Last Breathing Testaments And One Hundred Years Of Genocide
Horizon Special Issue 2015
By Lalai Manjikian
Photos by Lalai Manjikian
Montreal – Nothing makes genocide more undeniable than looking into the eyes of someone who has survived the unimaginable. I am always at a loss of words at first when I meet genocide survivors. What can I possibly say to them that will have any relevance given what they have gone through?
In March 2015, I found myself in three different elderly care residences across Montreal. My mandate was to interview some of the last remaining genocide survivors in this city. The global momentum created by the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide this year prompted the purpose of my visits. Senior care residences never leave me indifferent. The odor of nondescript broth and the either blank or alert stares from residents are potent reminders of passing time.
Initiated by the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of Canada, this project’s aim was to record the narratives of the last survivors for archival purposes. Over the years, efforts on behalf of individuals and institutions have been made to document Armenian genocide survivor testimonies. However, as the Armenian genocide centennial approaches in April 24, 2015 and as the last of the survivors quietly fade away, there is, more than ever, an enormous urgency to preserve survivors’ voices and narratives. While it is encouraging to see a number of Turkish intellectuals, human rights activists, and students, seek truth and dialogue, this pressing endeavor is also fueled by rampant denial discourses propagated by the Turkish state that aggressively circulate in every shape and form.
Knar Bohjelian-Yeminidjian 106 years old
On behalf of the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee, I, along with Alik Boulgarian, also a committee member, as well as our project coordinator, and our camera operator Serge Yessayan, set out to collect and document these living histories. The three survivors we met were women over the age of one hundred. Keghetzik Hagopian-Zourkian, 104 years old, Knar Bohjelian-Yeminidjian 106 years old, Armenouhie Tenkerian-Piliguian, 101 years old. Their longevity is not only impressive in biological terms, but their age is also highly symbolic, as the government of the Ottoman Empire, which preceded the current Republic of Turkey, perpetrated the Armenian genocide one hundred years ago in 1915.
With a list of interview questions in hand, I was not quite sure what to expect, but was certainly eager to hear the life stories the survivors had to share. I tried to establish a rapport with them the moment we met. I was, after all, a stranger coming to them, and asking them to unearth dark and difficult chapters of their past. Needless to say, interviewing these women was an intense experience for everyone involved. To go back in time and history through the depth of their eyes and words is a deeply moving and powerful experience. To hear and to watch these women relive their pasts, as they recount separation, deportation, death, while maintaining composure and dignity is both gut wrenching and impressive. These women perhaps look physically fragile now, with tired bodies and vivid blue veins drawing complex maps on their forearms and hands, yet their eyes remain bright, generous, and resilient.
Keghetzik Hagopian-Zourkian, 104 years old
The first genocide survivor we met during our visits was Keghetzik Hagopian-Zourikian. She was born in Bursa, near Constantinople. In September of this year, Hagopian will turn 105 years old. In 1915, Hagopian’s father was taken into the Turkish military, and then killed for being an Armenian. She was subsequently separated from her mother and siblings at a young age and grew up as an orphan with only one of her sisters, until her sister fell ill and they also separated. Her journey as an orphaned refugee took her to Greece and Egypt. After leaving the orphanage she worked as a domestic helper in a Jewish household in Greece. Hagopian eventually met and married another orphan from the Armenian genocide who was living in Beirut as a refugee. They started a family in Egypt and immigrated to Canada with their three children. Hagopian tracked down and met her mother only decades later since their forced separation as a child. Despite all the adversity Hagopian faced as a result of the Armenian genocide, she is a living testament to how Armenians survived against all odds. She has eight grandchildren and eighteen great grandchildren. At the age of 104, I was struck by how she exudes beauty, grace, and faith. Even today, as she recounts the unfolding and the aftermath of the Armenian genocide, her eyes reflect her unwavering inner strength and her will to survive.
Knar Bohjelian-Yeminidjian was the second survivor we met. She was born in 1909 in Kayseri. When the massacres and the assault on Kayseri began, she and her family sought refuge in a barn for a few months. Her family was then deported, but not too far from their home, the reason being that her father was a soldier in the Turkish military. Growing up, Bohjelian recalls how her mother tied a scarf to her brother’s head so that he would pass for a girl, given that all the men were being rounded up and killed. Following a governmental decree and with their grandmother’s backing, Bohjelian’s family was forced to Turkify themselves in order to survive. Subsequently, Bohjelian and her entire family bore Turkish names. Once a cease-fire was announced, her parents decided to flee the region. In 1928, they travelled to Ankara, then Constantinople. After staying for 11 months, they made their way to Greece by boat and two days later, arrived in Alexandria, Egypt. She was 19 years old by then. Bohjelian claims that the only reason they survived the Armenian genocide is because they took up Turkish identities. She remains grateful towards her grandmother who (surely reluctantly) encouraged the Bohjelian family to take on Turkish identities. Bohjelian got married and lived in Egypt for over 40 years before moving to Montreal in 1971 with her family. She survived the genocide against all odds. Meeting her, and experiencing her presence and her generosity at 106 was a remarkable experience. Bohjelian has two children, three grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.
Armenouhie Tenkerian-Piliguian, 101 years old
Armenouhie Tenkerian-Piliguian was born in Chork-Marzban, Dortyol, in 1914. Due to her grandfather being a medical doctor and her father being a bank director, they managed to escape the genocide with the help of their family contacts. Tenkerian’s family reached Aleppo, in Syria, and in 1923 she and her family made their way to Alexandria in Egypt. There, she was an active member of the flourishing Armenian community, both as a member of the Armenian Red Cross, but mainly within political organizations. Alexandria is also where Tenkerian met her husband and had three children. In 1963, they moved to Montreal where she was one of the active members of the Armenian Relief Society that was just formed in Canada at the time, and where she took on executive responsibilities. In talking to Tenkerian, it was inspiring to see how strongly this woman continues to be dedicated to her Armenian identity and to Armenian literature and culture. One of the moving moments during the interview was when Tenkerian recited a long piece of poetry from Taniel Varoujan on a mother’s longing for his exiled son. Varoujan was one of many literary figures murdered during the Armenian genocide. Tenkerian has three children, six grandchildren and five great grandchildren, with one more on the way.
The women survivors interviewed this month of March 2015 on the eve of the Armenian genocide centennial are some of the last of the living, breathing testaments of a historical event that continues to be vehemently denied by the perpetrator’s government. Seeing, hearing, and connecting with these survivors can only come to reinforce our commitment as humans to ensure that truth, justice, and recognition prevail. In hearing these survivor testimonials, too many chilling parallels come to mind between the genocides suffered by the Ukrainians, the Jews, the Cambodians, Rwandans, and the Sudanese. The destructive cycle of genocide is unfortunately well and alive. Scholars and historians have identified denial as being the final stage of genocide. However, one thing is for certain, denial can never erase the memory and the survivor testimonies.