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SURVIVING ARMENIA: A Conversation with My Father (4)

Want to start from the beginning?  Read the Introduction to the series & Part 1 of "A Conversation with My Father."


We began this series with, "A Converstion with My Father," because we looked into some of my own family's story, through the eyes of my Dad. After he and I initially spoke, my father remembered one more piece of family history that is quite interesting and that also happens to be a flashback episode in the novel, “A Perfect Armenian.”

The conflict between the Turkish and Armenian peoples had existed long before 1915. Between 1894 and 1897, over 100,000 Armenians were massacred by the Ottoman Turks, with an expected 50,000 orphans left behind. These killings are known as the Hamidian Massacres, and are named after Sultan Abdul Hamid II. My father’s grandfather had many siblings. One of them was part of a group that tried to kill the Turkish sultan using homemade grenades. The grenades were primitive compared to our standards today and one of them went off prematurely killing some of these would-be assassins. Those who survived the faulty grenade were caught by the Turkish army and hung from a bridge in Constantinople. Back then, the Sultan was feared and hated by most Armenians because of the periodic massacres and his reign of terror.

As this series honors the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 on April 24, 2015, so we also honor those who have been fighting for the lives and freedom of Armenians - and all people - for centuries.


Read The Rest of "A Conversation with My Father"

My Grandmother and the Death March (1)

My Grandfather, The Invisible Man (2)

German Missionaries and German Spies (3)




SURVIVING ARMENIA: A Conversation with My Father (3)

Want to start from the beginning?  Read the Introduction to the series & Part 1 of "A Conversation with My Father."


In my last post, we were left wondering how my family came to the United States, rather than end up France or another part of Europe. As with many of these now 100-year-old survivor stories, the details are sketchy. But my father remembers that Mihran had an older brother by the name of Haig who had been conscripted into the military. Haig went AWOL and returned to Bardizag where he had befriended a few Greek sailors. They got him passage to America on one of steamer ships from the North German Lloyd line on August 31,1912, three years before the Armenian Genocide began. As his brother was sailing to the United States, Mihran turned sixteen and was also about to be conscripted into the Turkish military. Mihran was hidden by German missionaries and then escaped to find passage to be with his brother.

Where did the German missionaries come from?

They, over the course of several years, converted many of the Armenian Orthodox Christian “heathens” to the Protestant version of Christianity. Personally, I wonder if these Armenians “converted” so that they would have some sort of protection in the future, as the Germans were becoming a dominant force. As you know, the 1915 Armenian Genocide may have been the largest and most dramatic at the time, but it was not the first, nor was it the last.  

Mihran eventually escaped and immigrated to upstate New York where he and Haig bought a farm. The rest of my father’s family back in Baidzag did not survive the Genocide and details of their passing are not known.

My father did remember an interesting story at this point in our conversation. During WWI, his father, Mihran began a trip to California to see more of the country. Many Armenians made Southern California their home because the climate was very similar to that of ancient Armenia.  On his way, Mihran was arrested in Kansas City, Missouri. He was a dead ringer for a German spy on the American government’s watch list. He, of course, protested. The local authorities sought the help of a local Armenian attorney who came to the prison where Mihran was incarcerated. When the attorney confirmed that Mihran was Armenian and not a German spy, he was released and went back to New York. My father and I had a chuckle. I suppose being detained as a German spy would wipe out any yearning to travel!


In 1926, Mihran had decided that it was about time to find a wife. There were no Armenian women in upstate New York, so he contacted relatives in -- of all places -- Paris, France. Through letters, they recommended the daughter of close friends named Varsenig Pashayan.  Mihran travelled to Paris to meet Varsenig and shortly thereafter, the two were wed and travelled together back to New York State.

Farm life was difficult, and sadly, their two-year-old child died there. So Mihran and Varsenig decided to move to New York City but stopped in Utica, New York to visit some distant relatives. During their stay, the local Armenian community convinced them to stay, and they did. Mihran opened a candy store and was prosperous. They had two more children, Armenag, my father and his sister, Armenouhi.

Thus, my family ended up in the United States through a series of interconnected events, cultures, belief systems, conflicts, teamwork and decisions. In other words, we came here through this thing called, "Life."


SURVIVING ARMENIA: A Conversation with My Father (2)


Keri's Great Grandfather, "The Invisible Man" is pictured third from left with dark hair, moustache and black suit.

Read the introduction to the series.

Read part 1 of "A Conversation with my Father."

As the towns were being disrupted and people were forced to move, Minas, my grandmother’s father, just happened to be working in Constantinople. When word of the Genocide arrived, he quickly prepared to return to his village, against the recommendations of his Turkish employers who knew it was not safe for him to travel outside of Constantinople.

His family, however, was already gone.

It was a blessing that Minas was fluent in Turkish for when he returned to Tchingeler, he was able to monitor his family’s caravan, as well as the rest of the village’s caravans from afar from the local highlands. Dressed incognito as a Turk, he was also able to occasionally interact with his family discreetly, bringing them food and other supplies. Along the way, Varsenig’s parents traded their silk rugs for rugs made of horsehair, a more suitable material with which to make tents.

The Turks took the villagers south and six months later they had arrived in Damascus. Having been deprived of food and water during the march through the desert, many Armenians perished before they arrived, including Martha, Minas’s wife and their son Diran. They both died of dysentery. Dysentery was the cause of death for many Armenians who took part in what became known as the “Death Marches.”


It is interesting and quite morbid to note that many Armenians, like my grandmother’s family, who were subjected to “Death Marches” during the final episodes of the Genocide, had a better chance of survival than other Armenians who had suffered different fates, or who had stayed behind in their villages. Even the Turks had gotten tired of the killings in the desert, and the death rate during the last of the death marches had slowed considerably before they finally ended.

In Damascus, there was a return to some resemblance of sanity and safety in the living conditions. Minas with his two children, Varsenig and Vramshabouh managed to survive there until the end of the War.

As WWI came to a close, Minas thought the best plan for his family would be to travel to Constantinople. There, he at least would have a job and a way to support his two children. Plus the chances that Constantinople would be safe for Armenians was great because of the European presence in that city.

Unfortunately, their family’s bad luck had not yet ended. After traveling and settling in Constantinople, Minas suffered a gunshot wound to his leg while trying to break up a fight between two of his Armenian friends. No one knows what the fight was even about, but Minas died in a Constantinople hospital, apparently of blood poisoning.

Now orphaned, Varsenig and Vramshabouh were eventually shipped to two different Armenian orphanages, Varsenig to Paris, France and Vramshabouh to Cyprus, Greece. Eventually the siblings were reunited in France but my father was unclear of the logistics of this reunion and how it may have come about. He believes it was through the workings of the Armenian Red Cross.

Luckily, Varsenig and Vramshabouh had relatives in France and were eventually reunited with them. My father is unsure if these relatives were also refugees from Tchingeler, but it would seem to make sense that they were. They were probably travelling from Damascus to France.

I already knew the answer to the next question, but I asked my father, anyway, as I had never heard his version of the answer: Why was our family not living in France, if all of my grandmother’s relatives ended up there? How did his mother end up in New York? Well, that brings us to my father’s father, Mihran Topouzian who was from the “city” of Bardizag also located in the western aspect of the Ottoman Empire.

This will be part of the next story. . .

 Read the Introduction to the series & Part 1 of "A Conversation with My Father."



SURVIVING ARMENIA: A Conversation with My Father (1)


BACK-left to right: Vramshabouh (Varsenig's brother), Varsenig, Mihran (Varsenig's husband); FRONT-left-to-right: Armenouhi, Armenag (the author's father)


On the night of April 24, 1915, the Turkish government placed over 200 Armenian community leaders under arrest in Constantinople, starting the beginning of a Genocide that swept throughout the Armenian population by way of death marches and murder. Before WWI, there were 2 million Armenians. By 1918, at the end of the War, there were less than 400,000.

The Turkish government still denies their role as the perpetrators of this genocide. With the 100th anniversary in 2015, the Turkish government is attempting to reframe “the event” as shared suffering.

During book signings for my novel, A Perfect Armenian, I’ve heard jaw-dropping tales from readers whose families survived the Armenian Genocide.

The stories are terrible, colorful, awe inspiring, and touching. I’ve captured some of this history through a series of interviews with these families. Their sagas not only honor the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, they celebrate the triumphant spirits that allowed survivors to tell their incredible family stories.  

I thought it appropriate to start with my own family story.

~ Keri



My father’s name is Armenag. I’ve heard family stories in bits and pieces throughout my life, but never from start to finish from my Dad. So I decided to interview him about his parents, Mihran and Varsenig Topouzian. It was a wonderful time to spend with my father.

His parents were from the villages of Bardizag and Tchingeler respectively. Bardizag was a large town in the western part of the Ottoman Empire made up of all types of nationalities; Armenians, Greeks, Turks and more. But Tchingeler was a small village of a thousand families purely of Armenian decent. You can only imagine that in a village of this size that everyone knew everything about everyone. When I interviewed my father, he first spoke of his mother’s stories about Tchingeler, so this is the path we will now follow first, as well.

Varsenig was born in 1904. She had two brothers; the older Diran and the younger Vramshabouh. Her parents were Minas and Martha Pashayan. Living in Tchingeler one hundred years ago was very different than it is today. The main economy for the village was the production of silk. My father remembers his mother telling him that at night when they were in bed, they could hear the silkworms munching on mulberry leaves. Mulberry leaves were the staple food for silkworms. One of the challenges with the silk industry was to keep the worms healthy, and apparently, many Armenians would get training in Constantinople to become a “chemist” or a specialist in silkworm dynamics.

To make extra money, my father’s grandfather, Minas would travel to Constantinople, which was a two to three day journey by land and water. His ability to speak and write Turkish fluently and without accent was a skill needed by certain Turkish businesses in that great metropolitan city. If you spoke Turkish, you could trade with local and European companies.

Unfortunately, normal life in Tchingeler all came to an end with the start of World War I and the initiation of the Christian (Armenian) Genocide by the Ottoman Turks. The wave of chaos that started in the eastern Ottoman Empire, hit the small village of Tchingeler by September of 1915.

One of the first events that reshaped Tchingeler was when Turkish officials came to this tiny village and posted a decree on the church doors. There was only one church in Tchingeler. The decree directed all Armenians to leave their belongings and valuables inside of the church and to not lock the church doors or the doors of their homes. The decree further told the villagers that they were going to be moved to another area that would be “safer” during the war and that their belongings would be kept safe until they returned.  

I remember my grandmother telling me this same story twenty years ago and when my father told me this story again, the thoughts that were going through my mind were “You really believed these sons of bitches?” Then I remembered the look on my grandmother’s face when she relayed her version of the story and the sincerity that was in her voice.

They needed to believe this. And my grandmother's story brings her into the desert and into great tragedy.


Read the Entire Series, "Surviving Armenia: A Conversation with my Father"


My Grandmother and the Death March (1)

My Grandfather, The Invisible Man (2)

German Missionaries and German Spies (3)

On Assassinating Sultans



BOOKSTORE SHORT! North Wind Books at Finlandia University

As the author gets to know the different bookstores around the country, he is struck by their uniqueness. We thought you'd like to get to know them along with us. Marketing strategist & writer Elisabeth Veltman interviews owners and managers at these unique havens of literature.

Let's chat with store manager, Alana Nolan

North Wind Books is located in Hancock, Michigan, just a few minutes from Lake Superior. Not only is it in the Great White North, North Wind is also an independent bookstore owned by Finlandia University. Finlandia was founded 1896 by the Fins (yes, people from Finland) and is a 4-year liberal arts university that offers courses and degrees in Arts & Sciences, Health Sciences, Art & Design, and Business. The Fins may have started it, but the University welcomes all backgrounds to its academic world set in an outdoor-lover heaven.

I spoke with Alana Nolan, the Bookstore Manager and asked her what made North Wind Books special. She said that they have an array of different things from textbooks to university apparel to an independent section where books with a connection to Michigan are featured. This section contains local history and local authors, as well as books about birds, insects, or rocks that are indigenous to the area. Likewise, they have a children’s room and a Scandinavian room. As she spoke, it sounded like they actually housed local authors in their store along with the birds, rocks, and insects, and that a bunch of kids and Scandinavians were corralled next door. This gave us a chuckle, since obviously she was referring to books on these subjects.

While North Wind is clearly connected to the students, it is also involved in the local community and they choose events that follow through with their brand. So along with book signings by local authors, they do creative events like celebrating the 25th birthday of “Where’s Waldo.” I would bet money that Waldo hiding among the bookshelves watching the festivities and wondering if anyone would notice him.

If you can’t visit North Wind in person, you can order their books and apparel online. Orders over $50 get free shipping, too.


Have you read any Armenian authors? 

“There is a campus read every spring, which is one of the different events on campus for students and the surrounding community.  We just read “The Gendarme by Mark Mustian.”

What’s on the North Wind reading list?

“The Fault in Our Stars"

What Alana is reading right now:

The Sixth Sense
Boys in the Boat


North Wind is located at 437 Quincy Street, Hancock, MI 49930, on U.S. Highway 41.