Anita Vogel with her husband Mark Rozells and daughter Evangeline Rozells.
Anita Vogel’s family history on her mother’s side is a fascinating example of what are now referred to as “converted Armenians.” During and after the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire, often after the men had been separated from their families and killed in village after village, the women and children were offered the chance to convert to Islam to avoid execution. Some were converted forcibly despite their wish to remain Christian, while others, like Vogel’s family, converted only symbolically. The latter are referred to as “Crypto-Armenians” or “Hidden Armenians,” and some still practice Christianity in some form in secret. The estimated numbers of hidden or converted Armenian Christians varies wildly, with some sources citing as few as 30,000 and others as many as five million. As of late, ever more of these Armenians have been making their true selves known, especially in historically Western Armenian cities such as Dersim (in the present day Tunceli Province in Eastern Anatolia) and Diyarbekir, as well as in Hamshen, Malatya, Sivas, Van, Kayseri, Elazig and Mush.
Vogel learned about her own family’s story from her grandmother Sarah Bedrosian (maiden name Agzarian), who was 11 years old at the time of the Armenian Genocide. “My grandmother often used to talk about the Genocide before she passed away in 1999 at the age of 94.
She recounted how her family had very little food and everyone was dying.
She said that during the Genocide people in her village were given the option to convert to Islam or be killed,” Anita recalls.
From Evereg to the Bronx: a tale of religion, wits and survival
Sarah’s parents Agzar and Mariam Agzarian, together with their other children Rose, Guily and John, lived in a small village in central Turkey, close to Kaiseri. “It was formerly known as Evereg-Fenesse, but I believe it is now called Develi,” says Vogel. In 1915, when mass deportations and killings of Armenians throughout the Empire began, Turkish soldiers arrived in Evereg and offered Armenians the opportunity to convert to Islam. While Anita’s great-grandfather Agzar saw the wisdom of accepting a “convert or die” proposition, her great-grandmother Mariam was an extremely devout Armenian Christian. “My great-grandmother was so religious,” Anita explains, “that when she prayed, she would see light in the sky.” Mariam did not take to the idea of converting kindly, lost all control and went running on the village streets, screaming. Agzar managed to bring her back inside and told her sternly: “Are you crazy? Do you know what will happen if we do not at least pretend to convert to Islam? They will kill us all.” Thus the family reluctantly passed themselves off as Muslims while planning their escape to America.