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Entries in 100 year anniversary (3)


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."