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Entries in World War I (2)


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 (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