RACINE — A film being shown at Racine’s Golden Rondelle Theater on Thursday tells a powerful story that will be new to many, yet all too familiar to others.
“Orphans of the Genocide” tells part of a larger story of the Armenian genocide of 1915, through the eyes of some of its more than 130,000 orphaned children. The documentary, by Emmy Award-winning director Bared Maronian, focuses on one orphanage where 1,000 Armenian genocide orphans lived and were forcefully converted to Turkish beliefs and culture during World War I.
The 90-minute film features never-before-seen archival footage, as well as discovered memoirs of orphans. And, while it is an Armenian story, it is also truly an American story, according to Maronian, whose career includes 21 years working for PBS television.
“Americans were the first ones who went through a lot of effort and raised a lot of money to make sure that at least 132,000 orphans were saved,” the director said during a phone interview from his Florida home.
Many members of Racine’s two Armenian churches – Saint Hagop and Saint Mesrob – know similar stories because they are children of genocide orphans. Some know only bits and pieces, as their parents were reluctant to talk about the atrocities that occurred when the Ottoman Turkish government attempted to exterminate the indigenous Armenian population.
More than 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1923, and the entire population was uprooted from its homeland, which it had inhabited for more than 3,000 years, according to the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. As of today, the Turkish government has yet to acknowledge the atrocities.
“There has never been a place where the people responsible were brought to justice by a court of law,” said Leon Saryan, a member of Racine’s St. Hagop Church, 4100 N. Newman Road, who lives in Greenfield and serves as commissioner of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.
Maronian, who is a third-generation genocide survivor, said that while the orphans’ story is a very sad one, it is also bittersweet in that they not only survived but went on to create whole new nation of Armenians after the genocide. It is also a story that many audience members — Armenian and not — are shocked or surprised to learn, he said.
“About 80 percent of the history I learned in making the film was new to me,” said Maronian, who also published a companion book to help tell the many stories he couldn’t fit in the film.
The film screening is one of a series of area events scheduled throughout 2015 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the genocide. Saryan and other members of St. Hagop and St. Mesrob serve on a committee with members of Milwaukee’s two Armenian churches – St. John the Baptist and Holy Resurrection – that is planning special services, concerts and other programs here as part of a worldwide 100th anniversary movement.
The yearlong commemoration is not only about remembering the victims of the genocide, but about telling their story in hopes of preventing such atrocities from happening again, said the Rev. Yeprem Kelegian, pastor at St. Mesrob Church, 4605 Erie St., and the son of a genocide orphan.
Its goal is to create a better understanding of what happened, not just for Armenians but for everyone, Saryan said.
“We’re seeing other instances of man’s inhumanity to man playing out right now in other parts of the world,” said Saryan, whose father was also a genocide orphan. “Raising awareness of what happened to Armenians will, hopefully, give people the opportunity to reflect on where this kind of thing goes when you step off the edge.”