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Transatlantic Blog

Charles Aznavour championed persecuted Christians and private property

All of Europe has been grief-stricken over the death of one of the greatest French singers of the last century. Charles Aznavour, known as the “French Sinatra,” died on October 1 at the age of 94. In his long career, Aznavour was a singer, composer, and actor. His hits included “She,” “La Bohème,” “Hier Encore,” and “La Mamma.” But this celebrated celebrity in the worlds of music and cinema may be less known for his involvement on behalf of victims of political and religious persecution, private property rights, and the world’s most vulnerable people. Charles Aznavour deserves to be remembered, not just a legendary artist, but as a great fighter for historical truth and freedom.

His sensitivity to the fate of minorities is with no doubt due to his own family history. Charles Aznavour was born Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian, a son of Armenians immigrants to France. His father emigrated from Akhaltsikhe in Georgia; his mother fled from Smyrna (today’s Izmir in Turkey) during the massacre of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. This massacre became classified as the first genocide in modern history.

This diabolical persecution, in which many of the victims were crucified, blanketed the entire empire, especially the modern-day borderland connecting Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The modern Turkish state has never admitted that the slaughter of 1.5 million innocent civilians constituted the deliberate ethnic cleansing of Armenian Christians. Aznavour has a personal link to these sad events: His mother’s whole family was killed in these massacres.

Charles Aznavour used the fame he earned from his singing voice to become the voice of its victims. In 1975, he did so literally, releasing the song “Ils sont tombés/They fell” as a tribute and commemoration of its victims.

Not long after their arrival in France, the family of Aznavour were subjected to another bloody regime. Nazi Germany invaded France immediately after Poland, and initiated the Shoah – a Holocaust in part inspired by the Armenian genocide. Hitler believed his crimes could be concealed, asking rhetorically, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Young Charles, with his sister and parents, were actively engaged in rescuing the Jews and other persecuted people of their new country. In 2003, Aznavour recorded “La Yiddishe Mama,” the French version of a famous song celebrating Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Recently, the state of Israel honored the singer’s family for their efforts to protect Jews during World War II.

In recent years, Aznavour’s life was, once again, interwoven with the tragic persecution of the innocent. The land which once saw the extermination of the Armenians has again been experiencing the persecution and systematic annihilation of Christians and other religious minorities by ISIS. The only monument dedicated to the victims of the genocide on the land where they were martyred was blasted by Daesh in 2015, exactly one century after the last genocide. Aznavour dramatically drew the public attention to the suffering of innocent Iraqis and Syrians. “Is it possible to silence the drama of the Christians of the Middle East, the Assyrian-Chaldeans, the Syrians and the Armenians, as well as the tragedy of the Yazidis, who continue to be persecuted until today?” he said in a story published by Le Monde.

Aznavour, was a member of the Georgian Orthodox Church but never received a religious education. He linked this lack of formation to his doubts about God. Nevertheless, he manifested a deep respect for religions and the devout.  Despite his fame, he remained a very humble person, able to speak openly of his hardscrabble history. “I haven’t studied. I left school at the age of 10… I’m a child of the street,” said this tenacious and unbroken old gentleman.

This guilelessness enabled him to speak openly about issues that are hidden or dissembled through political correctness. Born to an immigrant couple, he consciously integrated into French society. “I become French first of all in my mind, then in my heart, in my way of life, and in my language,” he said. He believed that immigration should be open, but he opposed massive and uncontrollable immigration from the Middle East to Europe. For him, immigration without assimilation would only ruin a country. Aznavour appreciated a responsible immigration policy, limited to those who were “ready to marry themselves to the French way of life, without seeking to impose their own.”

The artist’s involvement in public life was not limited to questions related to history and culture. He actively lobbied in favor of extending the length of copyright protection for performers and producers in the EU where the intellectual property rights of performers lasts only 50 years. (Copyright protection lasts 95 years in the U.S.) As a successful singer for more than half a century, Aznavour lost the legal protection of some of his works late in his life. Artists should be able to benefit economically from their work, which in turn, fuels the production of new art. “Extension of [the] term of protection would be good for European culture, positive for the European economy, and would put an end the current discrimination with the U.S.,” he argued during a meeting with European Union leaders.

Charles Aznavour defined himself as 100 percent French and 100 percent Armenian. However, he remained proud of the country of his origins and felt a responsibility toward it. Apart from his efforts to maintain the memory of the Armenian genocide, he supported his parents’ homeland economically. Just after Armenia’s dramatic earthquake in 1988, he funded the “Aznavour pour l'Arménie” (Aznafour for Armenia) charity fund. He was regarded as one of the greatest sons of Armenia, a voice of Armenia in the West. He was consequently appointed the Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Armenia to UNESCO, Armenia's representative to the United Nations organizations, and Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland.

The death of Charles Aznavour marks the end of an epoch. His life was a testimony that a true talent may come joined together with a beautiful and rich personality and a commitment to a cause greater than himself – proof that international fame may be used to advocate for the life and freedom of many.

(Photo credit: Wijjjilihgvv. CC BY-SA 4.0.)


Marcin Rzegocki is a Ph.D. student at the Warsaw School of Economics. You can contact him at marcin.rzegocki@gmail.com.