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I am a fifth-generation member of the Armenian community and secretary of the Ararat Armenian Cemetery Association.
Three of my four grandparents lost loved ones in the genocide. My two grandfathers were working in the United States when the genocide occurred; my maternal grandmother actually experienced and survived the genocide.
My maternal grandmother, Noyemzar Manoogian Israelian, was born to Katchatoor and Meriam Manoogian on Aug. 15, 1888, in Vazir Copru, a district in the Samsoun Province of the Ottoman Empire. In the early days of the 20th century, she met and married a young seminarian named Hagop Israelian, who was called to the pulpit of the Armenian Congregational Church of Erzingan, a city in northeastern Anatolia. In the years leading up to World War I, my grandmother served as a “pompish,” or pastor’s wife, and raised three children, sons Haigazoon and Vaigazoon, and daughter Nevart.
On April 24, 1915, Ottoman authorities ordered the removal of the Armenians of Erzingan. In less than 24 hours, the life my grandmother had known was totally transformed. My grandmother was knocked unconscious during the turmoil of the forced evacuation. When she awakened, her minister husband had vanished, her three children had disappeared, and her parishioners were nowhere to be found. She climbed a tree and hid to avoid a roaming band of Ottoman soldiers.
When the soldiers left her area, she walked untold miles until she wandered, dazed, into a Red Cross camp for displaced persons. A kindly miller named Melkon Kurkjian and his wife, Rebecca, befriended my grandmother after hearing her story of loss. For the next three years, the Kurkjian family and my grandmother worked and traveled their way eastward across Russia. At the start of their journey, Russia was ruled by the Tsars. At the end of the journey, Russia was ruled by the Communist Party.
The Kurkjians and my grandmother eventually reached Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian Railway. From Vladivostok they traveled by ship to Kobe, Japan, and then by ship to Honolulu, and ultimately to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. The Kurkjians departed for Massachusetts, where their descendants live to this very day. When my grandmother arrived in Central California, she literally knew only two people — her sponsor, the Rev. M.G. Papazian of Fresno’s Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church, and her late husband’s cousin, Lucy Basmajian Ailanjian of Dinuba.
Several years after her arrival, my grandmother married my grandfather, Nazareth Kaltakian, who had lost his wife, Naringule, and two sons, when the genocide reached Yozghad, his native mountain village east of Ankara. In the summer of 1924, my grandmother gave birth to my mother, who was given the name “Nevart,” after the daughter lost in the genocide. My grandmother passed away on July 8, 1959, en route to a specialty hospital in Stockton. In the Old World she had known a life of privilege and service. In the New World, she encountered economic hardships and prejudice so common to the American immigrant experience.
Only a handful of people recall my grandmother today. Two who knew her well — neighbor Karnig “Kay” Cloud of the Fresno Distributing family and John Ailanjian, the youngest son of Lucy — passed away earlier this year. My grandmother’s mortal remains are at rest on the Belmont Avenue side of Ararat Armenian Cemetery. Yet, her legacy lives on through the lives of her daughter, four grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
Reprinted with permission from the Fresno Bee, which published the story, “In their words: Armenian genocide centennial stories from Valley residents on April 15, 2015,” with the following introduction:
They remember relatives killed and lives uprooted while trying to escape invading soldiers. Some were captured and carried away and never seen again. The Armenian genocide remains fresh in the memory of the central San Joaquin Valley’s Armenian community.
April 24, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide. On that day in 1915, several hundred intellectuals were arrested and later executed. By its end in 1923, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were dead at the hands of Ottoman Turks.
The Valley’s Armenian history began decades before the genocide. Now the community of an estimated 50,000 people boasts local educational institutions, religious organizations and a yearly cultural festival.
Local Armenians say every person in their community has some connection to the genocide. On March 29, The Bee kicked off month-long coverage reviewing how the Armenian genocide has shaped the history of the Valley. Readers were invited to share their stories, asking for their connection to the Armenian community, to the genocide and what the 100th anniversary means to them.
We chose three responses to share with others.
Special thanks to Fresno attorney Phil Tavlian for his article, photograph and correspondence and the Fresno Bee for granting permission to reprint their article.
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