PINELLAS PARK — Haig Yardumian’s great grandfather saved the lives of hundreds of Armenians by leading them north through Turkish-controlled territory to safety in Bulgaria.
Chris Sassouni’s grandparents were still in their early 20s when they joined the underground and worked to protect hundreds of orphans in the decimated Armenian villages of eastern Turkey.
But only recently did the rest of the world come to understand the history of atrocities that is central to the lives of the 100 or so Tampa Bay Armenian-Americans who call St. Hagop Armenian Church in Pinellas Park their religious home.
There are no movies on the genocide. And if you pull world history books off the shelf of the nearby Largo Library, only two or three even mention the oppression of Armenians by the Turks.
“I don’t actually know what my father knew about his dad and his history, because he never talked about it,” said Sassouni, 63, of Clearwater. “I would guess maybe 30 or 40 percent of it.
“It’s hard to wrap your head around how he could live all those years without asking questions, but my father’s answer was always that most Armenian families who had witnessed and survived the genocide first hand never talked about it because they did not want to pass on those horrors to their children.”
Each member of St. Hagop can tell a similar story, the Rev. Hovnan Demerjian said today as his small and socially distanced congregation gathered at its fellowship hall after Mass to commemorate this “Red Sunday,” widely considered the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.
On April 24, 1915, about 100 top Armenian intellectuals were executed by Turkish military. It was one of the darkest chapters in a deportation campaign that drove some 2 million Armenians away from their homes — to the desert, to refugee camps, and for 1.5 million of them, to death.
This year’s observance of Red Sunday took on special meaning with the public recognition Saturday by President Joe Biden that the Armenians were indeed victims of genocide — one rooted in ethnic and religious differences and Turkish fears about plots to create an Armenian homeland.
Previous U.S. presidents have offered somber reflections, but avoided using the term genocide out of concern that it would complicate relations with Turkey, a NATO ally and important power in the Middle East. But Biden campaigned on a promise to make human rights a central guidepost of his foreign policy, arguing last year that failing to label the atrocities a genocide would encourage more of them.
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“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today,” Biden said in a written statement. “We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
Dermerjian, pastor at St. Hagrop’s, called Biden’s statement “the healing of a wound” that was a “long time in the making.”
“It’s powerful and means the world to Armenians even in our community, who are here today because their family narrowly survived the genocide and escaped to here.”
It’s hard to come to grips with this painful past for Armenians living in America, Dermerjian said. He compared it to a funeral.
“Whenever you have a commemoration after a funeral, it’s always tough because you have part of the family that’s very sad,” Demerjian said. “It’s a sacred day for them and a solemn time, and you have another part of family and friends who are just ready to celebrate the life of that person.
“You have both of those emotions happening every time we commemorate the genocide, and there are no easy answers.”
Still, in many ways, Armenians have learned to flourish in loss, Demerjian said — to ask God to transform anger and sorrow for all that was unjustly taken into gratitude for what was given and hope for what’s still to come.
“We can be so diligent to remember and preserve the past that we forget to live in the present and open ourselves up to the future,” he said. “Now, we can take a breath and begin to surrender that sense of loss and anger and injustice. Now, we can begin to heal.”
Staff writer Josh Fiallo and the Associated Press contributed to this report.