tampabay.com

In remembrance of a million who perished

Survivors' lives and writings recounted the horror endured by those caught in the Armenian Genocide.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published April 24, 2007


The women chatted around the dining table, each a witness to her family's suffering, a genocide mostly unknown around the world and vigorously denied by the nation blamed for it.

Mary Enkababian, 86, illustrated her late husband's story with sepia-toned photographs and an autobiography he had written. The late Antranik A. Enkababian was one of only three people in a large family group photograph to have survived the World War I massacre that is referred to as the first genocide of the 20th century.

On Sunday -- in anticipation of today's international observance of Martyr's Day - Armenians from around the Tampa Bay area gathered in Pinellas Park to remember those who perished. The memorial service at St. Hagop Armenian Church honored the 1-million to 1.5-million men, women and children who died between 1915 and 1923. At the time, Armenians, a Christian minority in a Muslim community, lived in what is now eastern Turkey and in the southeastern part of the country, now occupied principally by Kurds.

In 1915, say historians, the Central Committee of the Young Turk Party of the Ottoman Empire deported thousands of Armenians, sending them to starvation and death in the Syrian desert. Many were attacked and killed and young women were raped and forced into harems or to marry their abductors.

Sima Palakian and Martha Samuelian said their mother was one of the many young women forced into marriage. The two Pinellas County women didn't find out the details of their mother's experience until after her death. She had been forced to marry a Kurdish man and had two children with him. When she escaped, she was forced to leave the two children behind.

"She was very sad all the time," recalled Samuelian, 79, a Palm Harbor resident who only learned what had happened when she visited an elderly uncle in France.

Her sister too was stunned. "It was unbelievable. It was like how did Mom ever leave her children and come to America? She must have been a very brave lady to do this. She wanted her freedom," said Palakian, 78.

In his autobiography, Enkababian's husband told of his family's deportation from their home in north central Turkey in June 1915. His father was killed, and during the difficult journey, his mother decided to drown herself and her children in the Euphrates River. Enkababian's husband, only 6 at the time, told his mother he didn't want to die. "Before dawn, " he wrote, "my mother took my brother and my sister to the river. As I watched, the heartless waves of water swept away my 2 1/2-year-old sister, Araksy." He said his 4-year-old brother and mother were saved by a Kurd who wanted money to rescue them. When the family could produce none, his uncle was badly beaten.

Sitting with her friends Thursday in her On Top of the World apartment in Clearwater, Mary Haydostian said only her mother and her mother's younger brother survived the genocide. At the time, said Haydostian, 75, her mother's father was working for Ford in Michigan to save money to bring his family to America. "Unfortunately, his wife and six of his children, his brothers and his cousins died," she said.

During the deportation, Haydostian said her mother had to make the most difficult decision of her life. With no food and water and struggling to go on, she was advised to leave her baby girl in front of an Armenian church in a strange village. The hope was that someone would take pity on the little girl and care for her. Other heartbroken mothers did the same. Unlike many survivors, Haydostian's mother would later talk about the horrors she experienced.

"She talked about it all the time. She said many of her friends could not talk about it. She got solace talking about it," Haydostian said.

Like some other Armenian women, her mother would later marry an Armenian already living in America. Haydostian said her mother remarried in Cuba and arrived in America through Key West.

Stories such as these notwithstanding, the Armenian Genocide is a controversial topic. The Turkish government's position is that it never happened and its laws forbid discussion of the topic, said Rouben Adalian, director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. government recognizes that the atrocities occurred, but current and previous administrations have stopped short of using the term genocide, because of Turkey's strategic importance, Adalian said. In a report commissioned by the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission, the International Center for Transitional Justice also labels the World War I occurrences genocide.

Starting in June, the Florida Holocaust Museum will host an exhibition about the Armenian Genocide. "We really feel that it is important to talk about other acts of hatred and other genocides, basically for public awareness and obviously, as we say, over and over again, to prevent it from happening again," said Erin Blankenship, curator of exhibitions and collections at the museum.

Few survivors of the genocide remain to tell their story. Palakian hopes future generations will continue to observe what is referred to as Martyrs' Day on Tuesday. "In my family, I know it will go on with my granddaughter and grandson. I'm hoping and praying that other grandchildren remember."

IF YOU GO

Exhibit

Bread Paintings by Apo Torosyan, a mixed media exhibit, runs June 2 through Sept. 16 at the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg. Call (727) 820-0100 or visit www.flholocaustmuseum.org.