World

The Armenian Genocide: My father cried out in the night

Armin T. Wegner photographed the massacre; his son Mischa says his father’s scream was part of their life, as he died a million times

Armin T. Wegner cried out in his sleep until his last day, “dreaming over and over again about the tragedies he witnessed and those he endured.” The images of the Armenian massacre were imprinted in his mind, just as they were in the photographs with which he immortalized “the first genocide of the 20th century.”

He cried out as a German exile who had sought to warn his people not to repeat similar horrors. For this, he was first interned in a concentration camp, then later exiled and stripped of his dignity, a source of suffering he never overcame.

But now his cry has finally found peace, after Germany “not only recognized the Armenian genocide, but also admitted its own responsibility, an incredible mea culpa,” Mischa Wegner, Armin’s son, attests. Through his eyes, we retrace the story of a man who witnessed two genocides and sought to make known the truth — as his work was censored and his books burnt as heretical novels in Nazi Germany.

More to read: View some of Armin T. Wegner’s images, here

Mischa Wegner was born in 1941 in Naples, and grew up in Positano. In the 1960s he moved to Rome with his parents. He never knew a father other than the one who, at 55 years of age, was scarred by the genocides and his own exile, a father who screamed out in his sleep: “His scream was part of his life and therefore it became part of our family burden. We didn’t experience it as a tragedy but as something natural.” His father was a man who didn’t like to speak about what he had seen, and the suffering he carried inside. He was a silent father, who was often far away in his thoughts. “He wasn’t able to escape from this prison, and so he wasn’t able to communicate,” Mischa says him.

Mischa knows the story of his father: his commitment first on the Polish front and then on the eastern one as a doctor in the wake of attacks by German troops; his commitment to peace and human rights. He is familiar with his battles — his writings, appeals and conferences — to awaken the conscience of the West (Europe, Germany and the United States) when they did not want to look. But he wasn’t “someone who looked in the other direction.”

Armin’s and Mischa’s worlds were far apart in time and, in reality, beyond the biographical facts, Mischa didn’t take much interest in what his father lived through. Until 1995, when Pietro Kuciukian turned to him asking for photographic material for an exhibit called “Precarious Shelter” on German intellectuals who were forced to leave Germany because they weren’t welcome under Hitler’s regime. “He couldn’t have imagined that he would have led me on a flight into the depths of my existence, searching for my father as well as my own past,” Mischa Wegner would say some years later. “We inherit so much from our parents’ life experience. Until 1995, when I was asked for my father’s photographs, I never thought about the Armenians. My father had never spoken about them and I had never asked. As soon as I started to speak, I began to weep. There was a place, a drawer within me, that I had have never opened and that hid things I didn’t know existed.”

In that drawer, Mischa found the wounds that his father never made him carry: “the self-betrayal to survive, the ignominy of subjection to the prison guards (in the concentration camps), the subjugation of his human dignity under the boot of coarseness and stupidity. I felt like my father was inside me and I suffered his humiliation tremendously as my own.” He continues: “My father died so many times, first in the deserts of Anatolia, then in the concentration camps. He died every time the dignity of a man was trampled on. Have you ever thought about what it means to see a man die one, ten, one hundred, one thousand one hundred thousand, one million times? To see them with your own eyes, right there before you, to die with them and not to die, not to die but to be destined instead to carry their memory with you for the rest of your life?”

On Armin Wegner’s tomb in Positano, one finds the same words written that Pope Gregory VII wished to have on his: “I have loved justice and hated iniquity: that is why I die in exile.” Today this exile is over, but his task is not. Armin Wegner took photographs of the Armenians in prohibited areas and incredibly brought them back to Germany. He would write in a letter: “I know that, in doing so, I have committed an act of high treason, and yet the awareness of having contributed in some small way to help these poor people fills me with more joy than in anything else I have done.” In the poem Der alte Mann (The old man), he writes: “My conscience calls me to be a witness. I am the voice of the exiles crying in the wilderness.”

This conscience accompanied him for his entire life. In Stromboli, on the ceiling of his work room,  one finds these words engraved: “We have been entrusted with the task of working one work, but it has not been given us to complete it.” Nor has it been completed by honors: the title of Righteous of the Nations of Yad Vashem (1967) and the Order of St. Gregory of the Armenians (1968). Today it is up to Mischa to carry out his father’s work, as he is well aware. “Today I too cry out. As someone who is mute, yet I still cry out. Now I, too, am a wounded man.”

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Translated from the Italian.