‘A Hair’s Breadth from Death’

Memoirs of Hampartzoum Chitjian

Genocide eyewitness Hampartzoum Chitjian’s first-person accounts of the Armenian genocide and its aftermath tell of his life of suffering–survival by living as a slave in Turkish and Kurdish households–his escape–via Persia to Mexico–and subsequently Los Angeles–where a sense of loss and injustice pervade his being. His raison d’etre becomes to ensure the Genocide is not forgotten. A very familiar face to the old-time LA community–Chitjian attended each and every April 24 demonstration held in the in the 1960s–70s–80s and even through part of the 90s.

He died last year before his memoirs were ready for publication. His faithful daughter finished them–however; the two editions that compilation–one in English and one in Armenian– be released next month.

LOS ANGELES–On November 15–the Armenian Film Foundation will host a reception and book signing for A Hair’s Breadth from Death–the memoirs of Hampartzoum Chitjian.

Speakers include scholar Hilmar Kaiser–a German historian who has authored two publications on the Armenian genocide–Publisher Ara Sarafian of Taderon Press in London–and Chitjian’s daughter–Sara.

"Chitjian’s memoirs are a unique contribution to the field of genocide studies–immigration studies–and the social-economic history of the Ottoman Empire and Armenia," says Kaiser. "His encounters with other shattered Armenian survivors offer a panorama of Armenian survival strategies and the appalling conditions and choices these few had to make. Students of immigration to the United States will find the account of the author’s journey to the US most interesting."

J. Michael Hagopian–founder and chairman of the Armenian Film Foundation–will present a short film on Chitjian–who appears in the AFF’s "Witnesses" trilogy of documentary films–and will offer some personal reflections. Chitjian–who was born in Perri–Kharpert–was J. Michael Hagopian’s babysitter. His daughter will speak about helping her father with his memoirs–which Seda Maronyan transcribed in Armenian over the course of several years. Sara translated the memoirs to English–finishing the work after her father passed away last year at the age of 102. Sarafian says–"Chitjian’s life story is remarkable for the amount of detail that is included–and that is why these memoirs are one of the most important first-person accounts of the genocide and survival."

The book signing is at 7 p.m. at the United Armenian Congregational Church hall–3480 Cahuenga Boulevard West. Admission is free and light refreshmen’s will be served. For further information–please contact 805-495-0717.

About the Book:

A Hair’s Breadth from Death represents one of the key memoirs of the Armenian genocide to date. Hampartzoum Chitjian (1901-2003) fleshes out–in great detail–the fate of Armenian women and children who were not "deported" in 1915–but separated from their parents for assimilation into Turkish and Kurdish households. According to some estimates–close to 200,000 Armenia’s were targeted for such assimilation during the genocide process–and only a fraction of them managed to revert back to their Armenian identity after the defeat of Ottoman Turkey in 1918. Chitjian survived the genocide in the Kharpert plain–until 1921–when he escaped to Mexico–and later moved to Los Angeles.

On the eve of the 1915 Armenian deportations–Chitjian’s father took his four sons to a Turkish orphanage in Perri–with the hope that they would somehow survive. The remaining Armenian population of Perri was soon deported and killed. Those fateful days became a turning point in Chitjian’s life–as the world he knew collapsed around him–and he embarked on an Odyssey of survival–picking up the pieces of his lost world wherever possible. The bulk of his memoirs are a detailed–blow-by-blow account of his survival in Turkish and Kurdish families–and his escape to the new world. During this period he found surviving relatives–got married–set up his own family–and become a contributing member of Armenian communities in Mexico City and Los Angeles.

Yet the Armenian genocide remained an ever-present element in his life–as he observed new generations of Armenia’s who were denied knowledge of their roots–their ancestral homeland (their yergeer)–and who assimilated as a matter of course. His experience of the genocide never ended; it just entered new phases over the decades–until his own death in 2003. Perhaps it is for this reason that–like many other survivors of the genocide–he felt compelled to write down his thoughts and memories as a debt to his family–the people of Perri–and the quest for justice he felt compelled to champion.

His memoirs are accordingly written in a passionate–forthright–and unabashed style. With his unconventional style–use of vernacular Armenian–Turkish–and Kurdish terms–Chitjian expresses his fury as a survivor of the Armenian genocide in the modern world. How could the world forget the crime that was committed against the Armenian people? How can Turkish governmen’s today continue to deny the genocide of Armenia’s? And how can Armenian communty leaders and political parties fail to unite against this injustice.

Chitjian’s work makes compelling reading–and can often be extremely disturbing. It is over 400 pages long and includes over 150 maps–diagrams and photographs–as well as a glossary of terms. It is a true landmark of a primary account of the Armenian genocide.

Written as an autobiography in Armenian and translated into English–the book is available in both languages through Garod Books: books@garodbooks.com and at the Abril bookstore in Glendale.

EXCERPTS:

Left at the Turkish Orphanage by his father ?Without hesitating a moment my father took his four sons and walked towards the small [m]agtab (Turkish school)–leaving the women behind in the house. As we walked–my father did not utter a word. He was completely speechless. I thought he was mute from the cruel beatings and torture he suffered in jail.

No one uttered a word–not a sound was made. We all walked with fear and dismay in our hearts–not knowing what was going to happen to us or what was going to happen to the rest of our family–my sisters–my aunts–and stepmother. Why were we separating? In times of crisis the family should stay together. Instead we were splitting up and going in different directions. I did not want to part from my father. Why was he taking us to that school? I was so afraid. Custom prevailed–then as always. We were taught not to question my father’s command. We obediently obliged.

My father walked in front–clasping tightly onto Kaspar’s hand. It was in our later years when I found out from Kaspar that my father had spoken as we were walking. My father’s last words were that the Turks were going to send him and the women to America to unite with our brothers. At that point Kaspar asked why the boys were going to the Turkish school and not to America with the family. His final reply was–"America for us is the river." Kaspar confessed that he didn’t understand his father’s last response–and at that point he was more confused than ever. Unfortunately–we were to find out the true meaning of that statement when we heard it repeated so many times in the subsequent months?

We were all too young to fully comprehend what was transpiring. Splitting up the family when all of the Armenia’s in Perri were picked up–imprisoned and tortured without cause or explanation was more than we could comprehend or bear.

We continued to walk silently. My father’s tortured posture showed no emotion or tears. Had his blood turned into stone? I could tell from his eyes he was smoldering from within. His mind and soul were completely devastated. I am sure he didn’t know what to tell us. He feared if he said anything unknowingly it might jeopardize what we might later say or do–and thereby be harmful for us. He was a devout believer in God. He did what he thought was best and left us in the hands of God."

Separating the Older Armenian Boys in the Orphanage for Execution

Three weeks later without warning–about ten o’clock in the morning–three gendarmes entered the Protestant Church before we were taken out to pillage for the day. Without a word they promptly started to separate boys according to their physical size and age. They grouped me with the older and larger boys aged fourteen to seventeen and kept Kaspar–my twin–with the younger boys. Not knowing why we were being separated–I immediately yelled out–protesting that I did not want to be separated from my younger brothers or my twin. "I’m his twin–we are the same age!" I felt I had to protect them–and I was desperate.

Suddenly–I felt a strong grasp on my arm. Immediately–I recognized the voice of Mihran Mirakian–my older brother’s classmate. Mihran was also older and larger than I was. He quietly whispered into my ear–"Let him go–he might survive. . ."

Witnessing the Kurdish Rebellion of Dersim–1916

The following spring–the Kurds–another subjugated minority under Ottoman rule–rebelled against the Turks. They were advancing towards Medzgerd from the mountains of the Derseem–looting and burning the houses as they headed towards Perri. The Turkish soldiers weren’t able to stop them.

There were a number of Armenian fedayees fighting with the Kurds. Together they had become a strong force.

As the Kurds got closer to Perri–Turkish soldiers were sent to help the Turkish civilians escape–many of them used their kaylahgs (river rafts) to cross the Perri River over to Hoshay.

One morning I had gone to the Gahmarr Fountain to fetch water. Suddenly Doodaughsooz (cut-lipped) Khehder–Ehmeenehm’s brother–approached me. He had acquired that nickname when his upper lip was cut away as punishment for a crime he had committed. The prosecuting lawyer who found him guilty was an Armenian. Thereafter–he despised all Armenia’s. He knew me as Korr-Mamoe’s slave and was unaware that I was Armenian. He rushed up to me and told me to forget the water–to run home quickly and tell Korr-Mamoe to get on his horse and rush down to the river.

I hurried home without the water and told Korr-Mamoe the news. "The avenging Kurds have advanced as far as Bahsue. The Gavours (infidels) were among them. They are burning and looting everything along the way!" Alarmed and without further questioning–he grabbed his horse and we rushed towards the river.

Winters usually began in early October in Perri and lasted through the middle of March. There were always heavy–bitter snowstorms. The rivers froze three to four feet deep. Anyone traveling with a horse or donkey with a heavy load could safely walk across the river with relative ease during the peak of the coldest season.

In no time we reached the bank of the Perri River. Because it was early spring–thick blocks of ice were still breaking loose and floating in the water. The large chunks of ice made it difficult for the fleeing people to cross over to Hoshay with their small kaylahgs. Many were thrown off as their kaylahgs collided with a boulder of ice. Once thrown into the frigid water–it was very difficult for them to swim ashore or to get back on their kaylahg. Many people drowned in their desperate attempt to escape.

Suddenly–I saw my twin brother–Kaspar. Almost a year had passed since our last encounter. I desperately wanted to embrace him. At best–it was a relief just to know he was still alive and well. He was also escaping with his Turkish master–Meudayee Oomoomee–and his family. As they were getting on their kaylahg–I quickly approached Kaspar and whispered to him to ask his Effendi if he would take me too. I felt it would be safer going with them. At the same time–there might have been a chance we would be reunited again.

Saving Armenian Women in the Kharpert Plain at the End of WWI

While I was still living at the Armenian orphanage–we began to feel less intimidated because the Americans were still there–a false sense of calm prevailed. Both the American missionaries and soldiers encouraged Armenian boys to assist Kude Archbishop Mekhitarian to carry out his mission to rescue Armenia’s still held in bondage by Turks and Kurds.

Many Armenian women who had been forced to become Turkish and Kurdish wives left their children fathered by Turks or Kurds and fled to the Armenian Protestant orphanage. Others refused to give up their children and made the choice to remain–just as my Aunt Aghavni refused to give up her children and remained in Perri. I tried to convince her many times but to no avail. While I realized what a difficult decision that must have been–I greatly admired the women who left their children and fled when they found the opportunity.

With this opportunity in mind–I remembered the slave who worked in the gendarme’s house in Parchanj. She always treated me well–while her Khanum–Fahtmah–always taunted me by calling me Gavour Boghee. One day when I had the opportunity–I decided to go to Parchanj and rescue the slave. I knew I was risking my life if the gendarme caught me. Nevertheless–I went. First–I dropped by to say hello to Khanum–the kind–elderly woman who had always treated me well. It felt good to know she was very happy to see me. She inquired about my problem with the ghosts. After a short pleasant visit–I told her I had come just to see her. Then I left.

I quickly went across the street and went up to the second level of their three-story house where the slave had her living quarters–above the stable. The Armenian slave came out as soon as she saw me. Quickly and quietly–I told her why I had come. I was surprised by her response. Apparently–she and Khanum had anticipated my intentions when they saw me in the area and had made their own arrangemen’s.

The slave assured me that she could escape whenever she saw fit–and that it would be better for me to take Fahtmah Khanum herself. For some time–she was preparing to escape. Khanum had previously sent her daughter away to safety. Now–she was waiting for the opportunity to escape herself and was willing to part from her sons. So now she was relying on me to take her away–that day!

I was struck by the sudden realization that the person who had been so cruel and hostile towards me–shouting Gavour Boghee at me every chance she had–now wanted me to risk my life to help her escape from her Turkish gendarme husband who terrified everyone just with his barbaric presence. I knew the gendarme or his mother could enter that room at any moment. So–we had to escape immediately.

Without giving her suggestion a second thought–I agreed and quietly followed the Armenian slave up to the third floor. Fahtmah Khanum was ready and waiting for me to take her away. Silently–without a word–she motioned for us to go down the back stairs. She was dressed in her white charshaff (sheet). Her body and face were concealed. I had never seen her face before–nor did I see it then. Only her eyes were visible.

"Gee dehk" she said in Turkish. "Let’s go!" Bidding us farewell–the slave whispered–"Be careful–don’t get caught!"

When we got downstairs–I peered from behind the house to make sure no one was in sight. The coast was clear–so we fled–walking as fast as we could–making sure we did not attract anyone’s attention. Fahtmah Khanum walked briskly by my side and never uttered a word.

The walk from Parchanj to Kharpert was about two hours. After walking for some time on the road through Kehsereeg–I decided it would be safer to change our route–even though it would be much longer. By taking the new route–I avoided passing by the police station that usually had at least sixty policemen milling around.

I was greatly relieved when we finally arrived in Mezreh. I took Fahtmah Khanum directly to the Armenian Protestant orphanage. Without a word–I quickly left. All the Armenian women and girls were housed there. Reverend Yeghoyan had converted his zhoghovahran–meeting hall–into an orphanage.

Discovering the Fate of His Beloved Family Members

One day while I was walking alone towards the Hokey Doon–a woman recognized me. Waving her hand–she called out my name–"Hampartzoum! Hampartzoum!" A warm feeling went up and down my spine. It was a nostalgic sound to hear my Armenian name called out by a familiar voice from Perri. As she got closer–I recognized her. It was a pleasant surprise and realization to know there were other survivors from Perri!

After a few words–her mood changed and her eyes filled up with tears. She proceeded to tell me she had seen my sister–Zaruhy–in the Hokey Doon on one occasion several years earlier and hadn’t seen her since. Nor had she heard what happened to her. That encounter took place when Zaruhy reached Haleb. She was very exhausted and weak when she began to tell the woman what had happened to her father and family. As Zaruhy began to relate her story to the woman–it was obvious she was unable to endure the agony of recalling the painful ordeal before completing her story. Zaruhy felt faint and collapsed to the ground. Medical attendants from the Hokey Doon rushed to her assistance and carried her away. Thus–the woman was able to tell me only what little Zaruhy managed to convey to her and no more:

"After returning home from the Turkish orphanage where my father had taken my three brothers and me–he went home to pick up my stepmother–his sister Marinos–and my three sisters Zaruhy–Sultahn and Yeranuhi. They joined the other neighbors from Perri who were being forcibly deported–leaving behind their personal belongings and their homes. They were not given time to make preparations for the ordeals of deportation. As soon as they reached the banks of the Perri River–my father advised my sister Sultahn–who was only sixteen at the time–to throw herself into the river for a more peaceful death. Because of her crippled arm–he felt the Turks would only abuse and torture her–then inevitably they would kill her. Even though she was a pretty girl–no one would take her as a wife. Aware of what they had already done to my father–as evidenced by the dry bloodstains on his coat–Sultahn promptly threw herself into the rushing waters of the Perri River.

"After a mournful prayer–the family resumed walking with the others. As they drew nearer Hoshay–a Turk attempted to grab my stepmother. At that point–my father tried to stop him–but the Turk reacted swiftly by slicing off my father’s ears…

"As much as we know–those were Zaruhy’s last words–and with tears streaming down her face–she collapsed. Apparently her exhausted body and devastated soul couldn’t endure any more. We will never know how she managed to escape from the demise of the others or how she managed to trudge across the horrible Der Zor Desert on her own."

Hampartzoum Mardiros Chitjian–A Hair’s Breadth from Death: The Memoirs of Hampartzoum Mardiros Chitjian–(London and Reading: Taderon Press–2004)–xx + 434 pp.–ISBN 1903656303–maps–photos.–illust.–gloss.–hb.–US$35.00. To order contact books@garodbooks.com

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