Our Armenian Genocide Story

Here is my best attempt to outline our family's connection to the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

We are part of the remains of the Bakalian family of Diyarbakir Turkey.  Our direct ancestor, Kevork Bakalian, was a sucessful merchant married to Takui Eguinian, daughter of an influential family. (Takui's brother, Haigag Eguinian, had immigrated to the USA in the late 1800's and founded the first Armenian language newspaper in the U.S.)  The Bakalians had four children, Almast (b. 1892), Simpat (b.?), Victoria(b. 1902), and Artin (b.1908?).

Almast (our direct ancestor) married Yakob Kedersha in Diyarbakir in 1911 and emigrated from Turkey to the USA in late 1912, arriving in early 1913.  That happened before the beginning of the Genocide on April 24, 1915.  Yakob (Jacob) was Assyrian, the son of a rich merchant family.  Although Almast's family had been quite comfortable during her childhood, the sudden death from natural causes (Typhus or Typhoid Fever) of her father in 1910-11 led her mother to accept a proposal of marriage from a young Assyrian man and his family.  Once married, Almast lived with her Assyrian in-laws, and was unhappy to be ruled by a tyrannical mother-in-law.*  Yakob decided to "visit" America to scope out business opportunities for his family.  They expected to return after a year or so, but after World War I began, his family wrote to tell him not to do so, as conditions were very bad. Almast and Yakob were cast off from the family's supply of funds and had to make their way in America.  They were immediately made poor.  Yakob  (called Jacob in the USA) got himself into the dry-cleaning, tailoring business.  They lived in New Jersey for the rest of their lives, where he had a small dry-cleaning and tailoring store, Centre Cleaners, on Clinton Avenue in Irvington NJ.  He died in the late 1950's;  Almast lived until 1986.  They never returned to Diyarbakir.

In the years after 1912, Takui Eguinian Bakalian was left in a large house in Diyarbakir with her three remaining children, with little source of income due to the loss of her husband's business to a distant cousin (who, in family lore, cheated her out of her husband's share of the business).  She lived by selling the gold, jewels and rugs in her spacious home, and when they ran out she attempted to sell foodstuffs to eke out a living.  She may also have taken in laundry (hazy memory).

Both Almast and her sister Victoria (Bakalian) Bezazian told me that the house was large, had an inner courtyard through which ran a canal carrying water from the Tigris River. The "brook" was the source of their fresh water.  Both Almast and Victoria remembered that courtyard as a small paradise, with many flowers and vegetables.  Victoria also told me that the house was on the same street as the main Armenian Church: Sourp Giragos.  It was just a block or so away.  (In a future post I will write a bit more about Victoria's memories of the Church during World War I, and how she and I came to discuss it.)

When the mass murder/deportation of Armenians began in Diyarbaker, Victoria (13 years of age at the time) remembered that soldiers came to their door to take Takui and her children on the march out of Diyarbaker.  Takui sent for the Assyrian priest, who brought papers showing that the family (on the Bakalian side) was descended from an ancient sect called the "Shamsi."  According to Victoria, the Shamsi were a sun-worshiping sect that had been folded into the Assyrian Church centuries earlier.  Takui and her children were spared by the soldiers, but Takui's sisters and brothers (Eguinians) and their families perished, except for one girl in her teens (Sirhanush Keshishian, daughter of one of Takui's married sisters). As she and her family and many other Armenians were marched out into the desert, Sirhanush feinted and was left for dead by the soldiers on horseback.  When she revived, she found herself alone and made her way back to her Aunt Takui's house.  Takui hid her and sheltered her for some period of time. 

Takui and her children remained in Diyarbakir throughout the war.  Victoria remembered eating nothing but rice and apricots through one entire winter late in the war.  It was the only food available to Takui.  She had bought them in bulk earlier in hopes of re-selling them, but her potential livelihood became the food that kept her three children alive during a late-war famine.

At some point during or after the war, Takui rented the largest part of the house to a family from Baghdad.  The father was the governor of the Diyarbakir region for the Ottoman Empire, according to Victoria.  That family was very good to Takui and her family.  Victoria remembers playing with their small son in the courtyard.  Eventually, they left to go back to Baghdad.  Of course, these events occurred during Victoria's adolescence, so whether the "governor" was actually the governor or some lesser Ottoman official, and whether the house was rented to the governor or was commandeered on his behalf, leaving Takui and her family to act as servants, will remain a family mystery. Whatever the truth, in Victoria's memory, they treated Takui well.  There were fond farewells when the official and his family departed for Baghdad.

In 1923, Takui and her three children left Diyarbakir and moved to Aleppo, Syria.  The circumstances of that move, and of their life afterward, were never explained by Victoria, so we have little to go on.  Takui lived the rest of her life in Aleppo, with her youngest son, Artin.
Victoria and Simpat in France:
In 1925, Victoria and Simpat emigrated to France, living for a year in Marseille, where Victoria worked as a seamstress and hat maker.  She taught herself French by learning songs on the radio. After a year or so, Victoria and Simpat (who changed his name to Andre' at some point) made their way up to Paris, where they lived through the 1930's and the second world war.  Simpat worked for an Armenian printing press in Paris;  Victoria worked as a hat maker and dress maker.  Victoria married one of Simpat's co-workers, Kegham Bezazian.  In 1950, Victoria and Kegham immigrated to the USA, where they found work in Philadelphia.

More about Simpat:
During World War II, Simpat was sent to a German labor camp to work in a factory.  When the war ended, he walked back from Germany to Paris, where he lived to a ripe old age as a bachelor.   He ate every dinner at a little restaurant called Chez Janet, in the 16th Arrondismont, close to his room.  He had no phone, so relatives from America were told to go to Chez Janet, where they would find him. He visited the USA once, in the early 1960's, reuniting with his older sister Almast for the first time since 1911.  We all met him and I still have the pretty plastic necklace (amber diamonds) that he gave me.  He didn't speak any English, but his warmth made us love him.  My father took him to Washington DC, because he wanted to see the White House.  Driving past it on Pennsylvania Avenue (a thing one can no longer do), he was appalled to find out that the legendary White House was so small and puny.  It is fun to imagine him telling his cronies back at Chez Janet how underwhelming the White House is compared with the great buildings of State in France.

More about Artin:
Artin Bakalian stayed in Syria, married a Turkish woman, and lived out his life as a pharmacist/businessman.  Takui lived with him until her death in the 1930's.  A story  from Victoria has it that Takui had a box of gold that she had hidden within the walls of the house in Aleppo, but she never told Artin where it was hidden, and when she was on her deathbed she couldn't talk well enough to be understood.  So the box of gold was lost.  We know of only one child, Rita Bakalian. Rita lives somewhere in the USA.

More about Sirhanush:
Sirhanush Keshishian came as a refugee to the USA in 1925.  Family lore has it that she was the first refugee to the USA.  We have no documentation of this legend and we know nothing about the years between her hiding  at Takui's house in Diyarbakir and her appearance in New York City ten years later.  We did meet her several times, however.  She lived with first cousin Almast's  family for about 6 months. She was divisive and unstable and so she was asked to leave the house.  At some point, Sirhanush took on the name Madalyn Kashian.  She fancied herself an artist and lived out her life, never marrying, in Jersey City, NJ.  None of Almast's children or grandchildren was comfortable around Sirhanush.  Of course, none of Almast's children or grandchildren had ever experienced the trauma that Sirhanush did, losing her entire family on a death march and fearing for her life for many years thereafter.

When Almast was getting old, Sirhanush Keshishian (Madalyn Kashian) made an oil painting  from memory of the Tower of Sourp Giragos Church, which she gave to Almast as a present.  That picture hung in Almast's house until she died and the house was sold, after which it languished in Victoria's hall closet in Upper Darby, Pa.  When Victoria died, the painting was thrown out with the trash.  Luckily, we have a snapshot of that picture that hung on Almast's living room wall. Though the resolution is poor, the family's connection to the church is documented by a picture we didn't value enough to save at the time.

Sourp Giragos Church Tower, oil painting by Madalyn Kashian.
(now destroyed).

* There is an alternative version of the reason for Jacob and Almast's departure from Diyarbakir.  My mother told me that Jacob was a handsome young man, and he had talked back to some Turkish men, who were out to get him.  There was also a hint of a story about sexual interest in Jacob by a Turkish man.  My mother's understanding is that they left for his safety.  The story above, about her oppression by her mother-in-law, is also true.  I am just not sure which motivation is more accurate in describing the reasons for their leaving Diyarbakir in 1912.  I do know that Almast could not swim and was deathly afraid of water, so her willingness to travel over the ocean meant that her life could not have been very sweet.  On the other hand, she may have had no choice in the matter.  These are the kinds of family history mysteries that can never be solved.  Life is so complicated.