DETROIT — For Tom Mooradian, Armenia’s apology for the cruel treatment of “Armenian repatriates” during the post-World War II years of 1946-48 was a positive sign that Yerevan seeks to correct the disastrous repatriation drive. Mooradian was a 19-year-old teenager from Detroit when he witnessed the cruel punishment endured by thousands of repatriates to Soviet Armenia in 1947. He was one of several hundred American Armenians who went to then communist-controlled Armenia.
“It took 13 years to get the Soviets to let me return to America. I still feel the pain of that self-imposed exile,” author Mooradian repeats at book signings of “The Repatriate, Love, Basketball and the KGB.” Mooradian, now 79, applauds Armenia’s minister of Diaspora affairs, Hranush Hakobian, for having publicly apologized at last December’s international Diaspora conference in Yerevan . In addressing the Dec. 13-14 conference Hakobian extended the government’s apology to all the repatriates and their families for what she had termed as being a botched attempt by the Soviet Union at repatriating Armenians to the small Soviet Armenian republic.
News reports from Armenia on the public apology said Hakobian was visibly shaken in her remarks, and took special note that her apology about the suffering was also the first time that a ranking government official had acknowledged the cruel life repatriates were forced to endure. She also confirmed that many of the repatriates were exiled to Siberia on suspicion of taking anti-Soviet positions, heightened by Stalin’s edicts that saboteurs had infiltrated the ranks of the more than 100,000 repatriates who came to Armenia from the Middle East, Greece, Romania, and the United States. During book signings at two of Detroit’s large Armenian church communities, St. John and St. Sarkis, Mooradian said “when my ship, the Rossia, pulled out of New York harbor in November, 1947 with 150 other American Armenians reality sunk in my teenage brain. When I applied for my Soviet entrance visa I had unknowingly applied for Soviet citizenship.
BY my own stupidity I was also relinquishing my American citizenship. I spent the next 13 years trying to get back to my home in Detroit. My prayers were answered on July 31, 1960 when the Soviets granted me an exit visa.” In an interview with Vaughan Masropian, director of the Armenian Radio Hour in Detroit, Mooradian said the recent positive economic ranking Armenia received from The Wall Street Journal and The American Heritage Foundation in their annual 2009 Economic Freedom report was a healthy free enterprise sign for Armenia’s future. “When I was there we stood in line for bread, and thankful for what we got – which was barely enough to survive,” said Mooradian, now a retired suburban Detroit newspaper reporter.
In his memoir “The Repatriat,” now in its second printing since last October when the powerful paperback was published, Mooadian admits that basketball “kept me alive with the ability to survive 13 years trapped behind the Iron Curtain.” When quizzed at a meeting of the St. Sarkis Fellowship Club, Mooradian said his “nighmare” experience was brought on by a foolish young activist who only had himself to blame . “I am just thankful I survived. when I hear someone bad mouth America, I cringe because the freedom we have as Americans is priceless. I know. I learned with 13 years of my life.”
At a meeting of the Detroit Armenian Women’s Club, Mooradian also shared the pain and suffering repatriates with small children were forced to live in then Soviet Armenia while fearful “a knock on the door at night meant they were being taken away for speaking out against the communist-run country.” While at an afterglow book signing at Edgar Hagopian’s popular World of Hagopian Rugs outlet in suburban Birmingham, Mooradian said his skill on the basketball court is what saved him, mentally and physically.
“After we beat the highly touted team from Red China, I was placed on the national Soviet team.” As a high school basketball star at Detroit Southwestern, Mooradian was captain of his team that won the public school crown in 1946. His goal as a repatriat was to go to college in Armenia and introduce the American style of basketball. “But it was basketball that saved me in a society that denied people their civil rights,” he told the Detroit Armenian community in a series of talks about “life behind the Iron Curtain.” Though present-day Armenia, free of communist rule since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union is but 12,000 square miles with a population numbering over three million, Mooradian said the districts of Kars and Ardahan that Turkey seized from the independent Armenian republic of 1918 should be returned to the Armenians.
“Those lands belong to Armenia and were so recognized in 1920 by the United States and President Woodrow Wilson.” When asked if he ever plans to visit Arrmenia now that it is free, and practicing economic freedom, Mooradian smiled: “Hey, the Armenians are great. They also suffered under the tyranny of Lenin and Stalin. But today they are free to guide their own destiny.
As for going to Armenia, if I did, I would go as a tourist, with a round-trip ticket and never surrender my American passport,” he stressed adamantly. When told the Diaspora conference in Yerevan also deliberated on the feasibility to conduct another large repatriation movement to Armenia, Mooradian was blunt: “Look, I love the Armenian people.
If you want to help Armenia you do it with support for groups dedicated to help Armenia. You send money, medical supplies and make sure the U.S. Congress supports Armenia’s foreign policy – and tells the Turks to condemn the Ottoman government of the 1915 Armenian genocide.” Mooradian, a graduate of Wayne State University, and his wife, Jan, a retired Detroit public school teacher, now live in upstate Hubbard Lake. “The Repatriate” is available from Wayne State University Press, Amazon.com, and from the website www.tommooradian.com