Each year Dina and George Phillips, Jr. mark the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide with their extended family. The Hancock Park family is part of the large Armenian population, more than 200,000 people, living in Southern California, making it the largest such community outside of Armenia.
Dina Phillips, a Marlborough grad, and her husband George, a local attorney and a founder of the Wilshire Girls Softball league, are active in the neighborhood where they are raising their four children. Both are second-generation American Armenians and both lost great grandparents in the genocide.
This year, they didn’t march, though they have in the past. Instead, they hosted their parents and other family members for dinner, to share stories about how their families escaped the genocide that took the lives of more than 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917. The Armenians were a prosperous community of 2 million Christians, one of the first to declare themselves a Christian nation in the third century AD, living inside the majority Muslim country of Turkey, then the Ottoman Empire.
“We have marched in the past,” explained Dina. “We attended a service at our church where we talked about those who were killed in the genocide. so that no one in our community will forget this happened.”
Dina has also seen the film, “The Promise,” a powerful historical drama that takes place in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide. Critics say the film, directed by Terry George, the Irish writer/director who was nominated for a writing Oscar for “Hotel Rwanda,” will help the world recognize the trauma of the genocide felt by Armenians.
Thankfully, both George and Dina’s grandfathers wrote books about their experiences, so the family has their first person accounts to pass along to the next generation. George’s grandfather Nerses Sarian’s book, “I Shall Not Die: A Tribute to the Faithfulness of God,” is the story of how he survived to become Pastor of the Armenian refugee community in Damascus, which he served for 30 years and eventually came to Los Angeles.
Dina’s grandfather, Garabed S. Tilkian’s book is called “Musa Dagh boy: Story of Survival and Service.” Musa Dagh was the site of the Armenian resistance against the Ottoman Empire’s orders to evacuate from their villages. Dina recalls the story of how her Aunt Rose, who died recently at the age of 106, carried a fellow Armenian from her same village who happened to be George’s maternal uncle on her shoulders in the forced marches.
The family resettled in Syria, eventually coming to the U.S. in the 1950s. On his George’s father’s side, his grandfather emigrated through Ellis Island in 1911, before the genocide, because his family saw the writing on the wall. His grandfather, Dickran Pilibosian, was the only one from his family to survive – all perished in undocumented and unknown ways, explained Phillips (whose family name, Pilibosia) was shortened to Phillips like so many immigrants at the time, before his grandfather settled in Los Angeles in 1920.
Remembering the genocide by telling the family story and seeking admission from the current Turkish government are very important to Phillips. Even though she acknowledged the political dilemma the United State government has since Turkey, a strategic ally of the US in the war against ISIS, has steadfastly maintained this was not a genocide but instead a tragic incident in World War I. She, like many Armenian Americans, is waiting for a U.S. President who will recognize the genocide.
“There’s a famous quote from Hitler where he asserts that he can do whatever he wants because “who remembers Armenia?” We cannot keep silent, ” explained Phillips. “I teach my children and share my family’s story so some day there will be some acknowledgement that the Turks rounded up intellectuals and business people, then systematically decimated the villages, killing people, forcing others into labor camps.”
Phillips is referring to remarks that Hitler made in 1939 justifying his attack on Poland. His quote, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” is explained on the website of the Armenian National Institute.
But each year, more progress is made. California Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsome, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and L.A. Councilman Paul Krekorian joined demonstrators this year, and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, and Rep. Dave Trott, R-Michigan, last month introduced a resolution asking Congress to formally recognize the genocide. President Donald Trump issued a statement Monday proclaiming “Armenian Remembrance Day.”
As she looks to the future, Dina admits she’d love for her children to marry Armenian Americans, but she’s not holding her breath. Still there’s a large population of Armenians in Hollywood, in Little Armenia and an even larger group in Glendale. And her oldest daughter is dating a first generation Armenian whose family came to U.S. in the 1990s, following the devastating Spitak earthquake in 1988.
“It’s a very different immigration experience than it was for my family,” said Phillips.