A conversation with Carolann Najarian, editor of ‘Avedis’ Story: An Armenian Boy’s Journey’
BY ISHKHAN JINBASHIAN
One wonders how the term “retired” can possibly apply to Carolann Najarian. True, she has retired from medicine some years ago, but the label outlives its usefulness right there. That’s because, even before her retirement as a practicing physician, Carolann Najarian, MD, and her husband, K. George Najarian, have been carrying out the type of public service whose scale and breadth are usually associated with a full-fledged organization.
In fact, the Najarians have been instrumental in the establishment of several organizations. In the aftermath of the 1988 Spitak earthquake, they helped launch the Armenian Health Alliance to provide medical relief to the victims of the disaster. Since 1987, the Najarians have made more than 50 trips to Armenia and Karabagh to assess local medical needs and accordingly provide aid to hospitals. In 1994, Carolann founded the Primary Care Center in Gyumri. A year later, she founded the Arpen Center for Expectant Mothers in Stepanakert. Her experiences in the twin Armenian republics are chronicled in her book A Call from Home: Armenia and Karabagh, My Journal (ISBN-13: 978-0966498509), published in 1999. Also in 1999, the Najarians provided major support toward the establishment of the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry (ABMDR).
As the daughter of Genocide survivors, Carolann Najarian is known equally as a passionate advocate of human rights. In 2010, she and her husband launched the K. George and Carolann S. Najarian, MD Lecture on Human Rights, an endowed program of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. The lecture series, dedicated to Carolann’s father and held annually at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall, examines specific human-rights issues of global relevance and raises public awareness of efforts to mitigate them.
Other humanitarian and philanthropic causes which the Najarians support include Facing History and Ourselves, Physicians for Human Rights, the Food Project (Massachusetts), and ABMDR, among many others, in addition to various scholarships which they continue to provide.
In recent years, Carolann Najarian embarked on a labor of love unlike any other. With the painstaking care of a daughter who had grown up in a warm, nurturing family of Genocide survivors, she prepared for publication the memoirs of her father, Avedis Albert Abrahamian. The memoirs, which her father had recorded on tape, chronicle his odyssey of survival from Kharpert to Rhode Island and subsequently New York, where, as a boy of 15, he went on to rebuild his life. Abrahamian’s memoirs were published this year under the title Avedis’ Story: An Armenian Boy’s Journey, by London’s Gomidas Institute (ISBN 978-1-909382-13-8, paperback).
A native of New York, Carolann Najarian spent the major part of her medical career in Massachusetts. She and her husband currently live in Washington, DC.
Prior to my interview with Najarian, as I researched her accomplishments, including her role as editor of her father’s work, I could notice at every step that they reflected not only a staunchly humanistic stance, but also a certain artistic sensibility. Perhaps this is par for the course. And perhaps it should come as no surprise that she actually holds a bachelor’s in music (from Queens College), in addition to a medical doctorate (from Boston University School of Medicine) and a master’s in medical anthropology (from London’s Brunel University).
ISHKHAN JINBASHIAN: As you worked on your father’s memoirs, what, would you say, were some of the overarching emotions that came through in his recordings? Did you get the sense that the passage of time had somewhat eased the pain of loss which he felt, or that, on the contrary, his recollections of certain events were as painful as when he had experienced them as a child?
CAROLANN NAJARIAN: He exudes happiness when he talks about his early childhood; fear and loss throughout his recounting of the days of the Genocide; then happiness again as he tells the story of how the family was reunited and the community reestablished in America.
My dad describes in detail his village, and how wonderful life was, not only for him but for all the villagers. He admits there were difficulties, but his overall sentiment is one of contentment, fulfillment, satisfaction with the good, though simple and poor, life they led.
Then, when it all fell apart, anxiety, fear, and a profound sense of loss set in. Over and over again he says, “Nobody knew what was happening… what was going to happen…” He describes a number of horrific experiences he could never forget: walking into the town square and witnessing hangings, or hearing the cries of men being beaten. While in hiding, my father and his family heard the town crier each night call out the names of those to be deported. They lived in utter terror and uncertainty. He was jailed several times, and even tied to the mast of a boat.
I.J.: Many Genocide survivors have considered their very survival as the best possible revenge against the perpetrators of the crime. Whenever he spoke of the Genocide, did your father have an abiding “message” for his children? Did he, for instance, wish that you would excel at whatever you did, as Armenian-Americans, in order to keep alive your cultural heritage?
C.N.: We were raised to believe that there could be nothing greater than to be Armenian. This is interesting since my father was not an extreme nationalist. But that’s what we were taught. It followed that we had to do our best at whatever we did. My parents didn’t insist that we be better than any one else, but that we do our best. My dad always taught us that we could do whatever we really wanted to do. So when I thought about going to medical school, I didn’t let the fact that I was 36 years old stop me. He encouraged me to go ahead (as did my husband).
My father did his best to set a good example for us. Although he hadn’t finished high school, he read incessantly, and took his high-school equivalency exam when he was 60 years old. He was so proud when that diploma arrived! He was a house painter. Once, just to show how good he was, he painted a ceiling wearing a tuxedo! Not a drop spilled.
We were taught that family mattered more than anything else. And we were taught to pay attention to the world and what was going on because the great powers and those in power had to be watched.
Most of all, my father’s message was to get a good education — this was of critical importance to him — and to seek out kinship with others. He was a man who looked the other way, didn’t harbor grudges. He was not bitter and looked for the good in others.
I.J.: In addition to chronicling his harrowing odyssey from Kharpert to Rhode Island, do your father’s memoirs include descriptions of incidental backdrops and details such as landscapes, weather, food, music, and so on?
C.N.: Yes. The first part of the memoirs are all about his village, Sheykh Hadji, with descriptions of the place and how life was organized. He describes in good detail, for example, how bees were raised and what it meant to the family. I can attest to the accuracy of his portrayals since I had the chance to visit Sheykh Hadji.
He also describes the cities that they eventually went to, such as Batumi and Armavir. To me, the most unforgettable scenes are those of his escape through Dersim, and then from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz, in both instances through treacherous mountain passes.
I.J.: What were some of your own feelings while working on your father’s memoirs? Were you entirely familiar with his story, or were there any surprises for you?
C.N.: Surprises, yes. Two big ones. First, I never thought of my dad as an enterprising entrepreneur. He owned a modest paint store with his brother in the Bronx. But as young boys, during their six-year journey from their hometown to America, they got into all kinds of businesses. For instance, they got cotton, contracted with women to spin it into thread, and then sold it to shoemakers. They even bought Russian paper currency after the revolution and sold it for rolling cigarettes. Amazing!
The other big surprise was their mother — my grandmother. I knew her as an elderly woman, small, quiet, who put bluing in her white hair, was a great cook (chocolate cake and apple pie in addition to her Armenian specialties), rarely expressed an opinion, and was happiest when her children were close by. But in reality, she was a tower of strength and clever to the extreme. On several occasions, while her husband had been away in the US, she saved the family from certain death by being quick on her feet and making the right decision. She carried my aunt, who was six or seven years old, across treacherous mountain passes. Throughout those terrible years, she kept the family together despite being separated a number of times. She just wouldn’t give up. Interestingly, my sister had the same reaction of surprise when she read my father’s text.
I.J.: Do you find that your father’s memoirs, like those of many other Genocide survivors, are significant for not only their documentary value, but also, in essence, for conveying a gripping story of universal relevance?
C.N.: Absolutely. This is a story of how people survive under the most dire conditions one can experience. At one point, my father asks a key question: what was it ultimately that gave them the strength to endure? And he gives two answers. First, he says, “thousands of us were in the same situation and we all wanted to prove the Turk wrong;” and second, he explains, he had the will to go on because he knew others were fighting for him. He heard stories about our courageous generals, sang patriotic songs, and knew he and his family weren’t alone.
My father was a kind and generous man, not bitter or angry. He was always concerned about other people. For instance, he realized that as a young boy who had been treated cruelly, he was in turn cruel for having once badly beaten a Turkish boy after they reached Istanbul. He felt shame for his behavior. I couldn’t help wonder where this profound sense of fairness came from, considering his traumatic childhood, the fact that his family lost so many members to the Genocide, lost most of its possessions, and was deported from its ancestral lands. I have been filled with a greater appreciation for who he was given what I now know.