A Monumental Task

Current councilman and three-time mayor of Rolling Hills Estates Frank V. Zerunyan with the dedication plaque in front of City Hall. Photo by David Fairchild

How Frank V. Zerunyan brought awareness of the Armenian genocide to Rolling Hills Estates

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Last year, a bronze memorial plaque and relief sculpture was placed on the grounds of Rolling Hills Estates City Hall. It commemorates the Armenian genocide of 1915. Does the city, or the Peninsula for that matter, have any viable connection to Armenia? The answer is no, but then that brings us to current councilman and four-time mayor Frank V. Zerunyan, who had the vision and spearheaded the drive to create and install the work of art.

Zerunyan has an impressive résumé. In addition to being an elected city official he’s a lawyer, author, consultant, and professor at USC. He was born in Istanbul in 1959, speaks impeccable English, and is fluent in French, Armenian, and Turkish. In short, he is a man to be reckoned with.

Now, since you’ve already studied the photograph of him standing beside the memorial, let’s start with that. Then we’ll talk about the Turks, the Azerbaijanians and Armenians, and cap it off with a pop quiz.


The spark, and a plaque is conceived

“The inspiration for the monument comes from two very important events,” Zerunyan says.

The first of these has a strong personal connection. His great-grandmother, like thousands of others, was ousted from Central Anatolia (a geographical region in Turkey) and, with her three daughters — one of them being Zerunyan’s grandmother — was forced to proceed by foot to the desert of Der Zor, not to resettle but presumably to die. The vast majority of those on the Death March indeed perished, although it might be more accurate to say killed. Turkey, then still known as the Ottoman Empire, has adamant opposed acknowledging this perpetration amounted to genocide, but it was certainly mass murder or ethnic cleansing on a grand scale.

His grandmother rarely spoke of what she witnessed, but what she did reveal clearly riveted the young Zerunyan. “I have been and continue to be a student of genocide,” he says. “I’ve spoken publicly about the topic, and in my city I have been speaking about men’s inhumanity to men for 20 years.” The memorial, he adds, is the culmination of these concerns.

“The second part of the inspiration,” he continues, “was precisely the interest I have in the thousands of pages of information at the Library of Congress and at the State Department with respect to the Armenian genocide, and books that have been written about it, even by Turkish professors.”

This inspiration also includes Henry Morgenthau Sr., who was the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-1916, who along with friends from New York, Hollywood film personalities like Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester of “The Addams Family”), plus the mayors of cities across the country, all participated in one of the most significant mobilizations of philanthropy on record.

When the killings ceased, a vast number of children were left without parents. The Near East Relief Foundation was created to raise money to assist the orphans of the Armenian genocide, as well as children in Greece, Syria and Persia, and raise money it did, $117 million then, or $2.8 billion in today’s dollars.

Detail of the mother and child sculpted by Tigran Hovumyan on the plaque commemorating the Armenian genocide. Photo by David Fairchild

A poster was created to publicize and promote the relief fund, based on a photograph of a mother and child in traditional Central Anatolian garb. That photograph and poster inspired the image that Zerunyan envisioned for the memorial plaque. The image resonated with him because it recalled his great-grandmother, and her three daughters who were, ironically, saved by a Turkish family.

Zerunyan described his idea and vision to the artist and sculptor Tigran Hovumyan.

What he wanted to have depicted in the woman’s face was “the pain, the suffering; yet the grace and kindness.”

It was a tall order, but Hovumyan’s first sketch met Zerunyan’s approval. “When I saw it, immediately I fell in love. I said, This is awesome, that’s what I want, a serene yet worried look — because this woman does not know what tomorrow is going to be.”

The relief was modeled in clay, and then bronze. The plaque is mounted on Palos Verdes stone. In person, up close, it’s an impressive achievement. But still, the question remains…


Pertinent, or incongruous?

When you presented your idea to have this memorial here, at City Hall, didn’t anyone ask Why here in Rolling Hills Estates? Weren’t there people who were hesitant to give their approval?

“When I requested this,” Zerunyan explains, “it was more my colleagues who said, We should have that, because you’ve been speaking about this for 20 years now, and our constituents know about this.

“For us to be able to conquer and to eradicate men’s inhumanity to men, to me the most important place to start is the local jurisdiction. It’s where everybody is.” At the higher levels, he says, it gets politicized and lost in the shuffle. “In all honesty I’ve seen very little pushback. Some said, Why here? And the ‘Why here?’ is very simple. If it’s not here, where? is my answer.”

One response to that question could have been Glendale, which has more Armenians than any other city outside of Armenia. It’s the largest in the diaspora, with maybe one-third of the residents (about 60,000) being of Armenian descent. In large numbers, Armenians have also settled in Fresno and Visalia.

Also, what if Zerunyan had been asked, by his colleagues and constituents, why push for a plaque to memorialize an atrocity overseas in Armenia and not something closer to home or with more relevance for the local population?

“There was nothing else that captured the interest nor the education that I provided,” he replies, “and the education that I had on this topic. And,” he continues, “men’s inhumanity to men is not just Armenian.” Zerunyan then mentions other peoples — Cambodians, Jews, Rwandans, Bosnians, Burmese, Ukranians — who have suffered gross injustice at the hands of others.

All of this is true, but I will dissent from it, just a little, without sacrificing my admiration for what Zerunyan has achieved. There were no guests or representatives from Rwanda or Cambodia, for instance, when the memorial was unveiled, so it was an Armenian thing, hands down, no disrespect intended. To put this another way, the Peninsula could have recognized the great disruption to the region’s Japanese-American population which, although not brutalized or massacred, was packed up and shipped off to Manzanar and Heart Mountain, and other relocation camps. For this area, a monument for those who were uprooted from their lives, lost their businesses or jobs and suffered greatly, would have been a noble gesture.

Nonetheless, if Zerunyan’s project does bring attention to ongoing global atrocities, using by way of example the Armenian genocide, then he’s right, it will serve a greater, universal purpose. In fact, he says, when first viewing the pictures emerging from Ukraine of elderly women, mothers and children crowding into train stations in order to flee, “I could understand that anxiety. So I wanted others to understand that anxiety.”

He then references his own quote, which is impressed on the memorial. It reads: “Every authoritarian tyrant commits human atrocities with impunity because of the prior examples of inaction and silence in the world community.”

“Authoritarians of the world do what they do because they can,” he says. He rattles off names: Putin, Xi, Kim Jong-un, Aliyev (Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan), Erdogan (Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey). “They all do it because they can, and no one says anything about it. That’s why.

“And so my quest has been, I can’t bring back my ancestors. What I can do is instill in people that silence is not acceptable, inaction is not acceptable.”

One of Zerunyan’s role models is the late Senator William Proxmire who from 1967 to 1986 lobbied every day on on the floor of the Senate, 3,211 times in all, for the U.S. to ratify the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Senate finally ratified it on Feb. 11, 1986.

“His tenacity and resilience and not giving up,”Zerunyan says of Proxmire, “is really an inspiration to me. And again, to me it’s a human issue, it’s not an Armenian issue. That monument is not just an Armenian monument; that monument is a human monument, there for all humanity to understand what authoritarians can do and what suffering is all about.”

He acknowledges that this isn’t a recent phenomenon, one set of humans, one tribe or one nation, dehumanizing and demonizing another in order to justify their attempts to kill or eradicate them. “At the same time, it doesn’t mean that people like me should give up the fight for humanity. And that’s why I’m here.”

Frank Zerunyan with the photo that inspired the poster for the Near East Relief Fund, both of which inspired his wish to have this image of an Armenian mother and child depicted in bronze on the memorial plaque. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski


Why Turkey won’t budge

As of last year, 33 countries had officially recognized the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. Significantly, so did President Biden. But does this change anything going forward?

“It has changed from the perspective that recognition is the first step to any kind of healing,” Zerunyan replies. “It doesn’t mean we’ve solved our problems, it just means that we’ve started a dialogue. To me, the recognition by the Biden administration is precisely that. It’s the beginning of a conversation. But it’s not good enough.”

What does Turkey stand to lose by acknowledging the enormity of the crime carried out by its former government and its people? They seem to dismiss it as part of the general chaos that was World War One.

“I know they blame it on chaos,” Zerunyan responds. “Yes, there was chaos, but this issue has nothing to do with the chaos.” He points out, the annihilation of the Armenians was ordered by Talaat Pasha — “pasha” being a title of honor in the Ottoman Empire, which later didn’t prevent Talaat Pasha, as well as Djemal Pasha and Enver Pasha, from being tried, in absentia, for war crimes.

“Anyway, the bottom line is that Turkey has created for itself a major problem, and let me say what it is.

“They have adopted the Ottoman as their ancestors, and they have adopted Ottoman history as their glorious history. They have put it on a pedestal and made it glorious. So the problem that Turkey has is to separate itself from that ‘glorious’ history that it had.”

But that’s just one part. The second problem for Turkey, Zerunyan continues, is that if the Turks were to accept and recognize the atrocities as genocide then they’d be concerned about lawsuits, “like the ones that happened in Bosnia, in Cambodia and others, about both land and loss of life and wealth,” and presumably what befell postwar Germany: “Jews sued all over the place, and they still are. So that’s what they’re worried about.

“And I don’t blame them. In a sense that’s true. But I think there is a way to approach the Armenian people and to help today’s Armenia” — by opening borders and by helping with economic development, “to apologize to the Armenian people and say we’re doing everything we can to help you out. They could do that.”

Except that under Erdogan’s rule this is unlikely to happen. In time, a more receptive leader will come to the fore, and then, as when Gorbachev assumed power in the Soviet Union, a true rapprochement could begin. Which isn’t to say that at some later date another rascal or authoritarian like Putin will come along and roll back any gains in peace and freedom.

And then, of course, there’s the seemingly ongoing conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan, whose president as mentioned is Ilham Aliyev. “He and Erdogan are very good friends,” Zerunyan says, “and he was able to convince Erdogan to help him push back the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was one of the independent states under perestroika law that Gorbachev created with his glasnost policy, and that every single former Soviet republic used to create or declare their independence.”

Objectively, this seems reminiscent of when Tito’s Yugoslavia unraveled and suddenly one nation became half a dozen, all of them squabbling with one another. In this case, the Republic of Artsakh, or the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which was historically an integral part of Armenia, declared its independence in 1991 and soon thereafter skirmishes (1988-1991) elevated into warfare (1992-1994). Peace was restored, sort of, but 30 years later, in 2020, another conflict erupted, this one lasting 44 days.

According to Zerunyan, Azerbaijan seized territory in which there is an enclave in Stepanakert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh) where 120,000 Armenians are now landlocked. Zerunyan is currently lobbying the U.S. and other countries to take notice of the situation lest it erupt into more needless violence.

Armenian history truly begins in ancient times. Evidence has been discovered in the capital, Yerevan, from 3,000 years ago. “In fact,” Zerunyan adds, “there was civilization there going back 5,000 years,” although its glory days may have peaked around 90 BC.”


So that one never forgets

April is Armenian History Month. April 24th is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which is recognized throughout the Armenian diaspora. In Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh it’s a national holiday. As an aside, one might note that Azerbaijan’s Remembrance Day is March 31, and that it’s in memory of the 1918 massacre of Azerbaijani civilians, a total estimated as high as 25,000. The Armenian genocide figures are often cited as being between 600,000 and 1.5 million dead. Surrounding countries mark their days of sorrow as well: There’s the Greek genocide of 1913, the Assyrian genocide of 1914, the point being that everybody kills everybody else.

All of which is to say that April 24 won’t go unnoticed this year at City Hall in Rolling Hills Estates.

“Every April we have a resolution that we pass and sign as a city,” Zerunyan explains, “not only recognizing but encouraging the recognition of humanity and all genocides. The beauty of this April 24 is we have the monument, and we probably will do something special there but we haven’t yet talked about it.”

Now, with the memorial as an impressive centerpiece, whatever event or program emerges will surely be enhanced. Of course the plaque and the stone in which it’s inset didn’t just appear out of thin air. Nor was it a spur of the moment idea either, Zerunyan says of the privately funded work. “I had my vision a long time ago, and I basically made a request from my friends and from members of the community that I knew well. I described the vision and what the monument was about, and I’m happy to say that people donated generously ($11,000 at the time of the dedication) and will continue to donate generously.” The money then went to the Pepper Tree Foundation which put it in the service of bringing the project to fruition.

Zerunyan can become a bit professorial in conversation, but perhaps that’s really due to his genuine devotion, even fervor, for the subject that is dearest to his heart. As we wrapped up our talk he again wanted to emphasize what he stood for and has endeavored to share with the community.

“The most important aspect to me,” he says, “is the importance of people in local jurisdictions, and the focus on tolerance and humanity. That to me is what this means.

“So that’s my persona. I look at people as people; I don’t distinguish people, and that’s because of my upbringing.”

He speaks once more of his grandmother, how she influenced him, but also of the intense suffering she witnessed and endured. Describing her ordeal, he chokes up, then continues: “And that’s why I’m passionate about humans’ kindness towards other humans, and when I see today the war and what the suffering is it really bothers me.

“So that’s what I want. I want people to understand that this [monument] stands for humanity; this stands for the eradication of genocide wherever it may be. And it stands for tolerance, which we lack a lot of today. It’s really disappointing because we’re taking humanity out of people. We’re treating them on the basis of their gender, their color… and not as humans. We need to get back to that. We need to get back to the common denominator.” PEN


comments so far. Comments posted to EasyReaderNews.com may be reprinted in the Easy Reader print edition, which is published each Thursday.