For over 20 years, the Istanbul-based Aras publishing house has been addressing the Turkish public on the subjects of Armenian history, literature and art. Its founder Yetvart Tomasyan has found his own formula for dialogue with Armenia’s neighboring nation.
“If the neighboring nation can’t read our literature or watch our performances and films, we need to find a way to communicate, so that when they get the chance to watch our films and read our poems, novels and stories, they can comprehend it, ” says Tomasyan.
Yetvart Tomasyan, or as his close friends and relatives call him, Tomo, was born in 1949 in the Yedicule District of Istanbul. Tomo’s family hails from Çorlu and Tekirdağ – towns in present-day Thracian Turkey. At a young age, his grandfather Lasarus moved from Çorlu to Istanbul to work. Years later he established a family business – a cafe where he worked together with his wife Taguhi and sons.
Tomasyan’s father Petros, a jeweler, was born in Constantinople in 1908. By living in Constantinople, the family managed to avoid the mass deportations and massacres of 1915. “Only prominent people were deported from Istanbul, but the common people were mainly safe. Intellectuals, clergymen, eminent individuals were deported and some were killed along the way, while others, tortured and exhausted, found shelter in Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo,” Yetvart says. Nevertheless, the Armenian Genocide did leave an imprint on the family’s history.
A lifetime of mourning
“Before marrying my grandmother, my grandfather Lasarus had a wife named Sofik and three children: Karpis, Aghavni and Martik, the youngest. Sofik was a very beautiful woman, tall and blue-eyed. She contracted tuberculosis and died,” Yetvart remembers.
Widowed Lasarus decided to remarry, in order to be able to take care of his children. His relatives told him of a girl in Çorlu named Taguhi. To persuade Taguhi to marry Lasarus, the mediating relative told her that Lasarus had only two children. When Taguhi arrived in Istanbul and discovered the truth, she felt betrayed and refused to take care of the third child. Lasarus’s parents took Martik back to Çorlu so the new family would not fall apart.
| The Tomasyan children: Karpis, Aghavni, Petros and Sargis
When deportations of Armenians began in 1915, Lasarus’s parents and Martik were also displaced. “They were sent to walk to Konya, in Central Anatolia. Nobody comes back from that route. Martik did not come back either. Did he die? Did he get lost? It remains unknown,” says Yetvart.
From 1916 to 1923 many Genocide survivors found shelter at the Armenian church and school building in the Samatya District of Constantinople. Every time new people arrived, Taguhi would look for Martik, but in vain.
“When the government closed down that shelter and our people could no longer enter the country, Taguhi dressed in black. She wore mourning clothes till her death because she decided that Martik was dead or lost, and that she was to blame for it,” Yetvart remembers. “She started suffering mentally, as if her own child had died.”
Yetvart and his sister, Armenian-Turkish writer Taguhi Tomasyan, would later continue looking for information about Martik, but to no avail.
| Yetvart’s grandmother Taguhi with her sons Petros and Sargis
Lasarus and Taguhi had two children, Petros, Tomo’s father, and Sargis. In the 1940s, when Turkey’s wealth tax came into effect, the family lost all of its possessions. During World War II, the Turkish government obliged its citizens to pay a wealth tax, but the rule mainly applied to national minorities – Armenians, Greeks and Jews.
| Yetvart’s grandmother Taguhi with her grandchildren
Yetvart Tomasyan’s mother Mary is also from Çorlu. It was customary to marry girls from the same town or region at that time, as they had the same customs, lifestyle and cuisine. Mary’s parents, Armash and Agapi, were able to escape the massacres thanks to the mayor of Çatalca, where they lived at the time, who did not obey orders to deport Armenian craftsmen. Meanwhile, all their relatives in Çorlu were deported, and only a few returned.
Petros and Mary’s eldest son dedicated his life to education and literature. Yetvart studied at the Samatya catholic sisters’ Immaculate Conception College, then moved to Üsküdar to study at a renowned seminary. Afterward he studied classical languages at Istanbul University, especially old Armenian (Grabar), in order to be able to teach Armenian at Armenian schools of Istanbul. However, he failed to find a job at a school because of his political views and leftist ideas.
In 1971 Yetvart married Pailine, whom he met through the seminary’s students’ union. Yetvart and Pailine have two children, Mihran and Petros. Today, Mihran Tomasyan is the artistic director of the well-known theater company “Ciplak ayaklar" (“Bare Feet”).
| Yetvart Tomasyan with his mother Mary
Not easier said
After years of being engaged in literary activity and working for the Armenian newspaper Marmara in Istanbul, in 1993 Yetvart teamed up with his friends Hrant Dink and Mkrtich and Artashes Markossian to establish the Aras publishing house. “The Armenian community was experiencing hard times, its voice was not heard. Armenians lived silently, withdrawn into their shell. Sometimes things boiled over, but what could be done? We are not a large community after all,” says Yetvart.
Aras was established with the goal of presenting the Armenian community and its essence, history and past to the Turkish public. The publishing house mainly focuses on works by Armenian writers translated into Turkish, books in Turkish by Armenian writers living in Turkey as well as works by foreign (including Turkish) writers concerning Armenians. It also publishes books in Armenian; over 170 books were published in the past 23 years.
"Our job is not an easy one, either morally or physically. Without pointing fingers, we try to bring up the issue, to start a discussion without shouting, as modestly as possible. But we do not sacrifice quality to modesty and we try to achieve better quality all the time,” Yetvart says.
Books published by Aras and its other activities have significantly changed attitudes toward Armenians and Armenian issues in Turkey, especially in intellectual circles. “Our work is for ordinary people, but even academics are often unaware of our issues. We have awakened, probably shocked the public by touching upon the Armenian issue. Many are doing this job nowadays, but our mission is not complete,” Yetvart believes.
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.