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  • Armenian Survivors

    Armenian Survivors

    The Daily Pantagraph, Feb 28 1985.

    map of armenia

    Memories of the 1915 massacre are still vivid for two Bloomington Armenian Survivors.

    By Elain Graybill
    Photograph staff

    As 90-year-old Vehanoush "Rose" Torosian talks about the Armenian massacre, she leans forward and speaks quickly, often groping for the correct English word.  Her hands fly as she speaks, and sometimes she grabs the listener's arm to make a point.

    Certain parts of the story – the part about her little sister Hereknaz for example – make her cry.

    Mrs. Torosian and another younger sister, 85-year-old Seranouch "Sarah" Panosian, survived the extermination 70 years ago of between 1 million and 2 million Armenians.

    Despite the passage of 70 years, they still suffer.  "It is fresh," Mrs. Torosian says. When they think too much about the massacre, they can't sleep.

    sistersMrs. Torosian and Mrs. Panosian live together now in a small home on Bloomington's west side.

    They speak Armenian and put Armenian food on their table: the pilaf, paklava, breads, meat pies and butter cookies that their mother and grandmother taught them to make.

    Both lived in Armenian communities – Mrs. Torosian in Detroit and Mrs. Panosian in Cleveland – after they came to the United State in the early 1920s.

    After they became widows, they moved to Bloomington to be near relatives.

    Seventy years ago, they were girls in Sivas, a city in what is now central Turkey. Sivas was populated by about 30,000 Armenians and 50,000 Turks.

    armenian familiesVehanoush and Seranouch were Aginians, a middle-class Armenian family that had been cloth-dyers in Sivas for generations. Also, for generations, their extended family had lived in the same three large interconnected houses. When they were girls, more than 50 relatives lived in the houses.

    Vehanoush was the oldest of 11 children in her immediate family. "I was right hand to my mother all the time," and because of that responsiblilty, when she was 13, she dropped out of the French school she attended.

    But she was a bright girl, interested in politics then, as she is now.  Once a week, an Armenian newspaper would arrive from Constantinople (now Instanbul), and Vehanoush was aware of the worsening situation between the Turks and Armenians.

    That relationship had been troubled for years by racial and religious differences and issues such as Turkish taxes on Armenians.  Many Armenians had been killed in an 1896 bloodbath.  An Armenian author, Kerop Bedoukian, also a survivor from Sivas explained that the Armenians, once a favored race, had come to control money and business interests of the Turkish empire and thus became a hated race.  Also, the Armenians were Christian and the Turks Moslem.

    World War I bought the struggle to a culmination as the Turks sided with Germany and the Armenians leaned toward England and France.

    Systematic killings and deportations of Armenians began in 1915. By June, when Sivas was involved, the Aginians knew what to expect.

    Mrs. Torosian and Mrs. Panosian remember awful scenes from that time.

    The professional and educated men were killed first. One was their cousin, Aram, a self-taught linguist who translated telegrams. He was a young married man with two children.

    Vehanoush was at Aram's house when he was taken away.  The police brought a message that he was wanted to translate something, but he wasn't fooled.  "He knew it," she says, and his face turned as white as the nightgown he was wearing.

    He was taken to jail, then killed.

    That month, Vehanoush married her long time fiancé. "We stayed together two days," then her young husband was taken away, too, and "I became very sick."

    It was unsafe to leave the house, but Vehanoush and her mother looked out the door and saw other Armenians being driven away from their homes.  "Gendarmes were motioning 'Walk, walk, '…You hear the people crying. We knew we were going to do the same thing, so my mother, she fainted."

    When the Aginians were "deported," they were permitted to take one bundle each.  Mrs. Torosian describes the beautiful Oriental rugs and other possessions left behind.  Her grandmothers had spun the yarns for the rugs.

    Their father and uncle were spared and allowed to accompany them because of a relative who was a Turkish army officer, but her uncle was killed on the third day.

    For six months they walked south, to Syria. They were without shelter, and they slept on the ground. Starvation, disease, thirst, and murder took their toll.  Mrs. Torosian talks about the bugs all over her face and body.  She is reminded of the bugs when she sees television news pictures of starving Ethiopians, covered with flies.

    "We understand about Africa, Ethiopia. Only we understand. You people, you don't understand."

    One time Seranouch was with a group of starving children who were offered bread by Turkish soldiers. She shows how the others ran, holding their clothing out in front to received the food. There was no bread. Instead, the soldiers put gasoline on the children and set them on fire.

    "I, saw it... I'm hollering. Nobody came." The horror is still in her voice, after 70 years. "Every time that part has come into my mind, I can't sleep."

    After two months of walking, their 5-year-old sister Hereknaz became too weak to walk alone, and their mother was too weak to carry her.

    Mrs. Torosian cries as she describes Hereknaz and what happened to her. "Pretty like picture she was. Everybody was admiring her; she was very, very pretty."

    In desperation, their mother gave Hereknaz to a Turkish soldier. "He was happy that he had wonderful pretty girl. Golden hair, pretty eyes." Mrs. Torosian does not speculate about Hereknaz's fate.

    She tells about an aunt who left her 2-year-old son in a river along the way. "She left him because she wasn't able to carry him."

    Their march of death and starvation ended in November in Syria, where Vehanoush and Seranouch's mother died of a heart attack as she was sleeping. The group was split up, with Vehanoush and some cousins sent to Aintab and the others sent to another town.

    The sisters earned food by keeping house for Turkish families, and did not see each other for four years.

    Through great effort, they managed to get to the United States. Vehanoush came first, then helped arrange a marriage for her sister, who was married in Cuba and finally was permitted to enter this country.

    The Armenian population' of the, United States today is about 600,000, according to an estimate by Ara Kalaydjian, editor of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, one of five weekly English-language Armenian newspapers in the country. He says about 70 percent participate in Armenian communities, mostly concentrated on the two coasts.

    After 1915, the Armenian population of Sivas was down from 30,000 to a few hundred. Historians say most Armenians in Armenia were killed or deported that year. Armenians will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre during April.

    The two sisters were alive, but their struggles were not entirely over. They and their husbands, Armenian men who had come to the United States before the massacre, lived through hard times during the Great Depression in the United States.

    Mrs. Torosian and Mrs. Panosian have maintained strong identities as Armenians. They subscribe to three Armenian newspapers published in the United States, and belong to a society of Armenians from Sivas.

    They have kept their ties to the Armenian Church, in which they were both extremely active in Detroit and Cleveland. And family loyalty is as important to them today as it was to the Armenians who lived in Sivas.

    It doesn't seem to the two sisters that the rest of the world recognizes the 1915 massacre of Armenians for what they know it was. Their desire for the massacre to be acknowledged by the world is as fresh as their 70-year-old sorrow.

    cousinsparents

    The wedding couple, above left, are Aram and Armanouhie Aginian. Aram was killed in 1915, as is described in the accompanying story, and his wife survived. The other couple are Marderos and Makrouhie Aginian, father and mother of the Bloomington sisters. Marderos survived.

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