When Mher Karakashian teaches history to his students at the Sourp Hagop Armenian School in Montreal, he reminds them: “Whatever difficulties or challenges life throws in your face, just resist. Fight it. This is what my grandparents taught me. That was the message of my late grandmother, and I grew up with this idea.”
Neither his message nor the fact that he is so devoted to Armenian culture is surprising: after all, his grandparents hailed from Musa Dagh (Jebel Musa), or the Mountain of Moses, that famed peak in Cilicia (today’s Southwestern Turkey) where Armenians resisted the onslaught of Turkish forces who had come to wipe out their six villages in 1915.
For 50 days and 50 nights, the brave Musa Daghtsis waged a Biblical resistance against a vastly superior power. As their forces wore down, it was thanks to the crew of a French battleship who saw their distress signals that the entire population was evacuated and saved. One man in particular, a French Vice-Admiral by the name of Louis Dartige du Fournet
, made the righteous decision to heed the Armenians’ call.
Thanks to him, the Karakashian family — and literally, thousands of other Armenians — were saved.
Many of the Musa Dagh survivors relocated to the town of Ainjar near the Eastern Lebanon Mountains, where Mher Karakashian was born and attended the local Gulbenkian Armenian high school. As Mher notes: “This is a story of gratitude. It was because of his decision that my ancestors were saved and life continues. Because of his decision, I am alive today.”
The town of Ainjar in 1939
Heroic resistance at Musa Dagh
The town of Musa Dagh in today’s Hatay Province is really six villages in one, lined up along the sunny Mediterranean coast. In late July of 1915 local residents received official orders from the Turkish government to prepare for mass deportation. As residents of the last Armenian villages on the road south to Syria, the villagers learned from Armenian soldiers who had escaped form the Ottoman army that “deportation” was a code word: it really meant that the men would be shot and their women and children would be left to die of rape and starvation on a march through the Syrian desert to concentration camps where the survivors were left to rot and perish of disease.
The elders and religious leaders of the six villages convened and debated their options – and there weren’t many choices, given the fact that they didn’t possess enough arms and warriors to fight the Turks. The next day, 1,300 of the villagers opted for deportation (most of them were eventually massacred), while the majority, some 4,100 Armenians of all ages, began their climb up the mountain where they put up a resistance so daring and brave that it was immortalized by the Austrian Jewish novelist Franz Werfel in his best-selling novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” a book that later served as inspiration for the Jewish resistance in Europe during World War II.
The Armenians, Karakashian’s ancestors among them, held out against Turkish attacks from late July to mid-September: “My grandmother used to tell me that at the end of the third attack, some of the Armenian fighters were retreating while the Turks were advancing and getting nearer to the camp. A handful of warriors were holding their ground. An elderly priest called the people together and told them to follow him to the sea to drown themselves with dignity, instead of getting raped, tortured or massacred by the Turks. That’s what they were doing when their warriors rushed down the mountain to the seashore and yelled: ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it. The enemy ran away!!’ The sudden change was due to the retreated warriors’ remorse. They had regrouped and rammed the Turkish ranks with force, pushing them back in disarray,” says Mher.
In fact, the Armenians were saved in large part because they had instructed their women to sew two flags from bed sheets — one with a red cross woven on it and a second that read “Christians in danger,” which they planted on the slopes of the mountain overlooking the sea.
They hoped that allied French and British battleships, which used to cross that portion of the sea, would notice the flag.
That’s exactly what happened on September 7, when the crew of a French battleship noticed the red cross flag. A swimmer approached the ship, carrying a letter that described the Armenians’ perilous situation. Vice-admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet, the ship’s commander, gave the Armenians some ammunition and weapons and promised to help. He telegraphed the French High Command to obtain permission to help the Armenians. But before hearing back from official channels, du Fournet leapt into action, called four more battleships and on September 12, began to single-handedly evacuate the Musa Daghtis. Du Fournet insisted that even the Armenian fighters had to come, although they had asked for only their families to be saved.
Port Saïd and beyond
The French ships carried the Armenian refugees to Port Saïd in Egypt, where a camp had already been prepared. They remained there for around four years before being taken back to their villages, where they stayed until 1939, when Turkey annexed the northwestern part of Syria, including Musa Dagh and its surroundings.
The French gave the Armenians the option to remain or to relocate to the French Protectorate of Lebanon, which they chose to do rather than suffer again at the hands of the Turks. “This is how my grandparents made it to Ainjar,” notes Mher, “to a former swampland dotted with Roman and Ummayyad ruins.” In spite of malaria and other diseases that the Armenians of Ainjar faced, they survived and built a prosperous community. Perhaps anticipating William Saroyan’s now famous (if overused) quotation*, they formed a New Armenia of sorts, where they transplanted all of their traditions — religious, culinary, linguistic and others.
The inhabitants of Ainjar in its early days
A proud descendent
Discussing Musa Dagh, Karakashian sounds nostalgic: “We lost our homes, we lost our lands, our orange orchards. Every other house had huge orange orchards surrounding it. Those belong to the Turks now, not to us. It’s a beautiful place. I’ve seen it. It’s an idyllic place of mountains, seashore and orange blossoms,” he remembers.
Why is Mher particularly proud of being a Musa Daghtsi and Ainjartsi? “Because we were one of the rare exceptions – people who were able to fight off the Ottoman army. We became a symbol, saying that next time around, if anything like that happens to any nation, resistance should come first. That’s why when Franz Werfel wrote his book in 1933, later on it became the bible of the Jewish resistance in Europe. Every other Jewish resistant in the Warsaw ghetto used to read the book. It gave them the spirit to resist the Nazis,” he says.
Mher’s parents Vergine Manjian and Vazken Karakashian take a stroll through Ainjar in 1959. After 20 years of settling in the marshlands, the Musa Daghtsis transformed their tent camp into a burgeoning town, surrounded with apple orchards.
Mher’s paternal grandfather Bedros Karakashian, the son of Harutiun and Vartuhi Karakashian, was 11 years old during the resistance. Mher’s paternal grandmother Victoria Kartounian was six. His maternal grandfather, Dikran Manjian, was five years old and lived with his parents, Panos and Maro Manjian. And Mher’s maternal grandmother, Isgouhi Skayan, was born in the refugee camp of Port Saïd in 1917.
Both of Mher’s paternal and maternal great-grandfathers, Harutiun and Panos, took part in the resistance. As Mher explains: “Harutiun worked as a guard for trade caravans traveling to Iran and further on. He earned his nickname Karakash (“black eyebrows” in Turkish) after a fight with Turkish bandits. To answer their awaiting chief about who had single-handedly killed four of their band, the surviving bandits back from their failed raid had replied ‘We don't know his name, but this brave (igit) man had thick, black eyebrows.’ Due to his nickname, our family name was changed from its original Sekayan to Karakashian.”
Mher’s maternal grandfather Dikran Manjian
“My forebears on both sides are from the village of Vakef or Maqef, as we pronounce it in our local Armenian dialect,” says Mher, relating that his grandmother Isgouhi was the family storyteller. “She used to tell us ‘stories of the Mountain’ at bedtime. These stories had a huge impact on me. The desperate but courageous tale of the old priest, who wanted to at least save his people’s dignity when they thought that all was lost; the redemptive attack of the retreating fighters and especially the steely determination of the heroic warriors engaged in a life-and-death battle – each of these represents a lesson and legacy of life,” he says.
He goes on to explain just how difficult life was for the Musa Daghtsis, even after they made it to their new home in Ainjar: “In the first years of Ainjar, there were weekly processions to the then-makeshift St. Boghos Church to bury newborn children who had died of malnutrition or malaria.”
The Karakashians (left to right) — Mher’s grandfather Bedros Karakashian, uncle Harutiun (now Rev. Der Ashod Karakashian), grandmother Victoria Karakashian (clapping hands) and father Vazken — dancing in Ainjar. The Musa Daghtsis built their new town from scratch and celebrated life through the dances they brought from home.
Apart from the French Vice Admiral du Fournet, Karakashian is also grateful to the writer Franz Werfel for having written down the story of Musa Dagh and popularizing it around the world. His gratitude also extends to all of his ancestors who chose life over death and to fight on Mount Moses. Finally he mentions one last unsung hero – not a human, but rather the red cross flag that saved so many lives by alerting the French to the Musa Daghtsis’ predicament high on their fabled mountain: “To this day, the red cross flag is kept in Ainjar as a holy relic… A makeshift banner made up of bed sheets, it represents the faith and hope that our ancestors transmitted to us. Whether in Ainjar or Musaler ‘avan’ in Armenia, when we celebrate Khatchverats [the liberation of the Holy Cross from Persia and its passage through Armenia in 628], we commemorate our red cross banner as well. We call it simply ‘Khatch,’ or ‘The Cross,’ and combine both events in one holiday,” Mher explains.
As a final note, Karakashian quotes his late father who dreamt of “running barefoot from the mountain tops to the seashore of Musa Dagh.” His father never made it to Musa Dagh, but in 1974, when he was nine years old, Mher and his mother were able to visit relatives in Vakifli and to live out his father’s dream.
Mher Karakashian immigrated to Canada in 1990 and currently lives in Montreal with his wife, his brother and his mother. The rest of his family remains in Ainjar or lives in Australia. He has a 24-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son. As chairman of the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of Canada, he spearheaded the realization of an exhibit at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center dedicated to Werfel’s novel and the Musa Dagh resistance as the closing event of the Centennial year in Canada.
* “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.” – William Saroyan