It was a long time ago, in fact it was 1915 when what is now known as the Armenian Holocaust began with the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians. The date, April 24, 1915 is indeed the date when Ottoman authorities rounded up, arrested and deported 235 to 270 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders from Constantinople to the region of Ankara, the majority of whom were eventually murdered.
The genocide, as it is also called, was carried out during and after World War I in two phases, the first being wholesale killing of the able–bodied male population through massacre or forced labor. The 2nd phase was women, children, and the elderly on death marches to the Syrian Desert. Driven by military escorts, these Armenians were deprived of food and water, subject to robbery of whatever goods they could carry and, of course, a general attitude of despise.
Things were not very pretty in Turkey in 1916 and what was to be a story of survival came when my grandfather’s lime pits and home were seized by the Turkish government. You see, my grandfather was a successful leather tanner and when asked to give up his pits, his reaction of giving up a portion was met with the taking of all of them and his home. There were 40 family members at that time and when forced to leave, my father, age 12, his two sisters and mother were led out, into the desert. Yes, my Dad was a Holocaust survivor.
How did this happen you say? Well, the Armenians, at that time, were well educated and employed into various Turkish government positions and it was this place that my great uncle worked and when it was learned that his family was in the desert without food and water, he demanded that they be returned, at once. The soldiers walked through the crowded fields calling my grandfather’s family name and when found, all four of them were led out of harms way and sent to Constantinople to live with his married sister.
There were a few boys that my father knew, in the village, all attending Robert College, an American college. The school can boast being the oldest American school still in existence outside of the United States with its location in Istanbul. My father longed to attend the school of his friends. How it came for my dad to be attending this school has never been very clear but somehow, this bright, young Armenian was enrolled in school as an Academy student. At this point his mother and sisters moved to within a stone’s throw of the campus and my Dad began his classes.
He spoke very poor English, his clothes were clean but a bit peculiar for the dress of the college, wearing a blue, two-piece set of overalls. Although it would have appeared that he could not afford the dress of the day, his manner could almost be considered eccentricity as opposed to the well primed young boys he associated with. He says, “I had had enough of poverty and there was lots more to come so it could be eccentricity and as it would develop, I did, in many ways, grow into that phrase and have lived with it into the middle age and beyond.”
Again, reading his notes he says,” This was the locale where for the next six years, I would spend the most memorable years not only of my young life but that those six years would shape and mold me into whatever I have become and I can reflect with the greatest fondness on those six years.” He was through with Turkey, of that he was sure and he had to become an American. To that end he had to learn English and learn it well so that when that day came, that he could stand on the shores of the United States, he would blend in as he says, “ just like a fish freshly unhooked from the line and thrown back into the sea, swimming like mad with a new start to become one of the free again.”
So, at the age of 18, my Dad had to flee again, this time, as with the last, it was from the Turkish government but this time it was for inscription into the armed services. My Dad was studying to be an electrical engineer and would have made a wonderful addition to the Turkish troops but his mentors had another plan for him. He was asked to accompany a group of orphaned children to Greece on a holiday but his bag was fully packed, money put in his pocket and he was told to lose himself in Greece and leave Turkey for good. The group was called the Near East Relief and the initials were stamped on the side of his suitcase. I have that suitcase.
So there he was, 18 years old, on his own, leaving his family behind but with their well wishes for a new beginning. He stayed in Greece, working where he could until he had enough money go to France. It was his fervor to become an American, and this he began in earnest, as he stepped off the SS Aquitania on August 18th, 1923 setting foot on American soil for the first time. He closed the past behind him at 1:00 p.m.
I give thanks for my dad’s extreme efforts to come to America and as he wrote upon entering 14th Street, “Sure the push carts were there, sure everybody did not wear gabardine suits with long, pointed lapels as did the Americans at Robert College but they did not have to for they were all Americans and they were all SPECIAL now.”
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.