Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer and scholar who coined the term “genocide” and initiated the Genocide Convention, was working on a multi-volume history of such massacres at the time he passed in 1959. He had planned five chapters on the Greeks – more than for any other people – in this unfinished work.
The Armenian Genocide has dominated the discussion about the massacres perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire on its Christian populations. The genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Greek citizens has been regularly labeled a “forgotten genocide.”
Enter the Greek-American version of Raphael Lemkin, George Mavropoulos. His parents were Pontic Greek refugees who escaped the genocide, and his grandfather perished at the age of 43, a victim of the massacre. After a 35-year career as an engineer for Commonwealth Edison’s nuclear operations in Illinois, George retired and devoted his life to this cause.
The “cause” is best described through answering both the what and the why. The what is the widespread recognition of the genocide of the Greeks by the Ottoman Empire. The why? According to Mavropoulos, “as descendants of those who both perished and survived genocide, we have a special obligation to educate the public about this genocide,” not with revenge or hate as the motive, but “because we can be part of forestalling the next genocide. That is the best way to honor those we lost.”
Fortunately, Mavropoulos doesn’t have to play the Lemkin role because he doesn’t have to act alone. He founded the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center, which has been propelled by individuals from all over the Hellenic world (as well as Armenian, Jewish and Assyrian scholars) into a major role in the historical discussion on genocide. This past April, the Illinois Holocaust Museum commemorated Genocide Awareness Month by hosting a massive symposium and pop-up exhibition dedicated to the centenary of the Great Catastrophe.
The Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center has produced an impressive amount of scholarships and teaching guides for elementary schools and high schools, and is working on multimedia material including a documentary. Mavropoulos serves on the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission, giving the community the chance to place the Greek Genocide on the table when all others are being considered.
With this year’s commemoration of the Pontic Greek phase of the Greek Genocide came a major step – a commitment to sustained and sophisticated political advocacy on this issue. Over the past few years, at the encouragement of the Pan-Pontian Federation of the USA and Canada, the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) has partnered with the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) to place references to the Greek Genocide in the Armenian Genocide recognition resolutions before the US Congress and state legislatures around the country.
“We join with our allies at HALC and the Pan-Pontian Federation in seeking US recognition and ongoing remembrance of the Greek Genocide, systematically planned and committed by Turkey as part of its WWI-era drive to destroy Christian populations across their ancient homelands,” said ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian.
In pursuit of such recognition, the Pan-Pontian Federation sent a delegation representing eight states to Washington, DC, on May 20-21. It was a small first step, but a very important one. When members of Congress see constituents travel to Washington for an issue, they realize how important it is to them.
Equally important were back-to-back strategy sessions with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and ANCA. The experience of these two groups in advocating for the recognition of genocide and against genocide/Holocaust denial will help focus the pursuit of recognition of the Greek Genocide. As our Armenian allies told us, their advocacy of “over 50 years” comes with a lot of frustration, broken promises and coming just short, but the march toward justice will continue for generations to come.
Perhaps the most encouraging part of the May 20-21 trip was the number of Pan-Pontian Federation representatives under the age of 40. One hundred years since their ancestors started being victimized, these young men and women are ensuring that this issue has staying power.
And now they have more than a general goal of genocide recognition to fight for. When meeting with HALC and the Pan-Pontian Federation on May 21, Congressman Gus Bilirakis unveiled a resolution “expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that it is the policy of the United States to recognize the genocide of the Greeks of Pontus and Asia Minor as a way to prevent future genocides.”
This resolution has been an uphill battle. After all, the Armenians have been consistently stalled despite a well-organized and systematic campaign to secure recognition of the Armenian Genocide. But thanks to the efforts of the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center, the HALC/ANCA/Pan-Pontian Federation partnership and Congressman Bilirakis, the Hellenic world has planted its flag in the genocide recognition debate.
The final clause of Congressman Bilirakis’ resolution resolves that the US will “encourage education and public understanding of the facts of the campaign of genocide against Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Arameans, Maronites and other Christians, including the role of the United States in the humanitarian relief effort, and the relevance of these genocides to modern-day crimes against humanity.”
Lemkin wanted to tell the story of the Greek Genocide as part of his commitment to “Never Again.” Sixty years after his death, we can begin finishing his work.
Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.