SURVIVOR OF GENOCIDE
MY FATHER’S STORY
“After all these years, why have I not forgotten? Why do I still remember?”
These were the last words spoken by my father, Isaac Yenovkian, before his passing, in 1992. As a young child, he witnessed unimaginable atrocities during the Armenian genocide of 1915-1923. The first genocide of the 20th century, it is remembered as the bloody massacre of over 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Left an orphan, my father’s will to survive sustained him. During my childhood, my father never spoke of his past, and my mother warned me not to ask him about it because it was too painful for him. In the 1980’s, he finally broke his silence and wrote, in detail, about this dark chapter of his life.
In his own words, he writes:
My name is Isahag (Isaac in English) Yenovkian. I was born on March 8, 1912, in Perri, a town in the northeastern part of Turkish Armenia. (Perri, in Armenian, means fertile land). In 1913, my father, Kevork, came to America with hopes of making money and returning back home to his family. Around 1915-1916, Perri had to be evacuated of Armenians. Intellectuals and prominent Armenians of the town (including my grandfather, Hagop Yenovkian and my uncles, Abraham and Sarkis Yerevanian), were told to be at a certain place for an important meeting. They never returned; all three were murdered. Women and children were forced out of their homes, gathered in churches and schoolyards only to begin their journey of no return; a journey of deportation, starvation and death.
I was with my mother, brother and grandmother as we were led out of Perri in a caravan. As we approached other towns, more women and children were added to our caravan. Some were taken away as maids, some as servants or slaves. My brother, Kerop (who was a few years older than me) was one of those taken away as a servant to a town called Pertag, where he later died. My mother, Haiganoosh, was abducted and she, too, perished. Here I was, at the age of 3 ½ or 4 years old, left with my grandmother, Anna Yenovkian.
Sometimes she had to carry me on her back and sometimes I had to walk barefoot. At times, I had to eat grass from the fields to survive. Those who were unable to keep up with the caravan were shot to death and left to rot. An elderly lady, trying to rest, was shot immediately. Her daughter, screaming and running toward her, was also shot, falling dead on top of her dying mother. The smell of gunpowder that was fired close by me has left such an indelible mark in my memory that even now, every time a match is lit, the smell of the sulfur instantly flashes my memory back to that ruthless tragedy.
It is difficult to imagine that something so ordinary as lighting a match could trigger such a painful memory. When I think about Dad, striking matches to light the candles on our birthday cakes, or my grandfather, lighting cigarettes, I cannot imagine what my father thought or felt. Being the selfless person that he was, though, it doesn’t surprise me that he would suppress his own feelings to see those around him happy.
His story continues:
Somehow, along the way, I lost my grandmother. I don’t know what happened to her. By the will of God (I suppose) and guarded by some Good Samaritans, I survived and landed in a town called Kharpert where my aunt, Mariam Yenovkian, had been deported. She found me and immediately put me in one of the American Near East Relief Orphanages where I would be safe and have food. The first thing I remember them doing to me was to shave my head to get rid of lice. They bathed me, gave me clothes to wear and fed me. They cleaned my teeth, rubbed my gums with iodine, put eye drops in my eyes, and rubbed my shaved head with olive oil.
Around 1920, the Turks wanted orphans out of Turkey. Hundreds of Armenian orphans were on the march again. This time, however, instead of walking and through the efforts of the Near East Relief, wooden boxes or crates were made as saddlebags and placed on mules with four orphans on each mule. Some of the orphans were settled in Aleppo, Syria and some in Beirut, Lebanon. Others were scattered in Greece and the Greek islands.
While sailing on a ship to Istanbul late one evening, some of the orphans started shouting, “Izmira guh varee, Izmira guh varee!” “Smyrna is burning, Smyrna is burning!” Smyrna was in flames, burning. I could not see anything because of an eye infection and my eyes were bandaged. On another evening, approximately 1500 orphans (boys and girls) horror stricken, were crying, praying and shouting, “The ship is sinking, the ship is sinking! Oh God, help us!” The ship (which was a cargo transport) had lost its balance and was keeling from side to side and we were rolling along with its movements. Rumors were passing around that the ship was to be abandoned. Somehow, the trouble was discovered and repaired. Supposedly, the chain or connecting link of the rudder had been broken. Finally, we embarked in Istanbul, Turkey and were placed in Yedikule.
The “Great Fire of Smyrna” better known as the “Catastrophe of Smyrna” and the “1922 Izmir Fire,” took place on September 13, 1922. My father was 10 ½ years old. Smyrna had been renamed “Izmir” by the Turkish Army of Kemal Ataturk. The fire occurred four days after the Turkish forces regained control of the city on September 9, 1922, at the orders of Turkish commander-in-chief, Mustafa Kemal Pasha. This caused a mass exodus of the Armenian and Greek population of the city with the fires destroying their quarters. The Ottomans of this era referred to the city as “Infidel Smyrna” due to the fact it was comprised mostly of Christian Greeks and Armenians. The plan was to eradicate the Christian population of the city by burning down their businesses and homes. Historians have estimated that between 10,000 to 100,000 Greeks and Armenians were raped, tortured and murdered during this time. The Greek Orthodox Metropolitan bishop, Chrysostomos, was tortured and beheaded by a Turkish mob then thrown into a pit with other beheaded Christians. Muslims and Jews living in the city, however, were spared and their quarters escaped the fires.
After the ship carrying my father and large group of orphans was safely docked in Istanbul, the children were taken to Yedikule, also known as the Yedikule Fortress, the Fortress of the Seven Towers, and the Yedikule Dungeons. Historically, it was first used to house the treasury and valuable papers of the Ottomans, and was also a gunpowder manufacturing site. In 1789, those who had fallen into disgrace with the Ottoman regime were imprisoned there. Inscriptions in different languages (including Greek and Armenian) were left on the walls and many of the prisoners were either beheaded or executed.
Several months later, we had to be on the move again, this time to Greece and the Greek islands. Once we were on the Greek island of Corfu (Kerkira, in Greek) I found my cousin, Khosrof Yerevanian, who was with another group of orphans. Together, with hundreds of other orphans, we were finally in our new home; an orphanage!
In 1924, my father (who was still in America) learns that I am alive in an orphanage in Corfu. After he makes the necessary arrangements, I find myself in Damascus, Syria, where the rest of my cousins (the Yerevanian family, my mother’s relatives) have settled.
Around the end of 1925, internal trouble started in Damascus. I was wounded in both legs with shell fragments from guns that were fired around the place of our stay, and the scars are still visible on my legs. Not feeling safe in Damascus, we moved to Beirut, Lebanon. In the meantime, my father (who is now a citizen of the U.S.A.) makes arrangements for me to join him in America. In June of 1926, I boarded the French Liner, S.S. Asia, and in the early part of July, I landed in Providence, Rhode Island. From there, I traveled by train to Chicago, Illinois, and into the arms of my father, Kevork. My travels from Corfu to Damascus and from Beirut to Chicago had been accomplished with identification and destination tags hung around my neck.”
Isaac George Yenovkian
While my father, Isaac, was still with relatives in Beirut, his father, Kevork Yenovkian, had remarried and settled in West Pullman, Illinois, (a suburb of Chicago). When Dad came to America in 1926, joining his father and stepmother, Nevart, his father enrolled him at West Pullman Grammar School. Three years later, on February 1, 1929, at the age of 16 ½ , my dad graduated from elementary school with the educational equivalent of an eighth grader. He was granted admission to high school, however, had to go to work to help support his father and stepmother.
My grandfather, Kevork, shined shoes for a living and was employed as a common laborer at a printing company, as well. He found work for my father as a typesetter at the same printing company. This was, of course, prior to the days of computer technology and all type was set by hand. In 1947, the family moved to Fresno, California, and Dad went to work as a typesetter for Crown Printing Rubber Stamp Company. He became active in the Armenian community and a member of St. Paul Armenian Church. In 1948, my father was married (briefly) and had a son, George Kevork, who was born on December 23, 1949. Due to complications at birth, George passed away on February 13, 1950, and the marriage ended in divorce. In 1954, Dad married Clara (Apagh) Yenovkian. I was born in 1955 followed by my sister, Louise, in 1957.
My father was fascinated with the English language and had an old, tattered Armenian/English dictionary which he read, daily, as if it was the golden book of knowledge. He was always researching new words and their meanings. With pen and pad in hand, he would first write a word in Armenian and research the English equivalent for it, jotting down sentences and examples of the word until it was familiar. Many of his handwritten notes remain tucked inside that dictionary today. Dad had a brilliant mind and, if given the opportunity to have been educated, could have been a scholar. He took great pride in becoming an American citizen and would say that he wanted to earn an honest living, humbly refusing to accept “handouts” (as he called them) from anyone.
In the summer of 1992, at the age of 80, my father was diagnosed with gastric carcinoma and passed away two months later, on October 19th. Though he never talked about his experiences during the genocide and what he witnessed as a child, he did cry out about it the day before his passing. Lying in bed, he suddenly broke out in tears, looked up to the ceiling with his hands outstretched upward and cried, “After all these years, why have I not forgotten? Why do I still remember?” How ironic, I thought, that the horror of genocide was his first memory as a child and the last before he passed. He never forgot!
My mother recalls being told of the final days of my father’s birth mother, Haiganoosh, from a genocide survivor by the name of Rahan Holopigian. Eventually settling in Fresno, California, (as had many of the survivors). Rahan was in a detention camp alongside Haiganoosh and many other women. Haiganoosh had been raped and impregnated by one of the Turkish captors and was very ill with dysentery. One day, Haiganoosh told Rahan and the women not to follow her; she would not be coming back. That was the last time any of them saw her and, to this day, her fate remains unknown. My father’s aunt, Mariam Yenovkian, also survived and relocated to Leon, France, where she married and had a family.
Though we weren’t monetarily wealthy, our family was rich in values. Life revolved around our faith, family, friends, and education. My father stressed the importance of receiving an education so that my sister and I would have a better life. He taught us that the human spirit is resilient and powerful, and believed there is a reason for everything that happens in life. He would tell us that, out of all that we perceive as “bad,” there’s always something “good” that comes from it, even though we might have to search very hard to find it. I often wonder how my father faced the many hardships throughout his life without the availability of mental health resources or antidepressants. He believed that perseverance, hope and faith were the keys to survival. They were, for him. I can still hear him saying, “Never give up; if you don’t succeed the first time you try something, try, try again.”
The Ottoman Turks tried to eliminate us. They tried to exterminate an entire race, to rid their country of “infidel Christians.” They didn’t succeed. Armenians that survived dispersed into the diaspora where their descendants now thrive. Famed Armenian/American writer, William Saroyan, wrote, “I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”
Hitler once asked, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
We were a people to be forgotten and destined to be destroyed. Our lands were taken away; our intellectuals and clergy beheaded and thrown into piles like trash; our women and children humiliated, branded, brutalized, crucified, raped and tortured. They tried to destroy us but couldn’t.
We have not forgotten.