BY ELISE KALFAYAN
What was daily life like in Western Armenian provinces and communities before the Genocide, and how did families adapt as they emigrated to the U.S.? Stories and memories passed down to parishioners of United Armenian Congregational Church, printed in the church’s Herald publication over the past four years, are a rich source of cultural history.
Starting with Gesaria/Kayseri, series editor Joyce Abdulian selected regions and asked church members to contribute family memories. Launching the series, she wrote “The Herald hopes to continue featuring family life in the old country as part of our Armenian heritage and culture…” The response was very enthusiastic, and continues to the present as UACC looks forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The first three articles in January 2009:
- “Some Personal Remembrances of My Childhood in Gesaria” by Steve Zurnacian (who emigrated to the U.S. to study at MIT and then UCLA)
- “Memories of My Family’s Life in Kayseri” by Dr. John Kassabian (Kassabian wrote that his parents did not meet until their families had emigrated to the U.S., but the stories they shared with him “gave me a sense of life in Kayseri. Fortunately, my grandfather kept a journal of significant events.”)
- “Memories of Family Life in Gesaria” by Helen Chakmakjian Rainey (who wrote about both her family and her husband’s family and how they came to the U.S.)
Stories about family life in Van, Hadjin, Tarsus, Kharpert, Kilis, Marash, Aintab and more followed, with one or more submitted for each region. While many touched on the tragic or difficult circumstances that caused the families to emigrate, their main subjects were life in the old country and planting new roots in the U.S.
Onnig Shahan (whose original family name, Shahbaghlian, came from the farming area north of Van called Shaghbaghe) wrote about his father’s journey out of Armenian in 1923 and eastward on the Trans-Siberian railway. The family ended up in Shanghai, China; he was born there in 1925. From Shanghai the family went by boat to San Francisco in 1927. His twin sisters were born in 1928. (The family later settled in Glendale, and he and his sisters graduated from Herbert Hoover High School!)
The focus on Aintab (where my father’s family lived) continued for three issues, as several families submitted histories, including one from series editor Abdulian, “Images of Aintab Life.” Abdulian wrote that her grandmother “somehow concealed all of her beautiful jewelry on the fateful journey from Aintab to Aleppo…pieces of the jewelry were sold by my uncle Levon [Levonian, principal and founder of the Ouzoum Naseratz School in Aleppo]…to build the school and provide scholarships for needy students.”
In an issue covering stories from Marash, she also wrote about her mother’s school and included a photo of the 1913 diploma. Abdulian and her brother Maynard Kuljian are pictured in front of Marash College, in this photo taken in memory of their mother during a visit to her alma mater. Most of the families who send in stories also provide original photos, usually historical but occasionally taken by the authors themselves while visiting their parents’ or grandparents’ home towns.
Abdulian published a short history of Musa Dagh in conjunction with church member Anges Andreassian Darakjian’s narrative, “My Father, Rev. Dikran Andreassian.” Andreassian was the pastor who led the Musa Dagh Defense Council and that community’s successful resistance against Turkish forces.
Family memories of life in Kessab were featured extensively in three 2012 Herald issues, as a number of church members were from that Syrian town. Aleppo was of course frequently mentioned as a short- or long-term stop for many families (including mine) who now attend UACC. Our prayers go out to the Armenians, including relatives of church members, still in Syria now.
Having run through most of the Armenian provinces, Abdulian is now looking for stories from families who settled in South America or Africa before arriving in the U.S. She is also researching how some church members’ families were assisted by the American National Committee for Homeless Armenians (ANCHA).
The series has run uninterrupted since 2009, and the Publications Committee is very pleased with its effects. “People often tell me that they really enjoyed the latest article,” says Abdulian. “It touches our hearts to learn more about each others’ family journeys, how people came here and what their older relatives shared with them.”
“Encouraging families to set these stories down has been a real blessing. Committing them to print perpetuates our culture and our unique history,” says Herald Editor Fred Mickaelian. “The series is colloquial in tone but very effective.” The UACC Herald has a mailing list of about 700 addresses, and is also sent out to more than 60 people via email.
The Committee is in the process of deciding how these 25+ individual histories could be published together as a stand-alone volume, possibly in conjunction with UACC’s 50th anniversary celebration. No decision has been reached. Regardless, the Herald collection is impressive in itself, and congratulations and thanks are due to Joyce Abdulian, the Publications Committee, UACC, and all the individuals who have taken the time to set down their family stories for posterity.