BY ELISE KALFAYAN
Luther Eskijian, founder of the Ararat-Eskijian Museum and my grandmother’s cousin, had a focused, intense character. Only later in life did I learn that his father, Rev. Hovhanness Eskijian, had been just as driven, serving as a pastor in Aleppo during the Genocide, bravely directing an underground network rescuing Armenians destined for Der Zor, and dying of illness and exhaustion the day before authorities had planned to execute him.
Luther and his remaining family settled in Pasadena in the 1920s. I spoke occasionally with his daughter Nancy, but only recently had the chance to talk with his son Martin. Both reflect their father’s intensity, and both are now serving on the board of the museum he founded, the only Armenian Genocide museum on the West Coast. Their father passed away in 2007.
Martin Eskijian notes that AEM is adjacent to a home for Armenian elderly and stands as a permanent symbol of their legacy. “This is especially important for the aging generation that survived the first Genocide of the 20th Century.” On a recent visit to Istanbul, Turkey, he visited an “Armenian elderly home, adjacent to a hospital. Interestingly enough, there was a chapel with Armenian architecture, and also a museum. Luther figured this out on his own, and it was a good fit.”
He remembers his father as a “Renaissance Man” who had a vision. “He got the funding, designed and built the structures, all with an ancient Armenian architectural design, including bas relief of angels, taken from a book about Achtamar, which he never did get to visit. He also sketched the ‘Mother Armenia’ sculpture outside of the museum, with the mother/child larger than life, to signify the continuance of the race. The bronze sculpture of Mother Armenia is in a small garden, outside the museum. He originally populated the museum with his own collection, and from there, it grew.”
How has the museum shaped his thinking about the need among American-born Armenians for these resources?
“Students from many high schools and universities have come to the museum, as part of their assignments or homework. I think a lot more about our Armenian heritage, and the post-genocide Diaspora,” he answered. “Last year we visited Eastern Turkey (Western Armenia) and went to the villages and cities where Armenians once thrived. We also went over the death march roads, and saw the arid, lifeless desert regions that had to be traversed. I am much more aware of Armenian history and how the Diaspora came to spread out over the entire world. At each AEM event, some new perspective or narrative is given, and in most cases the speakers have written books about their experiences, or interviews with survivors, etc.” The success of the Museum’s growth is due to the tireless efforts of Ms. Maggie Goshin who has served now for more than 10 years.
“Our mission is to preserve Armenian history and culture. As the elderly pass on their family heirlooms, our hope is to obtain some of these as exhibits for the museum. In many cases we have found that we are the only resource considered for the survival of priceless artifacts.”
Martin Eskijian began his career performing seismic analyses for nuclear containment structures. Transitioning to petroleum engineering, he researched offshore oil platforms’ seismic qualifications. He later got a federal grant and additional state funds to develop standards for marine oil terminals in California. Today it is Chapter 31F of the California Building Code; the only such standard in the U.S.; and being used as a template to develop an international standard. Wave/current/seismic forces on offshore structures have become his specialty, and he’s participated in post-disaster assessments for the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake, and major earthquakes/tsunamis since then: Izmit, Turkey in 1999, Sumatra in 2004, Chile in 2010, and Japan in March 2011.
“Going to these devastating sites is a very sobering experience, and one quickly learns how fragile life is,” he says. “As tsunamis are more fatal to small children and the elderly, only a Christian perspective can bring hope that God loves children, and our hope is that they are in Heaven. No other world religion can make this claim. The Japanese event was especially tragic, as this is a first world country, in many ways more advanced than the U.S. They were warned, it was the middle of the afternoon, but the information about run-up height was underestimated and thousands died, even though they reached the evacuation centers.”
Alternating between teaching at USC and UCSD, and a speaker at conferences around the world, he hopes to start an ocean/coastal engineering M.S. degree in California. “With 1,000 miles of coastline, there exists no such program at any university in this state!”
His sister Nancy Eskijian, a former corporate attorney, watched the museum start “and I’ve seen it become an influence in the Armenian community around the world.” She credits director Maggie Goshen for establishing contacts with world-class scholars and institutions. “I am there to support the work, and be a part of it when I can.”
Years ago, she traveled to Syria where she visited her grandfather’s grave. “He was a young man who never got to see his family grow up, but lived several lifetimes in the compressed urgency of 1915-1916. His legacy is eternal. My father, a philanthropist all his life, helped build many churches and Christian and Armenian organizations. Like his father, he was very sacrificial towards others, loving the Lord and giving freely.”
She took her first steps into Christian ministry by leading worship services in Santa Monica for the homeless, and has since transitioned from the law into full-time ministry as ordained Senior Pastor of Bread of Life Foursquare Gospel Church in Los Angeles, on Washington Blvd. near La Brea. She serves a multi-cultural congregation with English and Spanish spoken at both services. The church itself is small, but its key ministry is a food pantry currently feeding 2,500 people each month. Staff and volunteers also participate in a monthly outreach to the homeless in downtown L.A., distributing food, as well as praying for and ministering to people. She has just published a book called Restoration NOW! which presents a Biblical approach to inner healing and deliverance for the body of Christ.
Visits back and forth, personal meetings, and joint work on special programs created a relationship between AEM and its sister institution, the Genocide Museum in Yerevan headed by Dr. Hayk Demoyan. Demoyan is returning in March 2012 with a traveling exhibit for AEM. “Dr Demoyan has been very helpful, and is helping us with our website,” reported Martin Eskijian. “We met with him and his staff and have a greater appreciation of the importance of his work and his resources. We are also working together on plans for the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.”
For more information or to make a donation to support the museum’s programming and outreach, visit the Ararat-Eskijian Museum or its Web site.
Elise Kalfayan is a Glendale resident, a native Southern Californian, and a combined first/second generation Armenian-American. She has produced or edited print and online pieces on topics ranging from urban development to Armenian Church history. She is the publisher of a Glendale community news blog http://sunroomdesk.com, and works as a contract writer, editor, and publishing consultant for clients including businesses, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and memoirists.