Armin T. Wegner, who took pictures of dead, starving and homeless men, women and children during the atrocities against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, was not Armenian or Jewish. He was a German who served as a nurse in the German army during the war, and he did not set out to shock or offend but to offer visible proof of the first European genocide of the 20th century.
While the historical record of the Armenian genocide, now 100 years later, remains the subject of impassioned discussion, the horror captured in the works of Wegner is indisputable.
More than 60 photographic plates from his work are the focus of a new exhibit “The Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust: One Man Takes a Stand,” opening April 1, 2015, and on view through Aug. 7, 2015, in the Laurie and Milton Boniuk Resource Center and Library and the Avrohm I. Wisenberg Multi-Purpose Learning Center at Holocaust Museum Houston’s Morgan Family Center, 5401 Caroline St. in Houston’s Museum District.
General Museum admission, which includes the exhibit, is $12 for adult non-members, and $8 for seniors and active-duty members of the military, and is free for students and Museum members.
While there is evidence the Ottoman atrocities may have commenced as early as the 19th century, April 1915 has long been recognized by many scholars as the beginning of the Ottoman government’s systematic decimation of its civilian Armenian population. The persecutions continued with varying intensity until 1923 when the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist and was replaced by the Republic of Turkey.
Turkey continues to dispute its role and the use of the term “genocide” to describe the massacres. As of 2014, however, more than 22 countries and 43 of the 50 states in the United States have declared those acts “genocide.” More than 126 leading scholars of the Holocaust have urged western democracies to acknowledge it as well, according to the International Association of Genocide Scholars.
Although Wegner risked death for exposing his country's Ottoman allies, he took numerous photos and kept diaries of the persecution, deportation and murder of the Armenians, a Christian minority. Evidence indicates 600,000 to possibly more than 1.5 million Armenians perished in Anatolia as a result of execution, starvation, disease, the harsh environment and physical abuse, most from 1915-1916.
German-born Wegner enrolled as a volunteer nurse during World War I in the winter of 1914-1915 and was awarded the Iron Cross for assisting the wounded under fire. During his service, he heard rumors of the Armenian massacres, and, disobeying orders, conducted his own investigation. He gathered information by collecting notes, annotations, documents and letters, and took hundreds of photographs. As a result, Wegner was arrested and recalled to Germany, but was able to bring with him photographic emulsions of the Armenian genocide hidden in his belt. Many of those will be on display during the exhibition.
Wegner also was one of the earliest voices to protest Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in Germany. In 1933, he was arrested by the Gestapo for sending a letter to Hitler protesting the state-organized boycott against the Jewish people. He would suffer incarceration in seven Nazi concentration camps and prisons before he escaped to Italy.
Wegner dedicated a great part of his life to fight for Armenian and Jewish human rights. In 1967, he was awarded the title, “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem and, in 1968, awarded the “Order of Saint Gregory the Illuminator” by Armenia. The tragedy of the Armenian people, to which he was an eyewitness, haunted him for the rest of his life. Until his death in 1978, he continued to be an upstander for social conscience and human rights. In 1996, after an independent Armenia was established, his ashes were re-interred in the new state.
The exhibition is traveled by the Armin T. Wegner Society in the United States and is presented with special thanks to United Airlines, official airline of Holocaust Museum Houston, the Armenian National Committee of America, Western Region and to the Armenian Relief Society.
Holocaust Museum Houston is dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million Jews and other innocent victims and honoring the survivors' legacy. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, the Museum teaches the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.
Holocaust Museum Houston’s Morgan Family Center is located in Houston’s Museum District at 5401 Caroline St., Houston, TX 77004. For more information about the Museum, call 713-942-8000 or visit www.hmh.org.
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