BY ZOHRAB KUDUSHIAN
Aurora Mardiganian was a wonderful person and a family friend. She was a closer friend of my aunt Serarpi. Aunt Serarpi was like a second mother to me, and I would often pass through my aunt’s apartment on my way into the street, I would stop to see my aunt to say hello. There, I might find Lady Aurora and my aunt sitting, and taking a demitasse together. I was a young man, and immediately recognized the Lady as a very attractive woman who seemed to dress in a younger fashion than her age would reflect. Later on, I would make friends with her son; his name, as I remember it, was not Martin, as was reported in Anthony Slice’s edited text, but Cidal.
Cidal and I began attending Peter and Paul Episcopal Church together, on Westchester Avenue, just south of, but near Westchester Square, in the Bronx. After services, Cidal and I would climb into the bell tower, and watch the bell ringer ring the bells by moving a row of levers down one at a time, playing religious songs of inspiration. Church bells, don’t very much ring much anymore, in fact, I haven’t heard any in years. I don’t believe Cidal married an Armenian girl. I believe he married a Pilipino girl; though, I’m not sure. I also remember hearing that Lady Mardiganian’s husband may have been a Bolshevik, which would have set my father Manoog off, but he loved Armenians, and though he was committed to the Dashnak Party, our home was open to any Armenian who would set aside his politics for a visit. However, I don’t believe he ever visited our home.
Mardiganian was a very unique woman, I was told at the time; she did not answer her door without positive identification of the visitor, even if her visitor was well known to her. Aunt Serarpi had problems when she would decide to visit with her at her apartment. Lady Aurora was afraid of strange people. She felt she was being stalked for some reason. After the experiences of her life’s history, she seemed overly afraid for her security. I was told that every item in her house was tagged with identifying remarks, as if the items were cataloged for posterity. I was sure she must have been left with an exceptionally traumatic past, as many Armenians were. I knew about the movie she had starred in titled: Ravished Armenia. I knew about her relationship with, ‘The League of Nations;’ however, I knew nothing of the details, nor did I realize the great part she had played in exposing the history of that violent era as an eyewitness. Her copy of the book was loaned to my aunt, and it was passed around the family to read. I couldn’t get beyond the forth page. It was very difficult to read through my tears. I’ve read many books on the subject of Armenian history of that tragic time; I’ve toughened up since, and have read her memoirs recently. She had been threatened for her testimony at the League of Nations, and had withdrawn from being a public figure in the Armenian community for years. She seemed always to be looking over her shoulder.
The accounts of her early life during the genocide were horrific. What I learned about this wonderful lady, after reading her life’s story, was that it filled in many of the gaps in my understanding of her importance. I found that Aurora Mardiganian was a young Armenian woman who personally witnessed many of those killed in the tragedy of 1915, which included her father, and other members of her own family. It was a horror story like so many others. She came to the United States in an attempt to find the brother who may, or may not, have also survived. She had made it to Ellis Island in New York City where she met an Armenian couple, who attempted to help her in her search. The couple placed ad’s in newspapers, and even brought her story to attention of filmmakers in Hollywood. The Armenian story of genocide was being played up heavily in the newspapers of the time, and the studios were quick in recognizing the commercial potential of our Lady’s story, which put forward her testimonial of firsthand accounts. A film was made about her experiences in 1918, with Lady Aurora herself actually playing a large role in the film. The film was released under the title, Auction of Souls, and Aurora became an immediate success – she was now a movie star. The film was shown commercially for the public, as well as privately throughout the social classes in the big cities of the U.S., and found monetary support for Armenian Relief. She was always being called on to appear at functions. Donors to Armenian Relief wanted to meet her personally. Aurora was not accustomed to her newfound celebrity. She was not fluent in the English language, and felt out of place. The pressures she found herself under so soon after losing her family only a few years earlier, was too much for her to cope with. It is said that Aurora threatened suicide, and deserted the promotional tour of her filmed memoirs. The studio deep into the advancement of the story, found several Aurora doubles to take her place on those tour. In the absence of eyewitness evidence, the doubles drew heavily on information supported by the text from the 1918 book that the movie was based on. To this day, only ten minutes of the original film has been found, with the entire film itself, lost. And there she was, sitting in my aunt Serarpi’s living room, sipping her Armenian coffee, while having a sweet delight my aunt had made. Who knew?
Oh, there were rumors that she was some sort of Armenian activist, but then again, so was my father. Maybe he had a history, too? Who knows! I certainly didn’t. She he testified before the newly formed, League of Nations, and for her testimony there, it may have made her a person target for assassination, hence her reluctance to offer herself publicly.
You must read the book! Again, it is titled: Ravished Armenia, compiled and edited by Anthony Slide (Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Md., & London, 1997, 217 pp.).
A beautiful woman, and a genuine Armenian Heroine; Aurora!