BY LORI BERBERIAN
A Wreath of Violet’s is the story of survival during the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey. It is a fictionalized account, based on the true story of Lori Berberian’s family. Following is an excerpt from the unpublished manuscript.
In this scene, Razmig is a sixteen-year-old boy whose father, Harout, has been summoned to gather in the local church for ‘deportation.’ It soon becomes apparent to Harout that the Turks are systematically killing all of the men who were supposed to be setting up homes in a new, promised destination. Harout is spared, but we find out here, he is used to demonstrate the powerlessness of the Armenians in the ensuing wave of terror.
The next morning, Razmig awoke to a quiet house. He barely slept, wondering where they were taking his father. He found his mother in the kitchen sitting at the table, absentmindedly stirring her milk and coffee. Her face was expressionless, but there was such sadness in her eyes, Razmig’s heart dropped.
He knew the only person who could change that look was his father; he was at a loss as to what to do for her. He walked up behind her and put his arms around her shoulders, whispering in her ear.
“Hayrig will be fine…he is a smart man. He will send for us in no time.”
She squeezed his arms, but didn’t say anything.
Just then, one of Razmig’s friends, Barkev burst into the back door of the kitchen.
“Raz, come quickly! It’s your father! He’s in the square!”
Razmig registered his mother’s shocked face and took her hand to follow Barkev. When they got to the town square, there was already a crowd gathering.
Ten men from the neighborhood were tied up with their arms bound to a pole, which sat on their shoulders. They were on display, each with two gendarmes on either side of them. Razmig’s father was one of the men. It looked like he had been beaten on his face, and his mouth and nose were both still bleeding. The look in his eyes was bleak.
The prisoner to Harout’s right started yelling.
“They’ve killed them all! The bastards took all our valuables and killed them all!”
A gendarme quickly put a stop to this by hitting the man with the butt of his gun to the head. The man fell to the ground, blood spurting from a new wound.
Harout sought out his wife Miriam in the crowd and held her gaze. He shook his head. Miriam started crying, not knowing what to do.
It was still morning, but soon the afternoon sun would be overhead, beating down on the prisoners. One woman called out to the gendarmes,
“May I give my husband some water?”
He shook his head and said to the crowd, loud enough for everyone to hear, “No! No one is to talk to the prisoners, bring them food or water, touch them or even go near them. If you do, they will die. Do you understand?”
Everyone nodded their heads and murmured their understanding.
No water? How would they survive, Razmig thought?
Miriam turned to him. “Make sure you stay hidden. We don’t want the soldiers seeing you and taking you prisoner as well.”
Razmig nodded his agreement and slipped back behind one of the pillars. It took everything he had not to run to his father to try to free him. But, he knew the soldiers had no qualms about using their guns, and since he was on the cusp of manhood, it was little wonder they hadn’t made him join the men the night before in the church. He didn’t want to risk their attention.
Minutes turned to hours. The gendarmes kept the men standing in the square with their arms bound to the poles for the entire day. Every so often one of the men would collapse to his knees and the gendarme would beat him until he stood up again. If he did not stand, they would beat him until he was unconscious, kicking him in the ribs and back while he lay on the ground. The women would start sobbing, but to no avail. The guard’s hearts were turned away from what was happening. Some seemed to enjoy what they were doing.
Razmig and his mother stayed in the square all day, Razmig hidden in the shadows. At one point, the gendarmes had all the men kneel, their arms still pulled tight tied to the bars across their shoulders. To a casual observer, it looked like a performance, with the men on stage, and the women and children in the audience, watching and waiting for something to happen. The women would weep, all desperately wanting to help their men in some way; a cup of water, or a cool washcloth to wipe away the grime and sweat on their foreheads. But the standoff continued.
The sun set in the western sky and the temperature dropped significantly. Still the women stayed, not daring to leave their husbands, children needing to fend for themselves for their noon and evening meals.
As the sky darkened, Hermine brought a bowl of pilaf and some grilled chicken to her mother.
“How can I eat when your father cannot even have a drop of water?” Miriam cried to her eldest daughter.
“Mayrig, you have to keep your strength up,” Hermine pleaded. “What if Hayrig needs you to do something for him…please Mayrig!” and Miriam ate a few bites in order to stay strong, but it stuck in her throat as it went down. With each bite she felt the hunger her husband must be feeling; the unquenchable thirst.
Tears poured down her cheeks as she watched her husband slowly weaken.
The night was interminable. Miriam finally sat on the pavement, her back against the well in the center of the square. She dozed off a few times, but for the most part, she stayed awake, her gaze never leaving her husband. She could see his lips grow dry and start to crack and chap.
In the middle of the night, a few of the soldiers approached some of the young girls who were still watching their fathers. They forced them at gunpoint to go into one of the shops that they had broken into on the perimeter of the square. Soon one could hear the sounds of a struggle, then crying and screaming from inside the shop. At one point there was even a gunshot when it sounded like one of the girls was putting up too strong of a fight. The prisoner’s faces registered shock, anger, then finally helplessness when they realized they could not save their daughters.
When Hermine and Zabel came to join their mother, she quickly sent them home, but not before whispering something to them that Razmig couldn’t hear. All he could see was that the girls looked terrified when they left, holding onto each other for support.
Dawn approached. The square was eerily quiet. Nearby, a fountain burbled as it regurgitated the water through its many levels. The soldiers all looked to be dozing off, sated with their nighttime revelry.
Harout’s lips were swollen with thirst, bleeding where they had cracked. Miriam could barely make out what he was trying to say, his hoarse voice quiet from lack of moisture.
“Water,” he seemed to be saying.
Her heart started beating so loud she was sure the gendarmes would hear it.
He was barely conscious from hunger and thirst.
Could she get away with it? Could she help her husband without waking the gendarmes?
She took the cup she had with her for her own use and filled it at the well.
With exquisite care she walked towards her husband, praying she could get away with this simple task of bringing him water to assuage his terrible thirst.
As she approached him, his unfocused eyes focused on her and the cup of water she was holding. Razmig slowly stood up against the wall, watching his mother take a walk that could save his father’s life. She made it to Harout without the two guards on either side waking up.
He drank thirstily from the cup, taking care not to spill a drop. Razmig could see tears streaming down his mother’s face, and desperately wished he could change places with her. He wished he was as brave as she was, and felt a surge of pride for his mother.
Just then the youngest guard stirred and opened his eyes. He must have been only seventeen or eighteen years old, but he had a gun almost half as big as himself, and he pointed it at Miriam with a shout. This woke the other guard who also pointed his gun at Miriam.
The older guard yelled at the younger to take Miriam into custody.
Harout and Razmig, along with the rest of the people in the square watched in horror as the guards tied Miriam’s hands behind her back and then forced her to kneel.
“We told you no contact with the prisoners! We told you no food or water for them!”
”But my husband…” Miriam tried to explain, and was cut off.
“We don’t care what your husband needs, we have orders! Would you like to see what our orders tell us to do if you break the rules?”
Miriam started to cry softly, hanging her head in misery.
“This is what we are told to do!” The older guard drew his sword and with one strong blow, cut off Harout’s head.
There was a stunned silence in the square. Even the other guards couldn’t believe their eyes. Miriam’s face dissolved into horror, a high-pitched scream emanating from her as she fell to the ground. She continued to wail and would not be stopped.
The older guard nodded to the younger guard, and he went over to Miriam with his rifle pointed straight at her. She was cut off mid-scream as he pulled the trigger three times, pointing to the back of her head.
Razmig stood frozen to his spot. Did that really just happen to his parents? Everything seemed to move in slow motion after that. His mind wouldn’t accept what he has just witnessed. Soon, however, his thoughts turned to his sisters. He had to warn them.
Numbly he ran home, not even seeing where he was going. He stumbled through the front door and fell to his knees, sobs racking his body. He tried to speak, but couldn’t. He could not get the images of his father and mother out of his mind. It was like a bad nightmare and he could not wake up, no matter how hard he tried.
“Hayrig…Mayrig” was all he could say, tears streaming down his face, mucus pouring out of his nose. Hermine and Zabel knelt down next to him, trying to wipe his face with one of Hayrig’s handkerchiefs.
“What is it, Raz? What’s happened?” Hermine kept asking him.
“Hayrig…Mayrig…gone…killed. The guards killed them!”
The girls looked at each other in disbelief.
“Raz, it’s a mistake, right? You must have seen something else…someone else.”
“No…our Mayrig and Hayrig…gone.” And he collapsed onto the floor after vomiting, and continued to dry heave with silent sobs.
“No!” Zabel shrieked, as she fell to her knees next to her brother. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair!” she continued to repeat, over and over through her tears.
Hermine sat strangely silent where she was, tears falling quietly against her flushed cheeks. She seemed to be a million miles away, the pupils of her eyes like pin pricks, her silent stare unseeing.
They stayed like this, Raz with wracking sobs, Zabel crying at the injustice, and Hermine, silent and contemplating for the better part of half an hour.
All at once, Hermine sat up, resolved to move forward, and put her hand on Zabel’s shoulder to get her attention.
‘Zabelig, it’s time. We must follow through with the plan we spoke of with Mayrig. If we don’t, you and I are next, and we both know what those soldiers will do to us without our parents to protect us!”
Razmig stopped crying and wiped his eyes.
“What plan? What did Mayrig say?”
Hermine knelt down and put both hands on his shoulders, looking him straight in the eyes.
“Raz, you have to escape! You have to run. I will give you a coat with jewelry and money sewn in the lining. You can’t stay in Mardin. Run to Diyarbakir and hide. Don’t come back or they will kill you as well!”
“What do you mean? What about you and Zabel?”
“We will be fine,” she assured him. “The important thing is that you are safe.” She walked over to where his coat was lying over a chair. The girls had finished lining the coat with some of the gold, jewels, necklaces, earrings and money their father had brought home the day before. It felt unusually heavy, but it should help him to survive should he need to bribe a soldier or buy food.
“I don’t understand, Hermine,” tears started flowing from his eyes again. “Why can’t I stay with you?”
She hugged him close to her. “Our destiny is different than yours, Raz. We must separate in order to stay safe. You will be fine,” she assured him. “Zabelig and I need to protect ourselves from the soldiers. They will hurt us if we don’t do as Mayrig told us to do.”
Razmig still didn’t understand.
“What did Mayrig tell you to do?” he asked, shaking his head.
Hermine and Zabel exchanged looks.
“Don’t worry about us, Raz,” Zabel reassured him.
“Can we meet up after the soldiers are finished?” Razmig asked, his voice trembling with emotion.
There was a pause.
Hermine put her hand on Razmig’s shoulder.
“We will meet in heaven, Raz. Together with Hayrig and Mayrig.”
Razmig stared at them in silence. Heaven? What was she talking about?
Just then, more gunshots could be heard from the square.
”Quickly! There’s no time,” Hermine hurriedly put Razmig’s jewel-laden coat over his shoulders. She grabbed a cloth sack and threw in several pieces of pita bread, apples, cheese, cured meat and anything else she could find that would travel well.
Both Hermine and Zabel continued to reassure Razmig that they would be fine, but he had to run and hide before the soldiers came to the house. They hugged and kissed their brother, and wished him Godspeed.
The shots grew closer. Razmig took one last look at his sisters, and then ran off, keeping to the shadows and out of the way from any gendarmes.
When Razmig looked back at his home one last time he noticed that all the windows and doors were closed shut and no smoke was coming out of the chimney. He panicked, because even he knew what could happen if the smoke got caught in the house. How many times had his parents taught him and his sisters about the danger of suffocation when there was no ventilation?
Was that the plan? Suffocate themselves so the soldiers couldn’t get at them? The thought was just too terrible to contemplate. So he resolved to stay hidden for the rest of the day, then that night he would go back and check on them.
But his answer came sooner than nightfall. He was hidden in the eaves of a neighbor’s yard, dozing off from the heat of the day when he noticed Arshalous, one of their neighbors, had let herself into their house. They often did that with one another, letting themselves into each other’s house without knocking.
She immediately started screaming and wailing. Razmig had to fight the urge to run and see for himself, but he knew her noise would soon bring the gendarmes. He struggled to understand her lament.
“Too young, too young!” she was crying. “Why, why, why? Too much tragedy today, too much!”
Razmig knew there was no turning back. He left for Diyarbakir as soon as twilight fell, and didn’t look back.