A few years ago, before my grandfather passed away in 2008, I was set on interviewing him for family archival purposes. With a Hi-8 camera and my questions in hand, I felt that his life’s trajectory as a refugee and Armenian Genocide survivor needed to be preserved. April 2015 is the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, and as the last of the survivors quietly fade away there is, more than ever, an enormous urgency to preserve survivors’ voices and narratives.
A century might seem far away, and the anniversary might not bear much relevance to some, yet the Genocide feels unequivocally close to me. I would often look in my grandfather’s peaceful blue-green eyes knowing that there would come a day when I no longer could. I would try to understand where and how he hid the unfathomable loss and pain he suffered as a 5-year-old orphan. I would look in those eyes through my camera lens when interviewing him on how he was deported, how he fled the orphanage, and how he finally managed to find refuge. I remain in awe at how he preserved his dignity, composure and lucidity until he drew his last breath, having gone through deportation and the loss of his entire family, surviving against all odds.
Khatcher Menakian or dede, as I called him, was born in 1910 in the town of Tomarza in the province of Kayseri that was then under Ottoman rule and is now in central Turkey. In 1915, Ottoman troops surrounded the Armenians in the town, took away able-bodied men to be imprisoned or killed, and subsequently drove women and children into the Syrian Desert in a forced evacuation that was part of a larger systematic campaign against the Armenian population. Through these events, my grandfather lost his father, mother, sister and brother.
After reaching Aleppo, in Syria, he and other child survivors begged for food on the streets and spent time in church- and missionary-run orphanages. At the end of the First World War, he and others were repatriated to an orphanage in the city of Adana in what now is south-central Turkey. In 1922, he and other children were moved to Lebanon for a three-year stay in an orphanage administered by French priests, where he was educated in French. He then left the orphanage to join the large community of Armenian Genocide survivors in Beirut, and begin his life in earnest.
Khatcher and Chake
In 1935, Khatcher Menakian married my grandmother, Chake Yahnian, who was also a survivor from Tomarza, and together they had four children over the next seven years. Through hard work, my grandfather provided a comfortable life for his family. Although he had been deprived of parents, he had nonetheless developed strong values as an orphan that defined his character for the rest of his life. Despite the horrors he underwent in childhood, he never displayed any bitterness or hatred. Displacement for my grandparents did not stop after reaching Lebanon. Decades later, they landed in Canada after fleeing the civil war in Lebanon. They emigrated to Montreal to join their daughter (my mother) who had settled in Montreal with her family in 1987.
As a high-school student at the Sourp Hagop Armenian School in the Montreal borough of Ahunstic-Cartierville during the early 1990s, I distinctly recall my 80-year-old grandfather seated at the kitchen table studying Canadian history, government structure, and his rights and responsibilities as a future citizen. Canada would be the final stop of his tumultuous life journey. I took advantage of the studious mood to do my math homework by his side.
Menakian family with their cousin
In August of 1994, the day finally came for my grandparents to present themselves at the immigration offices for their citizenship test. My grandfather was 84 years old and my grandmother was 79 when they took their Canadian citizenship exam. At his advanced age, my grandfather’s legs were starting to weaken. I remember wondering if there was a correlation between the pain in his legs and the inhuman distances he had been forced to walk as a 5-year-old orphan.
As my grandfather passed through the main doors of the exam center, he fell to the ground; his legs had momentarily given up on him. He got back up with the help of my mother, but fell again as soon as he entered the room. He must have been eager to pass that exam; perhaps his nerves and excitement had gotten the best of him. The government official, having witnessed my grandfather’s fall, told my mother that they could reschedule the test. Khatcher dede immediately interjected, saying, “No, no, I am ready to take the exam.”
Following the test, my grandfather, who was not the most talkative person, especially about anything related to his harrowing childhood, turned to the examiner and said he was happy to be in Canada. He said he knew that Canada was a good country, because when he had lived in an orphanage in Adana, Turkey, Canadian missionaries had given him one of his first real meals since leaving home.
Menakian family with a relative
For 98 years, Khatcher Menakian was a living, breathing testament of something that has been, and continues to be, denied. I keep his watch, with its big numbers, on my office bookshelf. This watch hugged his wrist until his death, and is a memento and a reminder that with time, truth, justice and recognition will prevail, and generational wounds will heal.
Knowing what my own grandfather experienced, I often think of the fate of every nation, woman, man, and child who has ever felt helpless in the face of colonial rule or any form of political oppression. I can’t help but think of the Genocides suffered by the Ukrainians, the Jews, the Cambodians, the Rwandans, and the Sudanese, and how this destructive cycle unfortunately remains alive and well. While it is encouraging to see a number of Turkish academics, students, writers and activists seeking accuracy and discussion, denial discourses propagated by the Turkish state continue to circulate in many shapes and forms. Scholars and historians have identified denial as the final stage of Genocide. However, one thing is certain: denial can never erase my grandfather’s life story. Countless refugee narratives continue to float and are waiting to be recorded and transcribed, while new ones are on the verge of being lived and written.
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.
Originally published in the Montreal Gazette.