Recovering reminiscences of pre-genocide Armenia in heirlooms and notes


When the tightly knotted white and blue handkerchief was untied, it revealed a small handful of grime from a distant time.

A soldier, speeding to collect no matter spare belongings he may carry, was fleeing to board a ship on the Gallipoli Peninsula. It was a ship of survival, taking him and different Armenians away from the Ottoman Empire and the marketing campaign of genocide it was waging in opposition to them and different ethnic minorities. As he left, he knelt within the backyard of his residence and scooped up this little bit of grime. Carried in his pocket, it was a literal piece of the homeland to which he’d by no means return.

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A handful of Armenian dirt was tied up in a handkerchief a century ago.

A handful of grime, tied in a handkerchief by a soldier fleeing his household residence within the Ottoman Empire almost a century in the past, has been handed down via generations.

(Nate Berg / For The Occasions)

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This was almost a century in the past.

The handkerchief has since been handed down for 3 generations. On a vivid December day in Athens, it was one in every of a number of hundred objects introduced by members of the Armenian diaspora in Greece to be added to what, till not too long ago, had been solely a restricted historic file of Armenians residing within the Ottoman Empire earlier than and through the genocide.

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Happening largely between 1915 and 1923, the genocide killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians and dispersed many extra to adopted houses world wide, from Lebanon to Syria to France to the US. Turkey says the loss of life toll was a lot smaller and describes the violence as a civil warfare, not genocide.

A Christian ethnic minority, Armenians lived all through the Ottoman Empire amongst Muslim Turks and Kurds however have been primarily concentrated in what’s now japanese Turkey and western Armenia. Although many historic information and objects doc the empire across the flip of the century, little of it’s advised within the language, or from the angle, of the Armenians. For Vahé Tachjian and Elke Hartmann, a married group of Ottoman students primarily based in Berlin, that is problematic.

“Armenian sources after all exist, and they’re very wealthy,” Tachjian mentioned. However not like formal or official historic objects, a lot of the story of Armenians residing within the Ottoman Empire was both destroyed within the chaos of the deportations and massacres or by no means correctly recorded within the first place. What stays are the unintentional markers of historical past handed via generations: handwritten accounts of native villages, pictures mailed to relations overseas, embroidered clothes, a handful of grime tied in a handkerchief.

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Vahé Tachjian, left, interviews Ricardo Yerganian

Vahé Tachjian, left, interviews Ricardo Yerganian about his household pictures and historical past.

(Nate Berg / For The Occasions)

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“Our goal was to present one other worth to those sources,” Tachjian mentioned.

The venture began in 2010. After scouring libraries and archives for his or her restricted Armenian-language assets, Tachjian and Hartmann discovered a vein of fabric in what have been often called “houshamadyan,” handwritten and self-published reminiscence books that describe — typically merely, different occasions in nice element — the villages and ancestral lands Armenians have been compelled to flee. In 2011, they started posting data from these paperwork on their web site, which they named Houshamadyan.

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Virtually as quickly as the positioning launched, they started receiving emails from world wide written by the descendants of Armenians providing their very own information. Stunned by this outpouring, Tachjian and Hartmann, each of whom have Armenian heritage, redirected their focus from formal archives to the heirlooms of the Armenian diaspora.

“There have been so many treasures in household homes, household closets,” Tachjian mentioned.

To doc these supplies and the handed-down historical past they carry, Tachjian, Hartmann and a small group of part-time collaborators started staging workshops world wide the place folks may convey their household heirlooms and paperwork to be added to the gathering.

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Deeds for properties included in one family’s heirlooms

Included within the heirlooms of 1 household of Armenian heritage are deeds for properties.

(Nate Berg / For The Occasions)

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Funded by personal donors and foundations, these workshops have been held in Istanbul, Beirut, Paris, Los Angeles and Glendale, all locations for the Armenian diaspora, and Tachjian says every place gives its personal distinctive angle on this historical past.

The newest workshop was in Athens, the place a small minority of Armenians has lived since 1000’s arrived as refugees within the early 1920s. A mile south of the Acropolis, within the again room of a main faculty that doubles as an Armenian cultural heart, a few dozen descendants trickled in on a Saturday afternoon. Largely of their 50s and 60s, they got here carrying procuring luggage of pictures and punctiliously wrapped books, textiles and items of knickknack. Talking fluent Armenian in his clipped baritone, Tachjian interviewed every particular person about their household’s historical past, the heirlooms they’d saved and any reminiscences that had been handed down in regards to the Ottoman villages and cities from which their households fled.

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Vicky Khatchadurian shows Vahé Tachjian silver utensils and a small cup

Vicky Khatchadurian reveals Vahé Tachjian silver utensils and a small cup handed down from her grandparents.

(Nate Berg / For The Occasions)

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One lady, Vicky Khatchadurian, confirmed him silver utensils and a woven rug that her grandmother introduced from Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the Greek island of Cephalonia, objects that might go on to function her grandmother’s marriage dowry. She “was a fortunate one,” Khatchadurian mentioned. “She had the chance to outlive.”

Column One

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A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Occasions.

Sitting on the tile ground close by, Arshaluis Sapritchian, an Armenian language instructor on the faculty, was slowly turning via a handwritten pocket book as every web page was photographed. It was the autobiography of her grandfather, written in 1986 when he was 80 years outdated, starting together with his early years residing in exile because the genocide began and far of his household was misplaced.

He wrote how later he was unexpectedly reunited together with his mom and so they turned refugees in Greece, shifting from short-term settlement to short-term settlement with different Armenians who’d fled. Sapritchian compares it to the way in which the Greek authorities is coping with its more moderen inflow of refugees from locations together with Syria and Afghanistan.

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“As we speak once I see what’s occurring with refugees, it’s tearing my coronary heart as a result of it’s the identical factor that was occurring with my grandfather,” she mentioned. It was a narrative he by no means advised his grandchildren till writing it down on this pocket book. “He wished us to develop up in happiness. He didn’t need us to bear all this burden he had,” Sapritchian mentioned. “However at age 80, he determined he wanted to share this burden.”

Later, Silva Avedisian unfolded a fragile white embroidery and requested for assist deciphering the lettering stitched into its corners. The embroidery was made by her grandmother, who escaped from a focus camp at 18 along with her dying mom throughout a storm and needed to bury her, alone, along with her naked arms. The lettering, a translator defined, learn, “God provide you with good well being.”

By the tip of the day, a whole bunch of things had been shared and photographed, and Tachjian had almost crammed his notepad with tales and household histories.

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Vahé Tachjian takes notes and examines family photos

Vahé Tachjian information particulars and examines pictures at a Houshamadyan workshop.

(Nate Berg / For The Occasions)

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Individuals who have been compelled into exile or who fled on boats to locations like Greece usually carried little or no with them, and the issues they have been in a position to transport turned, over time, vaunted relics — the one earring one lady’s grandmother grabbed as she dashed out of a burning home, a e-book of prayers that was learn by a household each evening, the deed entrusted to a 6-year-old boy fleeing Ankara with the hope that sooner or later the Turkish authorities would return his household’s land. “Generally it’s the final connection for these households with their identification,” Tachjian mentioned.

For others who left earlier than the genocide, notably those that went to the U.S. as migrant staff in Massachusetts, Michigan or the farms of California’s Central Valley, the threads of historical past are thicker. Letters and pictures flowed backwards and forwards between relations, and typically this information from one’s residence village would change into the final documentation of a spot and a folks wiped off the map. And due to the relative wealth within the U.S., extra of the houshamadyan memoirs of those folks have been in a position to be printed, additional including to the historic file. “Geography is essential,” Tachjian mentioned.

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He estimates that the Houshamadyan venture has collected greater than 30,000 images from throughout the diaspora, in addition to a wide range of extra quotidian paperwork reminiscent of recipes, faculty rolls and musically annotated hymns that have been sung in a number of the first Christian church buildings. These scattered relics have change into a brand new form of archive for an missed historical past. Along with publishing varied manuscripts and pictures from household collections, affiliated teachers have used the web site to publish their very own analysis on pre-genocide life, usually pulling from Houshamadyan’s on-line library. The web site’s assets are even being built-in into college lessons in Turkey, the place the genocide is formally denied.

Hartmann, the venture’s co-founder and a substitute professor of Turkish research on the College of Hamburg, says that for many years Ottoman historical past has been seen merely as Turkish historical past, erasing all different populations from the image. “That is slowly, slowly altering,” she mentioned. “There’s an curiosity in seeing the Ottoman Empire in its multitude.”

However on the similar time, the connections to this pre-genocide historical past are fading as relations age. “Many issues have already disappeared,” Tachjian mentioned.

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The Rev. Vicken Cholakian, head pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church of Greece, says there’s a hazard that youthful generations will lose curiosity in understanding this a part of their historical past. He worries that tales of the genocide and the struggles afterward have overtaken the narrative of the Armenians and that youthful generations would quite look to the long run than to what can appear a completely darkish previous. “It has change into too central,” Cholakian mentioned. “We must always not repeat it a lot to our younger people who we don’t have the rest to say.”

A box of relics rescued from a church during the Armenian genocide

A field of relics rescued from a church through the Armenian genocide is among the many heirlooms photographed by the Houshamadyan venture.

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(Nate Berg / For The Occasions)

Tachjian and Hartmann argue that the historical past being retold via the Houshamadyan venture is consultant of a broader spectrum of Armenian historical past — a time earlier than the darkness. Not simply what was misplaced however what existed, in all its richness.

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Cholakian says that is the purpose of houshamadyan, the memoirs and histories that survivors wrote about their villages and lives.

“They hoped the subsequent technology would learn it,” he mentioned. “Who will learn it subsequent?”

Berg is a particular correspondent.

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