'It’s called the Forgotten Genocide for a reason': Teacher travels to Armenia

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

A Christian School of York teacher traveled to Armenia to learn about the "forgotten genocide" in July through a fellowship program to advance her studies and teaching. 

History teacher Jackie Kemper, 49, of West York, started off her career as a Holocaust educator after being inspired by all four of her grandparents' tales of World War II. 

Something in her clicked further when Kemper traveled in 2008 through Europe, seeing historical sites such as Auschwitz, Berlin and Dresden with the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“That really changed my teaching,” she said, explaining she incorporated what she learned on that trip into her teaching, just as she will do with what she learned from her recent trip to Armenia.

Kemper broadened her study on genocides in 2016 while working toward her master's, which is when she first heard about the Armenian genocide, in which between 662,000 and 1.2 million Christian Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire died in 1915-16, either in massacres and individual killings or by systematic ill treatment, exposure and starvation.

There's one thing that stands out to her still: Kemper recalls hearing a quote in that class from Adolf Hitler, who allegedly said no one remembers what happened to the Armenians, which means no one should remember the Holocaust. 

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Social studies teacher Jackie Kemper at Christian School of York in Manchester Township, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. Kemper was one of 15 teachers selected from 14 U.S. states for the inaugural GenEd Teacher Fellowship Program. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Kemper dug deeper into the Armenian genocide, incorporating it into classes she taught. She used resources such as the Genocide Education Project's materials in her classes. The program, created by project executive director Roxanne Makasdjian, an Armenian-American, and her friends, was made to help teach Armenian children about the genocide.

The Genocide Education Project sent mailers about the first fellowship program to visit Armenia, and Kemper applied and won one of the 15 spots in the program. 

She remembered hearing her background made her one of the most qualified candidates out of 200 applicants. 

“Even though I taught the genocide, and I had been teaching it for a few years, I still felt like I didn’t know as much as I could,” she said. 

Kemper flew out in July for a 10-day trip to Armenia. While there, she studied the genocide in the mornings and learned the culture in the afternoons. She saw historical sites in the afternoons, including the country’s first church, and she saw how the Armenians try to restore their heritage and teach their children about the genocide. 

“Armenians are so strong, they want to fight, they want to defend their nation,” she said. 

Kemper noted she also wanted to learn about the Armenian culture, not just the genocide. 

“These people are resilient,” she said. “And their culture deserves to be celebrated.”

Kemper now feels she has a better understanding of the genocide and will incorporate her knowledge in her classes about Holocaust literature, world and modern history. 

“I made (the modern history course) more of a focus on the Armenian genocide,” she said about her previous classes. “Because it’s called the 'Forgotten Genocide' for a reason. No one talks about it.”

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Two of her recent students, seniors Tirzah Miller and Eden Taylor, said they heard about the Armenian genocide before Kemper's classes, but they didn't know the details. They were both shocked by what they learned. Taylor said the horrors she learned impacted her a lot. Miller wanted a longer section so they could have gone more in-depth. 

"People truly don't know about it," Miller said. "I guarantee most of the school probably wouldn't necessarily know what we're talking about, and that's just the sad part of it."

She added Kemper put it into perspective with all the evidence the genocide did happen, but people continue to deny it. Kemper said the genocide does create a lot of tension because of the geopolitics involved.

Taylor said the way Kemper teaches the background, why the genocide happened and why it is important to remember, helped. She left the class thinking more people needed to talk about the genocide. 

Kemper will also share what she learned with other teachers, as her fellowship requires. She is working on how to do it locally and to team up with another teacher from the trip to teach in other states.  

Kemper knows genocide is a difficult topic to teach and understands why many get nervous about it. It is also hard when trying to avoid traumatizing students.

“You get nervous about it because you’re talking about death and destruction,” she said, adding genocide is a sad and hard topic. “We teach it because we feel it’s an important piece.”

To learn more about her trip, go to youtube.com/watch?v=89uR8uAd37w&list=PPSV or genocideeducation.org.

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.

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