My Grandmother Escaped The Armenian Genocide, But She Never Forgot
On April 24, Armenians all over the world will gather for the annual Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, recognizing the onset of the Ottoman Empire’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. It began in 1915, ultimately killing 1.5 million Armenians, including my Nana’s mother, my great-grandmother. She died as many Armenians did — on a forced march to a concentration camp.
My great-grandfather was murdered in another Turkish murder spree, a rehearsal to the genocide, the 1909 Adana massacre.
For me, my family and Armenian-Americans from Watertown to Fresno, our hearts are hardened doubly on the day of remembrance. Once, for the cruel deaths of our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. And once again for the insulting fact that the perpetrators continue to this day to deny, with impunity, what happened.
Scholars worldwide recognize the Armenian genocide and many western countries, including France and Germany, have formally declared the event a genocide. But Turkey maintains that whatever happened in 1915 was a civil dispute between Armenians and Turks — with deaths on both sides.
Turkey’s denial of the truth has for years admonished Armenians to never set foot in Turkey. I had always taken the warning to heart.
But something changed as I grew older. Like many Baby Boomers, I’ve been reflecting on my past and discovering a deep well of gratitude for the immigrants who sacrificed to give us a good life.
I wanted to honor them, especially my Nana, who died in 1995. I wanted to do what she would not: return to the village she’d fled as a child, to declare — by my very presence — that she survived and even thrived.
In the spring of 1909, Gulenia Hovsepian — who would become my Nana — was a 9-year-old girl tending her family’s livestock in Bitias, a mountainous village in the Musa Dagh valley overlooking the Mediterranean. She recalled in a tape recording that a Turkish boy ran up to her, declaring “They’re killing the kafirs!” Kafirs were Christians like her family.
She ran home through a grove of mulberry trees, the leaves tickling her cheeks.
When she arrived, her father was arming himself to join other Armenian villagers to fend off the Turks. But he was among hundreds of villagers killed, most likely stabbed to death.
My Nana was rescued by missionaries and spent her teenage years in a Lutheran orphanage in Beirut, safe from the genocide. But when she was 19, she made her way to America for an arranged marriage with an Armenian man living in New Hampshire. They had six children, including my mother.
She lived in a tenement on a dead-end street in our New England mill town, Dover, New Hampshire. My mother, father, brother and I lived in the same tenement, one door away. Nana raised me as much as my parents did, feeding me when they were at their factory jobs, reading Golden Books to me, singing me a lullaby she learned in the orphanage.
Despite her tragic life story, I never heard hateful words from her until I heard her on the recording talking about the Turkish government.
“Damn them,” she said. “They don't want to admit it.”
On a warm day in June 2018, I boarded a flight to Istanbul with my 38-year-old son, Nick. He asked to come along to honor his great-grandmother and help his 70-year-old dad negotiate any obstacles.
Our driver took us up the lush Musa Dagh valley to Bitias, through steep switchbacks, swerving around pedestrians, women pushing baby carriages, couples on scooters and wayward chickens.
I wanted to do what she would not: return to the village she’d fled as a child, to declare — by my very presence — that she survived and even thrived.
Nick and I walked the narrow streets of my Nana’s hometown, absorbing what surely had not changed since she roamed here: the intense sunlight, the heat, the Mediterranean breezes, the smell of wood fires and cow manure. Standing in a field we believed once belonged to our family, I thought: An awful thing happened here. But instead of anger, I felt something unexpected: pride and defiance.
There was one more thing we could do. We went looking for mulberry trees. We walked up and down the hilly village; olive and orange trees everywhere. Nary a mulberry, until we spotted one in the corner of a yard, its branches overhanging at eye level. I snatched a dozen leaves and carried them home in the pages of a notebook. I couldn’t bring my grandmother to her home, but I could bring a piece of home back to her.
A few weeks after returning to the U.S., I drove to Pine Hill Cemetery in Dover where she was buried in the shadow of a tall spruce. I slipped one of the leaves out of my notebook, set it on her gravestone, securing it with a rock. I stepped back and took in the scene: Nana’s name engraved on the stone, the mulberry leaf and the ground below me where her body lay.
My breath quickened and tears came unbidden. All I could think, all I could say was, “Nana, here’s that leaf that tickled your cheeks when you were a little girl about to lose everything. Nana, I’m here, and I’m sorry.”
On Remembrance Day, like other descendants of Armenian genocide victims, I don't know whether to bow my head in grief or shake my fist in anger.