By Jennifer Manoukian
The personal accounts of Armenian Genocide survivors, as we have come to know them in the Diaspora through family stories and memoirs, tend to follow the same basic pattern: a calm life is suddenly and unexpectedly disrupted by news of deportations which sends a dazed family, usually without its male members, on death marches where, one by one, the family is torn apart by death and disease until one member, a child defying all odds, reaches a major city, like Aleppo or Constantinople, where he or she settles in the company of other Armenian refugees or finds the means to go abroad to Europe or the United States to start life anew. These children are our grandparents and great-grandparents and we know their story well, but in Fethiye Çetin’s memoir My Grandmother, the author recounts the experience of an Armenian Genocide survivor whose life, although beginning like those familiar stories, took a radically different course.
Fethiye Çetin is a Turkish lawyer best known outside of Turkey for representing Hrant Dink and his family in their suit again the Turkish Republic. Her involvement in this case and her defense of other Armenians in Turkey is directly linked to the secret that she reveals in her memoir: despite having been raised as a Turk, Çetin, by way of her maternal grandmother, discovers that she is, in fact, of Armenian descent. Her grandmother, born Heranoush to an Armenian family, was taken by a Turkish gendarme during the death marches where she was renamed Seher and raised as a Turk, repressing any memory of her Armenian past until the very end of her life where she divulges her entire story to her already grand-daughter who must reconcile her grandmother’s story and her newfound heritage with the negative perception of Armenians that she absorbed from the society around her over the course of her lifetime.
The story of Fethiye Çetin’s grandmother is certainly not unique, but Çetin is one of the first brave enough to voluntarily reclaim an Armenian identity in a country where the word Armenian has a pejorative connotation; her pride in her newfound ancestry and the personal reconfiguration that she underwent as a result of her discovery is certainly a testament to her strength and provides a strong example to others looking to tell a similar story. It is impossible to estimate the number of Armenian children abducted during the death marches and raised in Turkish households, unaware of their pasts, but in the past decade, stories are slowly emerging as more Turks begin investigating their ancestry and taking an interest in the surprising discoveries that they find. One would hope that as more Turks come to see how intertwined their own family stories are with the Armenian Genocide, how fundamentally their personal histories were shaped by an event of which their government denies the existence, that there will be more domestic pressure for recognition of the suffering that has survived in both Armenian and Turkish families.