My grandmother Clara Movsessian Russian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, is 100 years old, born October 28, 1914. She still lives in her home of 70 years in Arlington, Massachusetts.
She was born in the village of Yegheki, located in the kaza of Harput within the province of Mamuratul Aziz-Harput. Her father Nishan was deported when she was only a few months old. She survived poverty, famine, typhoid, and always kept hope alive. Against all odds she made it to America by age 11. She married Hagop “Jack” Russian of the village of Sousoury, located just beside Yegheki. She was a founding member of the St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Massachusetts and served on the Ladies’ Auxiliary for two decades.
But she's more than just my grandmother, she's my heroine, my fount of inspiration. She taught me determination, resilience. And I love her very much.
Below is a fragment from her memoirs, which I am still in the process of editing.
Clara standing beside her mother Haigouhi to the right. The
woman seated on the left is unidentified.
Krikor Guetchudian, who was a cunning man, had something in store for my mother that no one had predicted. He cleverly stole a picture of my mother and sent it in a letter to his younger brother Nishan, who was living in New Britain, Connecticut at the time. In his letter, he told Nishan to divest all his assets and invest in Krikor’s flourishing business. Since there were unrest and rumors of war in Turkey, Krikor intended to profit from the situation in flux by investing in provisions such as flour, sugar, olive oil and nuts. He also told Nishan to consider marrying my mother, since she came from a prominent family, was well educated and very attractive. Nishan was a sentimental guy, and he was also very homesick, not to mention lonely. He figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to return to he Old Country and get married. After all, he could always move back to Connecticut since he had been established there and knew the ins and outs of making a living in America. So he left Connecticut in 1913 with gifts, jewelry and fine clothes for his future bride.
When Nishan arrived in Liverpool, England, where he awaited his ship that would travel along the Mediterranean Sea to Armenia, he just happened to meet a young Armenian woman who was on her way to America. It was a weird coincidence to both of them.
“Where are you going now?” the woman asked.
“I’m off to Kharpert, to my village where I’m going to get married. My brother found a bride for me.”
“I’m from Kharpert, too. I was born in Husenig.”
“My family home is in Yegheki.”
“That’s where my sister teaches now.”
Then he remembered he had his bride’s photograph in his jacket pocket. He removed it and showed it to the woman.
"That’s my sister, Haigouhi!" she yelled. Teriz and Nishan embraced in tears. She made him promise he would be a good husband to her and treat her well, otherwise she would come back and severely beat him. Then she hugged and kissed him again, the tears from both of them ruining her makeup, and they parted ways. They would never meet again.
Back in Yegheki, when he felt as though he had saved up enough money, Nishan went to my grandparents’ home to ask for my mother's hand in marriage. A time-honored custom was observed, with the girl having no decision in the matter. There was a very extravagant wedding attended by many friends and family members, and the joyous festivities lasted for an entire week. My mother moved into Krikor’s home with her new husband.
“What are we supposed to do now?” Haigouhi asked Nishan one day when they were alone, walking through the lush fields. “You know, all this marriage business.”
“We’ll have a family, I guess. What did you have in mind?”
“I think we can manage that.”
“You’re a schoolteacher.”
“Why would I do that? Besides, I still need to learn things myself.”
“Things, you know. English for one thing.”
“What do you mean, silly?”
“I mean, you know… like yours.”
My mother blushed. “Aren’t you going to hug me?”
My father, who was very handsome and dressed sharp in American suits, was 27 years old when he married my mother. He was a self-taught musician, who played both oud and violin. He wept when he sang his melancholy songs, and so did everyone else listening. The instruments were washed with tears, a premonition of the tragic days that would change our lives forever.
I was born on October 28, 1914. My mother suffered three days with severe labor pains and was on the verge of death. My father rode to Kharpert and found a proficient midwife, who miraculously saved our lives. I was christened in our local Armenian church and named Hayastan in honor of our motherland, Armenia. But I wasn’t destined to have that name for very long. After my father gave it some more consideration, he decided to change my name, fearful that the Turks might regard him as a revolutionary. During this time, my mother was reading a book, which included a heroine named Clara, which was how I received my new name.
I was four months old when in January, 1915, the Turks were beginning to arrest all young men and intellectuals. It was the spark of the inferno that would consume the lives of over a million souls and deliver ruin to hundreds of thousands more.
My father was arrested and imprisoned for many months. All my mother told was that he was arrested under “suspicion,” but they never told her what for. Hundreds of men went to jail the same way, without explanation. Of course, no one yet understood what was going on or could have predicted what was coming. While in jail he contacted typhoid fever and was sent home by the authorities. I guess they were afraid of catching it, too, it’s not like they suddenly cared about his health. My mother tended to his illness until he recovered and was once again arrested and jailed. By now, he was an embittered man and fearful of his destiny. My mother would bundle me up and carry me in her left arm, and we would visit him. We would bring him some sarma, sini kufta or something else he liked to eat wrapped in paper, so the guards wouldn’t suspect anything and snatch it for themselves. She would hand him things between the bars when no one was looking. He would hold my tiny hand the same way.
“Will I see the day when my daughter Clara takes a gift from my own hands?” he asked my mother once.
“You’ll come home soon, I know it,” she smiled.
“I miss you in here. It’s getting very hard to take sometimes.”
“It’s a test of our faith. We’ll get through this.”
“I need my wife and my baby by my side,” he cried.
“And we need our man. We’re not going anywhere.”
The fateful day came when a messenger of death announced that all Armenians from neighboring villages, both young and old, were to be deported to the town of Urfa within one month. They were allowed to take with them only as much as they could carry. Before the day of departure, they congregated inside St. Vartan Church to hear Father Mampre’s last mass and sermon. They confessed their sins and received their last communion. With agonizing tears, they embraced each other and prepared for their departure.
My grandparents and their children came to Yegheki to bid farewell, knowing that they would never see one another again. They and 45 relatives of my mother were deported to the desert of Der-el-Zor in Syria. Husenig’s entire population of 3,000 people ceased to exist. My grandfather did not fear hunger because he had always fasted for 40 days during lent, but he was dreading the unbearable thirst awaiting him in the desert. Two weeks later, my father and his brother Asadour were deported with their fellow villagers from Yegheki. My mother was completely devastated, she couldn’t speak a word for days. As my father was marched away he never turned around to look back.
No word was sent from my father, and we had no idea where he really went. There were rumors coming that men were being hung, shot in the head, and even beheaded. Then they were being tossed into ravines to rot and eaten by animals. The rivers were filled with corpses and were finding new routes around them. My mother was now a widow at the age of 18 with a six-month-old. She was distraught at the thought of Nishan’s demise and agonized inconsolably, and if it hadn’t been for me she would have given up living. Having been nurtured in a very religious environment at home, she not only lost her faith but also questioned God—"Why?"— just as countless other Armenians begged to comprehend.
Labels: Armenian Genocide, Personal Experiences