Silencing the Past, Part I
Silencing the Past, Part I

Exactly one hundred years ago several million Christians were brutally murdered. Among those were about 250,000 to 300,000 Assyrians. According to a statement by the Earl of Listow in 1933, the Ottoman Turks while cleansing Turkey of religious impurities wiped out almost two-thirds of the Assyrian Christian population.[1]

No one knows how many Christians were totally martyred during World War I – and no one probably ever will. Many of the official documents have been sealed or destroyed by the Turkish government in order to silence the past. Yet despite their efforts, the memory of those brutal murders still lives on. They are kept alive today for future generations by the children and the children’s children of the survivors.

My mother was one of the survivors of the massacre. Although she rarely discussed it, she never forgot it. It always echoed in her silence.

Like my father, she was Assyrian. She was born in Persia on the edge of the Fertile Crescent in an area often identified as the Cradle of Civilization. When she left the Middle East after World War I, first for France and later for America, she left behind buried in the ruins of ancient civilization many family members. For her, looking back was not easy. To avoid it, she silenced the past with iron determination.

What I will always remember about her was her bullet wound below her left breast. It was an ugly scar, a cruel reminder of what she had experienced. To hide the scar and to escape the memories it evoked, she would cover herself with layers of clothes, even during the hot summers.

When I first saw the scar as a child, I was horrified at the sight of it. To avoid thinking about it, I would lose myself in mindless and childish activities. When I saw the scar again 25 years ago, while visiting her in a nursing home, I was immediately overcome by emotion. It came with a rush that required all my adult strength to control.

My mother was in her early twenties when she arrived in America to marry my father. She arrived with enough gold to start a new life and enough raw memories for several lifetimes. My parents were married in Mexico, and they settled in Chicago. It was a pre-arranged marriage, planned by surviving family members, an arrangement which my mother never fully appreciated. As a result, the marriage was loveless in the beginning, but it slowly grew into something quite special over the years. I believe this was because of their similar backgrounds.

One moment she would be calmly knitting or reading; the next moment she would be in tears, sorrowfully talking to herself in Syriac.
Although my mother found safety in America, where she and my father lived most of their adult lives, she never completely escaped her war memories. Sometimes the buried demons from her past would surface, and she would find herself struggling with them, remembering. It often happened suddenly, unexpectedly. One moment she would be calmly knitting or reading; the next moment she would be in tears, sorrowfully talking to herself in Syriac. What might have triggered her mood change was never clear to me; it could’ve been something she read, something I said, or some familiar object taking on a new and significant meaning.

I never made many inquiries about it during my earlier years. I was too busy running from her past. As a result, I knew very little about the war years, and even less about the family. I knew most of my family members were Christians and one or two had even become Muslims to survive, but that’s about all. Even if I were told more, I doubted if I would have ever understood. What she and her family had experienced was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Like so many boys growing up in comfortable surroundings in Chicago, my life revolved around school and my innocent, boyish adventures with my classmates.

Still, no matter how hard I tried, I could never fully forget how much she suffered. The memory of it would often return for fleeting moments and leave me unsettled without my ever understanding why. Then on 9/11 everything changed. To my surprise, the broken pieces from her past came together, dramatically with clarity.

World War I

World War I began with two shots, one aimed at Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, and the other aimed at his wife Sophie. At the time of the assassinations, all the essential elements for war were in place in Europe (i.e., military and naval readiness, extreme nationalism, an imperialistic greed for more land and colonies, secret treaties, and international unrest). Yet everyone was surprised when the murder of the royal couple by a Serbian Nationalist became, not another Balkan squabble, but a major world war.[2]

In Turkey, the Ottoman Empire was falling apart. It was seriously being weakened by its abusive treatment of the Christians in the Balkan countries, which it had ruled with unyielding power. Here’s how one history book recorded it:

The Christians who made up most of the population (of the Balkans) were regarded as “cattle” by their Moslem rulers. They had to pay extra taxes and were cruelly punished if they failed to do so. On occasion, their property was seized by dishonest officers. Their children were carried off for the Army or harem. If they dared to rebel, their villages were burned down and the inhabitants were put to the sword. Force and fear were the mainstays of Turkish rule.[3]

Two Balkan wars with Turkey followed, one in 1912, the other in 1913. These two uprising, along with a war with Italy over Libya, left the Ottoman Empire seriously exhausted and by 1914 bankrupt.

In Constantinople, the Young Turks who were in power saw the war in Europe as an opportunity to save their crumbling empire. They believed if they joined forces with the Central Powers (Germany and the Austria-Hungary) against the Allies (England, France and Russia), they could gain from the alliance the support needed to rebuild their empire and defeat their long-time enemies, the Russians and the non-Muslims.[4]

Their plan for defeating the enemy was simple. They would unite the Muslims world-wide by declaring a jihad. Both the Turks and their cohorts, the Germans, believed a Holy War could be an effective way to turn the Muslims living in European colonies around the world against the Allies. If successful, the uprisings would seriously weaken the Allies by forcing them to fight a war on several fronts (in their colonies and in Europe), and by so doing, make them easier to conquer. [5]

Fortunately, the plot didn’t play out as the Central Powers had hoped; many Muslims in the colonies joined the war, but not on the side of the Ottoman Turks. The failure of the Turks to gain world support of Muslims didn’t discourage them. In an attempt to strengthen their empire and to eliminate religious diversity in Turkey, they systematically and savagely began to kill the Christians. They justified their madness by blaming them for the disintegration of their empire.[6]

Joe David is the author of six books and numerous articles. His latest book, The Infidels, is a disturbing novel about the Assyrian massacre in 1915.


[1] Schwarten, Helen N.J., My Story: Persia to America, Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation, Chicago, page 35.

[2] Zebel, Sydney H. and Schwartz, Sidney, Past to Present, A World History, pages 541-542.

[3] Ibid, page 472.

[4] “Genocide in the Middle East: The Ottoman Empire, Iraq, and Sudan,” by Hannibal Travis, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, 2010, manuscript, pp 2-12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.