Tamar Mashigian Reviews PASSAGE THROUGH HELL

By Armen Anush Marashlian
Translated by Ishkhan Jinbashian

Passage Through Hell–the English translation of writer Armen Anush’s memoir of the deportation and massacres–was presented at the Montebello Armenian Center on April 19–and at Ferrahian High School in Encino on April 28. It is dedicated to the memory of the 1.5 million Armenian victims of the Genocide and to the Generation of the Desert Orphans.

The following is Tamar Mashigian’s April 28 presentation of the book:

Over the past three decades–I have heard the tragic stories of dozens of Genocide survivors. I have interviewed numerous survivors–both on film and cassette tape. From cities like Izmit and Izmir to Garin and Kharpert–these eyewitnesses to the Genocide have told of the shock of being uprooted from their loving Armenian homes–their horrifying journeys through the desert and their ultimate miraculous survival.

So when I received the book "Passage Through Hell" by noted writer and educator Armen Anush Marashlian–I thought to myself–"I’ve heard so many stories about the deportations and massacres. Maybe I can skim this book." Most accounts of the deportations and massacre are so horrific–I was thinking I might spare myself the river of tears that involuntarily flow when I hear the grisly details of the Genocide.

But there was no putting it aside or hastily scanning the pages of Passage Through Hell. Instead–I discovered that I was reading the poignant plight of one family–author Armen Anush’s family–and almost like a suspense novel found I couldn’t put it down. I had to know what was going to happen to them.

The book is written in the first person. Armen Anush is a 9-year-old boy living in war-torn Urfa–with gunfire and explosions wracking his neighborhood.

That was in the fall of 1915. Armen Anush’s father was gone for days at a time–returning with a grim face only to leave again–presumably to fight the enemy Turk. One evening shrapnel landed near the family’s house. "Tomorrow evening our neighborhood–too–will be destroyed," Armen Anush’s father predicted–and he left the house–never to be seen again. Indeed–the next day an explosion took off the roof of their house–and the family left on a journey that was–quite literally–"a passage through hell."

During the Marashlians’ march through the killing fields of Turkey–we get to know each of the family members as if they are our own–and we are caught up in emotional turmoil as we discover the fate of each one of them:

* His amazingly young mother–who at the age of 29 bears 7 children–ranging from twin babies to a 12-year-old–is determined to keep the family together during the deportations–and even after her money runs out…

* his sister–Victoria–who is transformed from a pretty–black-haired 12-year-old Armenian girl to a withered skeleton on the deportation route.

* sister Rebecca–age 7–with her red hair and fiery black eyes–uncharacteristically quiet on the deportation march–wearing her kindergarten uniform.

* sister Nvard–5 years old–who is deaf and mute after a terrible fever when she was 3–and is consequently protected by everyone in the family.

* 3-year-old sister Aghavni–a cute little girl who is the spoiled child of the family.

* twin brothers–Tigranik and Mihranik–9 months old.

Armen Anush brings all of his family members to life in these pages; in doing so–he has found a beautiful way to honor them.

There are many poignant momen’s for the Marashlian family along the deportation route; for instance–when they create a makeshift home. "We were still working when mother came back. Victoria took the stuff that she had brought–which included a jug of water–bread–vegetables and even a candle and matches. Nvard–eyes wide open–looked on with astonishment. I grabbed the candle and matches from Victoria’s hands and jumped up and down. ‘So we’ll be lighting a candle and drink water from a jug,’ I kept repeating and prancing. The girls laughed."

Armen Anush also recounts the kindnesses of strangers: "I had recuperated but could hardly stand up. Mother carried me. She groaned and panted under my weight. Already we were behind. The slope wouldn’t end and mother–out of breath–struggled to climb. A boy of 14 or 15 approached us and told her–’Give him to me–madam–you’re too tired.’ Without waiting for an answer–he took me in his strong arms and headed straight for the front lines."

Then there is the terrifying carnage that Armen Anush miraculously escapes: "The soldiers bound me with three women. I heard a horrific–gut-wrenching cry and collapsed. ‘I’ll die,’ I thought. I continued hearing the dull blows of the swords and hatchets–the screams. The voices died down gradually. I forced myself to stir. Something heavy fell off my back. I looked: it was a woman–the one I was bound with. When I freed my waist–the corpse of another woman fell next to me. I was able to sit up–yet another woman’s corpse lay on my legs. By falling on me–the three women I was bound with had–purposely or not–saved me from certain death."

And–of course–he writes about the hardships: "All along the deportation road I had dreamt of Der-Zor. I was under the impression that we would have a room there?a warm–clean room of our own. I had dreamt of shoes and new clothes. But here we were in that city–and I was still barefoot–and my skin showed through my tattered clothes. Even when basking under the sun my body never–ever got warm. For hours I roamed the streets to get my hands on a few dates–while with each passing day bread became harder to come by–turning into an impossible fantasy."

This was not an easy story to write–and it was 40 years after the Genocide that Armen Anush had the courage to put pen to paper and compose his memoir. Before then–he struggled to make a life for himself. After the deportations he escaped to Aleppo with the help of an Armenian coachman posing as a Turk. He was able to attend Aleppo’s Haigazian Middle School–then he moved to Beirut–Lebanon–where he studied the French and Armenian languages and literature and he took some business courses–with the goal of becoming an educator. Eventually he entered the world of public service–working as a teacher and principal in Armenian schools throughout Syria–all the while taking correspondence courses in history and geography.

He started writing as a young man–publishing articles in Armenian diasporan periodicals such as Haratch and Hairenik–and authoring books and poems about the Armenian experience. His works include Orerun Het–published in 1933; Ayrvats Kaghaki me Patmutiune–the story of Urfa’s defense against the Turks–published in 1948; the epic poem Erkir Khrovki–published in 1955; and Aryan Chanaparhov–which was published in 1959 after his death and whose first English translation–Passage Through Hell–was published this year by Hagop and Knar Manjikian.

This is not an easy text to translate–and Ishkhan Jinbashian deserves much credit for turning out some beautiful phrases. Jinbashian translates: "Mihranik was asleep–as were my sisters. I was still awake. I looked around–watching the scattered flames–which gradually died down while more and more the black of night–with its wings of dread–weighed down on the camp. From left and right you could hear children’s whimpers–murmurs of prayer and damnations."

Passage Through Hell is an important memoir. The value of this book is that it becomes one of a handful of eyewitness accounts of the Genocide–written by the survivors themselves–available in English today. Anyone searching Amazon.com for the subjects Armenian genocide–Armenian massacres and Armenian autobiography will notice fewer than a dozen books written by survivors themselves. The rest are written by children or grandchildren–or they’re fictionalized accounts or they’re history books. And most of the survivors memoirs are out of print.

It is imperative that we have a substantial number of Genocide accounts in English so that the stories of the deportations and massacres be accessible to scholars–politicians–and researchers. And there’s a vast and growing number of Armenians who can’t read Armenian and who need to be aware of the human and political injustices of the Genocide of 1915.

Passage Through Hell is an essential contribution to the English-language literature on the Great Crime that the Turkish government and people perpetrated against the Armenians in 1915. This book is another brick in Armenians’ efforts to make a case against Turkey on the issue of the veracity of the Genocide.

Passage Through Hell may be purchased in the Los Angeles area at the Sardarabad–Berj and Abril bookstores in Glendale; in Boston at the Hairenik bookstore; and in New York at St. Vartan Cathedral and the Prelacy. The book also may be purchased for $15 (add $3 for shipping) from H. and K. Manjikian Publications–P.O. Box 2734–Toluca Lake–CA 91610-0374; e-mail manjikianpub@hotmail.com.

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