Hamidian Massacre Survivor Vartan Anooshian Dies at 110

By Ara Anooshian

Hairig–if you were nothing else but the wonderful father that you have been– you are worthy of the paeans I sing of you today. But you have been much more than that.

We–your children–know your inspiring story and would like to share it with others–because we know that you are too modest and self-effacing to talk about yourself. So–with your permission–I shall tell a little of your story.

I have learned much about your life–both from you and your older brother–Karnig–who lived with us for many years. We children called him "Aghbar" because that is what you called him. Aghbar was ten years your senior and became a grandfather figure for us. He was widely read–as you are. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Armenian history–particularly the history of Haght–where both of you were born. Aghbar possessed a phenomenal memory and I consider him the finest oral historian I have known. I should note that some of the history of Haght I learned from you and Aghbar–I have been able to confirm by my later readings of HBF Lynch’s "Armenia–Travels and Studies" and Drtad Drtadian’s "Haght Yev Haghetsinere."

In telling my father’s story–I must also talk about his birthplace–its history–his family–and the times and society into which he was born. As we know–these are the things that shape a person’s life.

By the Grace of God–on February 13–2004–my father–Vartan Anooshian–observed his 110th birthday. It is also by the Grace of God that he did not perish before the age of two–for you see–my father is a survivor of the Hamidian Massacres of 1895. My father was born on February 13–1894–in the village of Haght. Haght was part of the vilayet of Sebastia and about 25-30 miles east thereof. He is the youngest of the four children of Ghazar and Heghine Anooshian. Their other children were named Karnig–Kaloust and Kohar. I suspect that had he not been born in the month of February–the month of the Vartanantz–he–like his siblings–would have a name starting with the letter "K."

Permit me to digress a moment and tell you something about Haght. Haght–by the way–means undefeated or victorious. History tells us that Haght and Sebastia regions were settled–under very strange circumstances–in the year 1021–by the Artzerouni King Senekerim whose kingdom had been in Vasburagan (Van). We are told that after more than twenty years of constant war against the Seljuk Turks–a war-weary King Senekerim sent his son–David–as his envoy–to the Byzantine Emperor Vasil II to negotiate an exchange of lands. By the terms of the agreement–King Senekerim ceded to Byzantine–his Vasburagan kingdom–consisting of some 7 fortresses–400 villages and 8 towns–in exchange for lands approximately 400 miles to the west–namely–Haght and Sebastia; the exchange was completed by the resettlement by King Senekerim and his 14,000 subjects. It is thought that Senekerim felt that his kingdom would be protected from the Seljuks by the Byzantines.

Shortly after the resettlement–King Senekerim built the renowned Sourp Hreshdagabed Vank in Haght. For 900 years–Sourp Hreshdagabed drew thousands of pilgrims from the Sebastia region on the Feast of Vartavar and the Feast of Sourp Hreshdagabed until the 1915 genocide–when it was totally destroyed by the Turks.

The decision King Senekerim made in 1021 to cede his Vasburagan kingdom provoked harsh words and deeds almost 900 years later from–none other than–Khrimian Hairig. It appears that after King Senekerim died–his remains were returned to Vasburagan and interred in Varag Vank–in the vicinity of Van. Khrimian Hairig–who had become the Abbot of Varak Vank in the 1850s–ordered the removal of the royal canopy covering King Senekerim’s tomb because he regarded him unworthy of recognition as royalty. Khrimian Hairig believed that Senekerim should have kept his kingdom and continued fighting the Seljuk Turks to the bitter end.

Permit me to pick up the thread of my father’s story.

My father was about 1.5 years old when the Hamidian Massacres began in Haght in November–1895. To escape the Turkish–Kurdish–and Circassian mobs incited by Sultan Hamid–the Haghtetsis began to flee to the surrounding mountains. My father’s mother–Heghine–fearing that his crying might reveal the family’s hiding place further up the mountainside–concealed my father in some undergrowth. The initial massacre and plunder lasted 3-4 days. It resumed again–more bloody than before–by strange coincidence–on November 5–1895–the date of the Feast of Sourp Hreshdagabed lasting 2 more days. Finally–after the mob’s bloodlust had been sated and it withdrew from Haght–the surviving villagers began their slow and fearful return to what remained of their homes. Miraculously–Heghine found the infant Vartan where she had concealed him. Amazingly–my father survived the 1895 massacres; it was regarded as an Act of Providence.

At the beginning of 1900–the Tashnagtsoutiun was introduced into Haght and became the dominant party–largely because of Sepastatsi Mourad–the beloved fedayee freedom fighter. Mourad was from the neighboring village of Govdoun. Beginning in 1909–he became a regular visitor to Haght. Mourad preached the need for Haghtetsis to organize for their self-defense; he argued that the Young Turk Constitution of 1908–promising reforms for the Armenian people–was a sham and that the Young Turks could no more be trusted than the deposed Sultan Abdul Hamid.

Mourad had a premonition that a terrible calamity was about to befall the Armenian people–one–far worse than the 1895 Massacres. As we now know–history proved him correct.

My father has often spoken of Mourad’s visits to Haght. He would fearlessly ride into the village–armed–astride Asdghig–his jet black stallion with the small white star-shaped spot in the center of its forehead. Remember–in those days–Armenia’s were forbidden to ride horses or own guns. In Mourad’s case the Turkish authorities looked the other way–because they feared elimination by Turkish and Kurdish bandits that preyed on the peasants. He gladly obliged.

My father’s admiration for Mourad is unbounded. My father describes Mourad as being largely unschooled–but being extraordinary intelligent–intuitive and clairvoyant. He was also a brilliant orator–who spoke plainly so that all could understand his message. Mourad’s constant message to the peasantry was simple–"First–the gun–second–the pen and third–the spade." He invariably would tell the Haghtetsis–"The Armenian people must have the means to defend themselves–so that this time they sell their lives dearly." I’m sure that you would not be surprised if I told you that we had a large framed photograph of Mourad–his wife and infant son–hanging in our living room.

Two additional notes about Mourad may be of interest. Mourad dropped his own surname and adopted "Khrimian" because of his admiration for Khrimian Hairig. May family has another connection with Mourad; my maternal grandfather–Zagid–from Gavra–was a member of Mourad’s fedayeen band. But–that is a story for another time.

Once again–permit me to pick up thread of my father’s story. After the 1895 massacres–the oppression and repression by the Turkish Government continued unabated. My father’s parents–fearing for the lives of their sons–repeatedly advised their sons–"Leave this dog’s country; there is no future for you here." Difficult–though it was–my father and his brothers–one by one–left Haght for America. It was especially painful for my Uncle Karnig–because he had to leave behind his wife and five children. The three brothers intended to come to America–earn money to send home–and–eventually–return to Haght when conditions there improved. So–in 1911–at the age of 17–my father came to America and joined his brothers in New York City. There–he found work and became a highly skilled silver platter and metal etcher. Alas–the 1915 Genocide ended all hope the brothers had of returning home to Haght: except for a few survivors–the Turks massacred their entire family. Tragically–my Uncle Karnig never learned the fate of his wife and five children; he died in 1958–never knowing if any of them had survived.

In 1923–my father married my mother–Perouz who was from Gavra–a neighboring village. She had survived the Genocide of 1915 after suffering unspeakable horrors. Her’s–too–is a story for another time. My parents had three children; I am the oldest–then–my sister–Alice or Azniv–and the youngest–Armen.

Shortly after arriving in America–my father joined the ARF Armen Garo Gomideh. The Armen Garo Agoump was located on 3rd Avenue–between 26th and 27th Streets–in Manhattan–a few blocks from St. Illuminator’s Cathedral. As a young boy–I sometimes accompanied my father to the Agoump. The Agoump housed a large library that was well frequented by the members.

My father and Uncle Karnig also had a nice collection of Armenian books. I remember some of the titles: Raffi’s "Khente," "Samuel," "Gaidzer," etc.–as well as works by Shant–Zarian–Yessayan–Malkhas–among others. They subscribed to the Hairenik Daily and the Hairenik Monthly (Amsakir). They prized the Hairenik Monthly so highly that they had saved every issue and eventually had them hard-bound.

My father was very active in a compatriotic organizations–namely–Haght Kiughi Verashinats Miutiun–Haght Kiughi Hairenagtsagan Miutiun–and the Mourad Fund. The Mourad Fund was organized by a number of admirers of Sepastatsi Mourad for the purpose of publishing his biography. After funds were raised–Michael Vartanian–the noted intellectual–writer–and editor of Hairenik Daily–was commissioned to write the biography. I recall that we had hundreds of copies of the book my father had volunteered to sell–stored in our apartment. The demand for the book proved to be greater than the supply–so much so–that he forgot to keep a copy for himself. Incidentally–I don’t believe any money was made on the venture–but then again–it wasn’t undertaken for that purpose.

In most of the organizations to which my father belonged–he–invariably–was drafted to be Secretary. The other members would say that he had an "aghvor krich," meaning that he had legible handwriting. In the 1930s and 1940s–being the secretary of any organization was a burdensome undertaking. Obviously–no pay was given or expected to be received. My father would have to correspond–by mail–with members who lived all over the Eastern Seaboard–because most of them did not have a telephone. The only equipment my father had was a good fountain pen–a large bottle of ink and lots of patience. All correspondence was laboriously written by hand and repetitively recopied–over and over. Envelopes were then addressed by hand and postage stamps affixed.

Of all the organizations he served–I know that he regards as most important–his service to the Aramian Varjaran as Trustee in the 1930s and 1940s. Aramian Varjaran classes were conducted in a single classroom in Public School 58–located at the corner of 176th Street and Washington Avenue–in the Bronx.

We–students–attended classes there on Mondays–Wednesdays and Fridays–between the hours of 3:30 PM–after American school dismissal.

Although the School’s operating expenses were $15 per month for classroom rent and $25 per month for the lone teacher’s salary–money was a constant problem for the school. The tuition was 10 cents a week–but needy students did not pay even that. There never seemed to be enough money to pay the rent or the teacher on time. Remember–we were living in the midst of the Great Depression–when fathers–lucky enough to have work–were earning $10 to $12 per week. In those days–a loaf of bread sold for 5 cents and a quart of milk for 7 cents. The annual "hantes" sometimes produced a small surplus–but that was meager help. The chronic money shortage caused many in the community to question the viability of the Armenian School. The Varjaran’s meetings were often held in our apartment and–as a young boy–I would overhear the heated discussions of the school trustees about the Varjaran’s future. Some advocated closing the school–but my father would vehemently argue for continuing. Gradually–some of the trustees withdrew from active roles–suggesting that if my father wanted to continue the financial struggle–he could do so alone. I guess my father accepted the challenge and decided to find alternate sources of funds–whereupon–he compiled a list of Armenian businesses located in Manhattan–and on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons–after work–he made the rounds of these businesses–soliciting funds for Aramian Varjaran.

He rarely received more than $1–and occasionally–he would receive 10 cents. Many a businessmen not only refused to make any contribution at all–but also called my father a beggar and gratuitously suggested that if parents wanted an Armenian education for their children–they should pay for it themselves and not trouble others to do so. I can recall the many nights when my father would come home from his fundraising attempts–hungry–cold and wet–clutching the few dollars that he had collected. No amount of pleading and scolding by my mother for him to quit–had any effect on him; he stubbornly and doggedly continued. His determination helped enable Aramian Varjaran to survive beyond the end of World War II; at that point–the demographics of the Armenian community in the Bronx changed and Aramian Varjaran–finally–closed.

You might wonder what was accomplished by keeping Aramian Varjaran open. For one thing–the Varjaran was able to retain the services of its dedicated and learned teacher–Deegeen Armenouhi Dicranian Aharonian. Digeen Aharonian came from a noted family and was the sister of the talented Armen Dicranian–the composer of the opera–"Anoush"–and many other compositions. Furthermore–she was the wife of the well-known Vartkes Aharonian–son of the legendary Avedis Aharonian–President of the first Armenian republic and writer extraordinaire.

Baron Aharonian had been Prosecutor-General of the first Armenian Republic–editor of the Hairenik–and prolific contributor to many Armenian and Russian publications. They were a dynamic team.

Digeen Aharonian taught all the grades with no assistance. She instructed us in all the subjects; in addition–she directed us in dramatic and musical productions. As we in the upper grade approached graduation–Digeen Aharonian decided that we needed additional instruction. Accordingly–she required that we attend all day Saturday classes at her Washington Heights apartment. I must confess that we were not exactly thrilled to have to spend our Saturdays in study. As it turned out–the Saturday sessions became memorable. We soon discovered that the Aharonian home was a way station for some of the most legendary figures in contemporary Armenian history. It was there that I met Simon Vratzian and General Dro; later–I met General Sebouh. These thrilling encounters have remained with me to this day.

I believe that my father’s efforts to preserve Aramian Varjaran played an important role in its survival–which in turn enabled many children to receive Armenian education.

My father’s name–Anooshian–aptly describes his personality. He has always been a sweet–kind and gentle man–who never raised his voice to us–never scolded or spanked us. He has set an example for us by the way he has lived his life. He has encouraged us to value education and to pursue life-long study. He admires people who are learned and who have dedicated themselves to Armenian causes. His highest praise for a person is–"An ousial e," or An nvirvadz e."

Hairig–for all you have done and for all you have been for us–"Mer khorhin shnorhagaloutiunnere."

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