli and as Robins and others have shown, a myth has grown around him that further complicates matters.
New Zealanders and Australians have been comforted by sentimental words attributed to Ataturk, about our Anzac soldiers lying in the soil of a foreign country, where “there is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets” and where, “after having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well”.
The words appear on Anzac memorials in Wellington and Canberra. They suggest a spirit of shared respect and reconciliation. Yet, as Australian historian Peter Stanley found, the quote seems to have been made up after Ataturk’s death.
After Robins brought that to the attention of Te Papa in 2018, the national museum set about altering text in its Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition to “better reflect the quote’s contested origins”. Robins reported that historical consultant Chris Pugsley had checked the quote’s translation but not its provenance.
There is also the paradox that, as Robins writes, “the most iconic refrain of Anzac Day, a plea for healing and unified grief … comes from a mass murderer”.
History is complicated but myths are convenient and politically useful. They can also make it harder to face the truth.
Ghahraman wonders if we can see it another way, though. Perhaps the emotional link New Zealand has forged with Turkey can produce some straight talk.
“Having those emotional connections should mean we can have the hard conversations,” she says. “Maybe it will make it easier.”
This is about who we are, or who we should be, Yeldizian says.
When she thinks back to the outpouring of support a century ago from the likes of the Knudsens and others, she says: “It doesn’t surprise me that New Zealanders and Australians would do something like that, because that’s our value system, we take care of each other.”
Now, she says, we need to find a way to display the same moral fibre and sense of honour we displayed then.