Separated by the Fate of Genocide: A Father’s Struggle Abroad

By Emily Ekshian

My Story tells an intricate, biographical account of Hagop Vartanian’s struggle supporting his family during the Armenian Genocide from abroad. His story encompasses a journey across continents. It follows Vartanian’s early days before World War I and his later life in the United States. He details the heartrending realities that took place during the Armenian Genocide. The core of Vartanian’s experience is captured in his years living in the United States, though the Armenian Genocide, and the events ensuing in the chaotic aftermath, play an important role in shaping him as a father and the responsibilities that were inviolable.

The memoir is exclusively written as a first person narrative, detailing Vartanian’s origins in Northeastern, Turkey. Vartanian was born in the village of Adish, located in the Turkish Armenian vilayet (province) of Diarbekir. Residing amid the serene town, his family enjoyed a relatively stable life. He and his wife, Yeghisapet, had six children. Four were boys; Garabed, his oldest child, Levon, Vartan, and Vahak, his youngest child. They also had two daughters, Hripsime and Azniv. 

Armenia’s greatest river, the Euphrates, passed three miles from the village, and Vartanian alludes to the tens of thousands of Armenian corpses lying at the mouth of the river. The 1911 – 1918 wars in the region left the Armenians in the hands of the ruthless Turkish enemy.

Adish’s gardens and vineyards were not sufficient to provide livelihood for the village’s fifteen hundred inhabitants. Often, many were obliged to work in Istanbul or abroad, and then return to their homes to spend time with their families.

Vartanian says that circumstances took a turn with the onset of World War I, prompting the Armenian Genocide. With the support of the German allyship, the Turkish government implemented a set of policies that eventually guided the systematic destruction of Armenian identity in the Ottoman Empire, and the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians who were living in the region. The Armenian Genocide is officially the world’s first documented Genocide, and the first Genocide of the 20st century. The Genocide involved death marches through the Syrian Desert and the forced islamization of Armenian women and children— a few among many heinous strategies perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks.

At the start of the Genocide, Vartanian was confronted with a difficult decision. For the benefit of their families, many Armenian men would immigrate to surrounding countries and cities to earn a living. In many cases, men moved to Istanbul, Europe, the Middle East, and in other cases, some, like Hagop Vartanian, would make the long voyage to the United States. Vartanian documents the path that led him to Chicago, and the frustration he met while supporting his family in war-torn Armenia.

On August 7, 1909 Vartanian’s ship finally dropped anchor in the harbor of New York City. Leaving the city of Mezre, Turkey, a month previously, Vartanian eventually settled in the American city of Chicago. He lived there until he went back to the ‘fatherland’, about nine years later, in the summer of 1919. During his time in Chicago, Vartanian was able to secure a stable job at Griess Pfleeger Tanning Co. with a weekly pay range averaging about $25. 

Through his chronicles, Vartanian conveys his anguish to the reader, as he learns of the atrocities being carried out in his homeland. In 1914, while the European World Wars began, he said “sadness seized me, for I saw that while the great powers were occupied with the wars, Turkey would have a favorable opportunity to masacre and annihilate the Armenians.” He later shares that he regrets not immigrating his eldest son, Garabed, to the United States. He wanted his son to focus on his studies instead of labor, yet now his fate seemed to be in the hands of the Turks. Vartanian became increasingly concerned with the advancement of the World Wars in 1915.

A month later, reports of massacres and hangings reached the United States. Those reports included details of Turkish mandates deporting all Armenians to Mesopotamia. In September of 1915, even more devastating news had reached Chicago – an increase in massacres, famine, deportations and rape across the Armenian territories.

Several months later, Vartanian found that those Armenians who were in the region of Adish were deported, and by the end of 1916, the American Consul in Aleppo, Syria notified Vartanian that his wife and four children were alive, and in great need of money. However, that news worried Vartanian because he had six children. He pondered that the two missing were his eldest boys Garabed and Levon. The American Consul had informed Vartanian that Garabed was separated from his mother in Malatia.

On 6 June 1917, Vartanian received a postcard from his wife from Aleppo, who had listed the names of the four children and saying that they were alive and unharmed. That is when Vartanain noticed that Garabed and Azniv, his eldest son and youngest daughter’s names had not been included on the postcard. He knew that they were lost. Azniv was abducted by the Turks when the family reached Ourfa. A year and a half later she escaped and reached her mother in Aleppo. Hripsime, his eldest daughter, became ill amid the destitution and subsequently died a month after Azniv arrived to her family. 

Two years later, he received a family picture of his four surviving children and Yeghisapet, his wife. In the picture, it was apparent that his wife was sick as her bones were defined, to which Vartanian concluded that she was dying. Azniv wrote to her father, making it clear that her mother’s illness was indeed serious. 

Vartanian decided to leave the United States very quickly to see his sick wife. After nine years in Chicago, Vartanian departed on July 26 1919 to Detroit. Despite his effort to obtain a visa to leave New York through Greece and Smyrna, circumstances of the world wars had tightened the opportunities for travel.

On August 15, 1919, the bitter notice of death appeared in the mail, his wife’s passing. Consequently, his children were then put in an orphanage in Aleppo, and he delayed his travel plans to see them.

A year later, thanks to the conclusion of the world wars, Vartanain was able to travel aboard the ship that would reach Le Havre, France. On May 28, 1920, Vartanian was at last reunited with his children in Aleppo. Eventually, Vartanian and his four children moved to the United States, where they took up residence in Chicago.

Grappling with the historical context of the time, the memoir explores the economic and socio-political realities Vartanian, along with thousands of other Armenian men abroad supporting their families back home, had experienced during the Genocide.

Vartanian presents a unique experience within the constructs of the Genocide – he witnesses familial loss and his homeland’s destruction, while travel restrictions render him incapable of seeing them. Today, the majority of Adish’s population is to be found in the United States, as a result of the destructive anti-Armenian policies and extermination agenda of the nascent Turkish state. During the Genocide, his wife and eldest daughter became ill and died, and his eldest son was killed.

The beautiful account takes the reader along Vartanian’s journey moving to the United States, exploring a father’s responsibility to support his family. The cycle of the anguish he dealt with while not being able to help his family members survive was later resolved in part when he reunified with those that did.

Dr. Roberta Ervine translated Hagop Vartanians story from the original diary manuscript. She holds her PhD from Columbia University. Her dissertation research led her to Jerusalem, where she lived in the Armenian Monastery of St. James as a disciple of His Grace Abp. Norayr Bogharian, curator of manuscripts. In 2001, she returned to the United States to teach at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, where she lectures on topics related to the history of Armenian Christianity and Armenian Christian thought. 

This account is among many gencoide survivor stories available to read at the Zohrab Information Center, which readers and the interested public are encouraged to visit. The center is open Monday through Friday by appointment. The book can be found here:
Zohrab catalog: https://dac.kohalibrary.com/app/work/10067

Emily Ekshian is a master’s student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her concentrations include international and investigative reporting. Emily is also an intern at the Zohrab Information Center, where she seeks to explore the unique experiences of Armenian Genocide survivors.

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