The Last of a Vanishing Breed

You might consider Nellie Nazarian a survivor of her cause.

Centenarian Nellie Nazarian with great-grandson Noah Aznoian.
It’s only because that’s what she is, literally: a survivor.

Nellie, 101, has not only survived the ravages of time, and the struggles of family and life, but also the eclipse of an entire generation.

She survived a genocide.

A genocide that wiped away 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman-Turkish government from 1915-23 and threw another million deportees into exile. Gone was half the Armenian population living in Turkey at the time, not to mention the churches and villages that were left in ruins.

During the week of April 24, Armenians in our diverse community gather in their churches and public centers to pay tribute to these martyrs. They will not only honor the dead but the living.

And they will pay special tribute to Nellie for an obvious reason: She happens to be the only remaining genocide survivor living in Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire.

The fact she lives in Methuen and once attended school in Haverhill brings her closer to home, having worked the shoe shops in this city before starting a jewelry enterprise in these parts.

Nellie used to have a company. When she began attending these genocide commemorations in Merrimack Valley, she was joined by 70 survivors. Slowly, those numbers began to dwindle.

Two years ago, my own mother was among the four who remained. They would attend the commemoration, health permitting, look around them, and note the missing. Who would be the last survivor, not that it mattered to any of them, but to others paying homage? Who would be the last to have a photo flashed onto the big screen and take a bow before 350 guests?

In a world bereft by tragedy, desecration, massacre, and violence, a genocide that annihilated the Armenians back 98 years ago has almost been deleted from our history books. Very little mention is made of it, thanks to Turkish lobbying that vehemently denies the truth.

And bitterly, thanks to the American government who refuses to recognize this first genocide of the 20th century.

As we approach the centennial in 2015, efforts to get a film produced in Hollywood have fallen askew. Attempts to get a postage stamp minted by the US Postal Department have also been futile. So long as Turkey remains an ally, justice will not prevail and precious Armenian land will not be restored.

And people like Nellie Nazarian will take the disappointment to their graves.

Nellie escaped the massacre in her native village of Chimisgazag by taking refuge in the mountains with her family before immigrating to America in the early 1920’s. At a time when decent jobs were at a premium, she became an entrepreneur.

Throughout her working life, she operated a jewelry store (Nazarian Jewelers) in downtown Lawrence with her husband Stephen, also a survivor.

Together, they built a profitable venture through diligent work and sacrifice. Stephen died in 1965, leaving Nellie widowed for the past 48 years. She’s hardly alone with 4 children, 16 grandchildren, and 34 great-grandchildren by her side.

More often than note, such testaments are given posthumously when deceased members aren’t around to enjoy them. In this case, she is hoping to make an appearance at the Merrimack Valley observance in North Andover High on April 29 and will be showered with attention.

She will take her seat alone in the reserved section, looking to her left and right to see her peers gone. A bouquet will be presented, most likely by her 12-year-old grandson Noah, who knows his place at these events.

If anything has impressed Nellie about these observances, it’s seeing the youth being honored for their essays and newer generations stepping forward to dance and sing and perpetuate the arts—a lifeline that has embodied Armenian culture over the centuries.

Of the genocide, she has maintained an indelible spirit of endurance.

“God was with my family,” she tells us. “We faced all those dangers. I consider myself very fortunate to have lived a good life and raised an excellent family. My heritage has always been important to me.”

The April 29 commemoration at North Andover will begin at 3 p.m. and feature a musical interlude by noted Armenian soloists Knarik Nerkararyan, Victoria Avetisyan, and Yeghishe Manucharyan, accompanied by pianist Levon Hovsepyan.

Over the past 25 years, some $70,000 in proceeds has gone to worthy causes in Armenia through the Armenian Genocide Committee of Merrimack Valley. I’m proud to be a part of this experience.

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