When I finally met my great Uncle Hagop on a family trip to Florida, I immediately asked to see the inside of his forearm. He extended his seventy-year-old limb and amongst the wisps of white hair and folded skin, I could see the faint ink markings delineating the cross. Morakuyd, my great-aunt and Hagop’s sister, had marked him a Christian with indelible ink when he was four years old. She was a precocious girl all of ten. It was risky. He could have been slaughtered like the rest of the family and he came very close. The Christian minority in the Ottoman Empire was eliminated every way one can imagine — gassing, burning, deliberate starvation, deportation death marches, and gunning down. The holocaust of World War I set the stage for the holocaust of World War II less than thirty years later. “After all, who remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler stated. History repeats with no accountability.
The first time I saw Morakuyd, years before I met Hagop, she was sitting in her car in my driveway when I arrived home from school. “I’m your aunt, let me in your house.” She rolled the window closed, opened the door and seized her solid suitcase by the squared handle, and followed me up the driveway and into my home. The suitcase barely cleared the pavement but stayed firmly under her control. I wasn’t sure who she was but I recognized the thick Armenian accent and the look: dark almond-shaped eyes, olive skin, and a short but solid frame. When I saw her face, I recognized Grandma who had passed away the year before. Settling herself into a chair at the kitchen table waiting for my parents to arrive home from work, she reached into her black oversized satchel and pulled out one cigarette and a small pair of scissors. With one swift snip, she cut the cigarette in half and then reached back into her bag to dig around for a match.
“Why did you cut that cigarette?” I wanted to know. “I’m quitting,” she said, and then she slowly inhaled. Squirming in my seat, uncomfortable with this stranger, I exhaled when my parents walked through the kitchen door. As soon as he saw her, my father wrapped his arms around her and boomed, “Maritza!” Realizing she never told me her name, I echoed him with a cheerful, “Maritza!” She quickly turned on her heels and scowled at me (what my mother called the “Malkasian black look”) and said, “YOU call me Morakuyd (aunt), NEVER Maritza.” She was my father’s aunt and my great aunt but because of my age, I wasn’t allowed to call her by her name. That was her first visit to our home in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston, because she had lived in another state before then. Morakuyd visited often and each visit she stayed for weeks at a time. I never saw her smoke again and I never called her Maritza again.
Before I met her, I had heard about her. She was Grandma’s sister and she had survived the Armenian Genocide when she was a young girl, the same age as I was when I first met her. My father made sure I heard the story of the family slaughter and he repeated the history often so I wouldn’t forget. But when Morakuyd was visiting, dad didn’t bring it up for fear of traumatizing her with the brutal memories of her childhood. Morakuyd kept busy all day, every day, and maybe that was her means of coping with the past. Her focus was the kitchen where she had control and could feed the people she loved. “Starving Armenians” was a common lexicon in the American press as the reports of the genocide by the Ottoman Turks headlined in leading newspapers across the United States. No way was Morakuyd going to have any starving Armenians on her watch.
Once Morakuyd was entrenched in our home, I wasn’t caught off guard when I arrived after school. I burst through the backdoor to the smells of sumac, cumin, and rising dough. Standing at the counter, Morakuyd’s sturdy hands were deep in a bowl mixing ingredients or expertly slicing vegetables. One day I bounded up behind her and snuck a pinch of meat, popping it into my mouth. “No, no tsakis (sweetheart), you can’t eat it like that!” “But Morakuyd, it’s kayma!” “Voch! This is for lemejun not kayma,” Morakuyd informed. Lemejun, a thin crust lamb pizza, couldn’t be eaten raw. Morakuyd guided me to the table with her hands on my shoulders and placed a stack of filo dough and a small bowl of melted butter in front of me. She brushed a sheet of the dough hastily with the melted butter, filling the center with a dollop of shredded cheeses and parsley. Folding the thin film of dough into a symmetrical triangle, glancing at me to make sure I was watching her, she then put the finished boreg on a large greased baking sheet. She handed me the pastry brush to continue the job while she returned to the counter to finish the lemejun.
The requirements for her recipes, entirely inscribed in her memory, extended beyond the limits of our cabinets and the grocery store. Morakuyd, in her calf-length shapeless dresses, paced the backyard with her head bent toward the earth inspecting the grass. At intervals she squatted to the ground and with a firm grip, throttled her target. She stood up holding the pale red tubular stem of a weed with green rubbery leaves and roots covered in dirt. After placing the pickings in a large metal bowl perched on her hip she continued on her quest. This trolling lasted for hours as she methodically rooted out the weeds, which she collected to make bunjalboud stew. Today, purslane, the weeds from the lawn, is sold as a super food.
Even though I never knew we had food invading the grass in our lawn, I was not surprised. My family had a harvesting ritual that no other family living in Wellesley shared. Grandma and Aunt Stella, my father’s sister, lived in a two-family home in Watertown, an Armenian community just west of Boston, where I was dropped off every weekend during my childhood. I attended Sunday School at Saint James Armenian Apostolic Church and then my parents came to collect me on Sunday afternoons. We would leave after chicken and pilaf dinner and this tradition continued even after Grandma passed away. Heading back to Wellesley, there was a preferred hunting ground along a narrow, forested road. As dad slowed the family station wagon and pulled over to the shoulder of the road, I examined the woods from the back seat. I had been schooled in botany from a young age and immediately spotted the wild grape bushes tucked amongst the poison ivy and bramble. In the month of June, the young leaves are at their peak for dolma, stuffed grape leaves. Any later, and they would be too tough. I slunk low in my seat, crossed my arms over my belly and huffed dramatically. Morakuyd stuck her elbow in my side and nudged me. Sliding out of the car, keeping low, I hoped none of my blueblood friends from Wellesley drove by and saw my family foraging in the brush. I stayed close to the car, a shield from onlookers, but Morakuyd pushed past the snarl and nettles wading deep into the woods. She was particular about the leaves, scanning the foliage for the perfect size. Neatly piling them one on top of another, each peak lined up, until she had two full stacks. We handed our bundles to her so she could organize the rest on the way home.
“The Turks killed off the Armenian men first, a strategy leaving the rest of the community vulnerable,” dad continued educating me when Morakuyd wasn’t around. His jaw stiffening and eyes narrowing as the anger controlled his face. “Only cowards attack defenseless women, children, and the elderly.” It was hard for me to make the connection between the senior woman who inserted herself into our family and the ten-year-old girl whose parents and siblings were murdered in front of her. I knew how this family tragedy played out. It was the backdrop of my life.
The Turkish soldiers kicked down the door and dragged them outside shoving them to the ground with the butts of their rifles — my great-grandparents, and the children: Angele, Ara, Lucine, Anna, Bohos, and Hagop. They slit Naiyre’s throat looking for jewels they thought she was hiding. Morakuyd, a slight girl, spied the soldiers from inside the house. When she heard the gunfire, she rolled herself up in a worn Oushak that covered the floor. She held her breath until the silence returned, until she heard the sobs from her little brother Hagop who was clinging to the lifeless body of their mother. “Blood-thirsty Turks,” my father labeled. He didn’t use racial slurs and refused to stereotype but the Armenian Genocide was different. I looked down. I looked at the ceiling. I looked anywhere but directly at my father. Fiddling with my ruby birthstone ring, I wanted the horror of the family massacres to go away.
Separated for years in the chaos of the war and the targeting of the Armenians, Morakuyd found Hagop at the end of World War I when Western relief workers swarmed the area to save the fragment of survivors scattered across the Armenian provinces. Morakuyd was among the children who emerged from the shadows to be saved under the protective custody of the humanitarian authorities. As she scanned the broken children slumped on the ground, she spotted Hagop. She hadn’t seen him since soon after the murder of their parents. Keeping her tear-filled eyes fixed, she raced to him and grabbed the twig of his upper arm. Hagop froze with a terrified expression. He was too young to remember his sister or his Armenian roots. Without waiting to see what she wanted, he wrestled his way free and bolted back toward the Arab home where he had lived as a servant boy for almost two years. Morakuyd, refusing to lose him forever, sprinted after him. She tackled him in the hardened earth kicking up a storm of dried soil and dragged him back to the relief workers with a vice grip now controlling the twig and the rest of his bony body. Morakuyd pointed at the marking she had tattooed in his flesh, “Look!” She sobbed, “He is Armenian! A Christian. He is my brother!”
The violence of what she witnessed buried deep inside her, Morakuyd was never angry or sullen. Morakuyd was a firm and cheerful woman who had a wry sense of humor. “Anvayel!” (naughty) she cried out as she bubbled up with laughter sitting in the stuffed armchair in our wood paneled family room. My parents were out to dinner and Morakuyd and I had settled in to watch television. I turned the knob and flipped between channels until I found the movie “Animal House.” Immediately engaged, I wasn’t sure Morakuyd would like it as much as I did. “Anvayel!” she howled with peals of laughter, her short round body shook with each gasp of giggles as the frat boys got sloppy drunk, threw wild parties, and had sex with the dean’s wife. “Morakuyd, I’ll change the channel,” I offered. “Che, che Tsakoos, it’s okay. Leave it.” My eyes darted toward the door, keeping an eye out for my parents hoping they didn’t walk in and catch us. Morakuyd, completely entertained, continued to chortle at the lewd antics in the movie as I squirmed but kept my eyes wide open.
Many years later when Morakuyd and dad had passed away, I longed to understand more about the Armenian Genocide. Faced with an uncomfortable history I didn’t know how to assimilate as a youth, I wanted more information as an adult. When I married and had two sons, I felt responsible to educate them, to carry on the oral history my father passed to me. Although I knew our family story, I knew the basic time frame of the genocide, and I knew Turkey denied the history, I really didn’t know much more than that. As I aged, something nagged at me to dig deeper and I felt an internal push to piece together the fragments of information I had learned as a child. I wanted to understand the back story of the genocide and I had to know the justifications Turkey used to obliterate their past. Opening my laptop, I typed into the search bar, “Books on the Armenian Genocide.” I scrolled down the first page listing the titles and then to the next page, and the next. I thought the Armenian Genocide was an obscure holocaust but it was well chronicled even in the face of Turkish denialism. When I started my personal investigation, I wasn’t prepared for the gore. Or the tailspin it would put me in.
I loaded the virtual cart with books by Armenians as well as Non-Armenians. Choosing titles written by eyewitnesses, survivors, historians, and genocide scholars, I had a full range of material to start my pursuit. After a week, a large heavy box was delivered to my back porch. I held each book in my hands re-reading the titles that I had ordered. Cracking open the spines, I shuffled through the pages pausing at the photos. I saw images of severed human heads on pedestals with Turkish officials standing next to them. I saw dead children and babies lying in contorted positions with each rib outlined and their heads sunken to skeleton shapes, just the skin clinging to the bones. I paused at a photo of a mass grave of bodies in dirt ditches with blood-soaked clothing, a scene similar to the one my father had described about the massacre of our family. Lifeless bodies of girls were hanging from nooses and others were nailed to crosses, in imitation and mockery of the Crucifixion of Christ. I scanned a photo of a walking caravan of Armenian women holding babies in their arms as Turkish soldiers rode on horses forcing them out of their ancient homeland.
I hadn’t even read a page yet and I was overcome with grief. Eyes bloated with tears, standing under the covered porch, I looked out at the messy backyard where my sons had been playing before school. Two bikes scattered on the grass, a baseball bat, a lacrosse stick, and assorted balls littered the lawn. The peace was broken only by the sound of chittering squirrels chasing one another up the pine trees in the back of the yard. Crumpling into the rigid teak chair on the porch, I hung my head in my hands.
I had heard about the massacres for years but the photos sharpened the carnage from a blurry background to center stage. I focused my eyes and swallowed hard trying to get rid of the boulder in my throat. After all, I had wanted this; I wanted the knowledge. I could have dumped the books back in the box and lugged it to the attic. Bury the past like the Turkish government did and pretend it didn’t happen. But that felt like betrayal and I couldn’t do it. My family had melted into the American pot but how do you melt away the past? Trauma has a way of traveling through generations. I headed upstairs, straining under the heavy box, and closed the door to the study. Sitting down at the desk, I reached for a book written by Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the start of World War I.
Greedily turning the pages, I consumed every word. Morgenthau echoed what I had heard for years and I hated that everything my father told me was true. Outraged at the cold determination of the Ottoman leaders to destroy a race, Morgenthau pleaded with the triumvirate in power, Talat, Enver, and Djemel, to halt their genocidal mission. The deportations of the Armenians had one goal and Morgenthau knew the plan for the Armenians:
…the Turks never had the slightest idea of reestablishing the Armenians in this new country. They knew that the great majority would never reach their destination and that those who did would either die of thirst and starvation, or be murdered by the wild Mohammedan desert tribes. The real purpose of the deportation was robbery and destruction; it really represented a new method of massacre.
I continued to take in everything I could about the genocide: books, articles, academic lectures at Columbia University and Manhattanville College. I learned the Armenian civilization dated from 2500 B.C. on the Anatolian Plateau and fell to the Seljuk Turkish invasions in the 11th century. Historic Armenia was split between the Ottoman Empire in the west and the Russian Empire in the east. The Ottoman government, Turkish Muslim rulers, had a longstanding policy of discrimination against the Christians. The Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians all suffered. In the hierarchal system, Christians were beneath Muslims and were commonly referred to as ‘dogs’ in the society.
Starting in the mid-1800’s, Western missionaries arrived to aid their fellow Christians. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity in 301 AD and Armenians fiercely hold onto their religion. American colleges and universities also sent graduates to establish schools including Mount Holyoke Female Seminary of Bitlis, The American School of Erzerum, The American School in Van, The American College of Mersovan, and many others. As they fanned out across Ottoman controlled Western Armenia, the westerners brought progressive ideas of human rights, which created resentment and tensions with the government. During the same period when the Armenians were advancing and strengthening ties to the west, the Ottoman Empire was collapsing and the economy was in shambles. The Armenians who were subject to persecution and random massacres under Ottoman rule were now demonized and targeted for destruction.
In the midst of the crisis in the Ottoman empire, World War I broke out and Turkey allied itself with Germany. Wartime provided an auspicious time for the Turkish leaders to finalize the “Armenian Question.” The European powers, who kept an eye on the Ottoman rulers and warned them about their treatment of the Christians, were focused on war and could no longer meddle in the business of the empire. The triumvirate in power led a campaign to rid the land of the indigenous Christians and the final extermination of the Armenian race from their homeland began in 1915 and continued to 1923.
Frederick Davis Greene, an American missionary living in Armenia under Ottoman rule, wrote a book about the institutional crimes, Armenian Massacres or The Sword of Mohamed. The book is a series of scenes describing the debase horror at the hands of government agents. He wrote:
A lot of women…were shut up in a church, and the soldiers were let ‘loose’ among them. Many were outraged to death, and the remainder dispatched with sword and bayonet. Children were placed in a row, one behind another and a bullet fired down the line to see how many could be dispatched with one bullet. Infants and small children were piled one on the other and their heads struck off.
As I poured over the volumes of information, I realized my father wasn’t exaggerating and that our family’s history is not unique amongst Armenians. He actually spared me from the most traumatic aspects and sadistic acts committed during the genocide. Was it too painful for him to detail the depravity of the massacres? My father never spoke to me of the sexual violence but I am sure he knew. Possibly he couldn’t utter the savagery to his only daughter. Was his rigid posture and tightened face an attempt to control an emotional breakdown? I couldn’t stop thinking of Morakuyd. There is a gap in her story. I know Hagop was a servant boy in an Arab home after their parents were murdered but where was Morakuyd? I try to remember if she had a tattoo, a mark of ownership as a sex slave in a Turkish harem. I can’t stand to think of her, a small girl, being violently raped by men hellbent on destroying a race.
Each book built upon what I had already read. I was rubbernecking the atrocities and couldn’t stop myself. The stories I read painted the same picture of assault, torture, and murder from a vast area. It wasn’t one isolated region. Looking at it rationally, there are no Armenians in the ancient homeland of Western Armenia, now the eastern half of Turkey. Where did they go? Based on that fact alone, logic dictates something dramatic happened. The ruins of Armenian schools and churches in historic Western Armenia makes an interpretation unnecessary.
One book that particularly hit home was Tacy Atkinson’s memoir, The German, the Turk, and the Devil Made a Triple Alliance: Harpoot Diaries. Atkinson was an American missionary stationed in Harpoot, my family’s place of origin, and in her testimony she named the Armenians she befriended, treated in her hospital, and sheltered from the menacing Turkish gendarmes. I held my breath waiting for the name Kizirbohosian or Malkasian. Hurriedly turning each page, shoulders tightening up into my ears, I desperately wanted an affirmation of the family members we lost. If Atkinson knew them, I reasoned, then I would know them also. It would be my connection to their souls if she revealed some small bit of information about their lives or their personalities. I was disappointed when she didn’t mention the names, although part of me was relieved. I wanted to find a link to my family but couldn’t stand to learn any more details about their ruthless murder.
A sepia-toned photo of the family taken in Harpoot before the genocide rests on my bedroom dresser. It sits at eye level and beckons me as I pass by. The picture was torn in half but somehow survived even though all but two in the photo did not. The tear in the middle of the image is a reminder of the destruction that shattered the family. My great-grandparents stare out at me with a stoic look. My great aunts and uncles, infants to teenagers, do the same. Morakuyd wears a billowing pinafore dress and a white bow in her shoulder-length raven hair. She draws me in as we fix our gazes on each other. Hagop, a toddler in a tailored jacket and dark slacks, stands between his father’s knees. How much did they know at the time when the photo was taken? My great-grandparents had lived through the massacres of the Armenians leading up to the 1915 Genocide, as well as the Hamidian pogroms in 1894 and the Adana massacres in 1909, the time when my grandmother left them to come to the United States. But did they have any inclination the worst was yet to come? Did they suspect their lives would be violently terminated? I talk to them when no one is around. I tell them they are remembered and they deserved a just government.
One Sunday when I brought my sons to Saint Gregory’s Armenian Church for Christian education, I walked through the doors spitting mad about the latest injustices I had read in my hyper-focused research. The first person I saw was Mark, the volunteer superintendent of the Sunday school and I didn’t hold back as I spewed my disgust about the injustice, about the lack of responsibility from the Turkish government, about the sickening horrors the Armenians had endured. Mark, a quiet, deeply religious man, gave me space for my tirade and then softly replied, “I will not let the genocide define me or destroy my life.” I snapped to a full stop, the emotion draining from me. It was a micro moment that had a huge impact and I immediately understood: Refuse to live your life as a victim. Don’t forget or accept the injustice but don’t let it take away your peace. Wrath, left unchecked, consumes you. I could either get bitter or get better.
I climbed the stairs from the school building up to the church for badarak, the Armenian mass. Pulling open the heavy wooden door, I felt the warmth of the sun streaming down into the sanctuary from the windows in the celestial dome. Smoky incense clouded above the parishioners and the priest’s baritone voice sang the Bible in Ancient Armenian. Slipping into a pew, I scanned the sacred space. I saw doctors, lawyers, engineers, financial wizards, professors, and successful entrepreneurs. I saw my close friends: Vahan, who was born in Beirut and moved to the United States when he was six; Nectar, who grew up in Jordan and Maria in Syria; Allenoush, who immigrated to the United States from Iran. Armenians whose families had been forcibly ripped out of their homeland and all had similar stories of vicious loss and unbearable suffering. All are descendants of survivors who re-established themselves in majority Muslim countries after the genocide and were allowed to openly practice Christianity at the time.
It is often said that the last stage of genocide is denial. Elie Weisel described the Armenian Genocide as an ‘open wound’ because of the lack of accountability or retribution for the crimes against humanity by the Turkish government. Each Armenian family has a story to tell and each has pain to heal. There are no Armenians in historical Western Armenia. There are no graves to pay respect to my ancestors or the one and a half million Armenians who lost their lives at the hands of the Ottoman government. Mounds of rubble is all that is left of the churches, and Armenian property and businesses have been seized. I want the Turkish government to admit their genocidal past and I want compensation for the Armenians. Turkey risks its soul by bargaining with the truth. I’m angry and I won’t forget but I can look back and still move forward.
As I sat in church surrounded by the close-knit community, I reached into my pocket and fingered a lace doily Morakuyd had crocheted. An intricate design of thin thread woven into a circle, it is delicate but sturdy enough to protect surfaces. I see Morakuyd in my memory and she is laughing and nourishing the ones she loved. She had scars from the life that was ripped from her but she survived and wouldn’t let the past destroy her present. Der Vorghma, Der Vorghma, Der Vorghma — Lord have mercy, lord have mercy, lord have mercy, the congregation echoed the priest. I faced the towering arch above the altar and read the raised letters highlighted in gold. God is Love.
Holly Malkasian is an editor, an essayist and a descendant of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Her work has been published in the Rye Record and she is an editor at thefiftybest.com, an online lifestyle magazine. She has studied personal essay form at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College.