My obsession began on a day shortly before my 25th birthday, when my father brought his Aunt Eva to visit me in San Francisco. We stood on the deck of one of those silly bay tourist boats, Eva with a scarf wrapped tightly around her head, my father translating into Armenian the recorded commentary, and me bundled up against the wind. Suddenly I grabbed my great-aunt, wrapping my arms around her tiny frame from behind, and teased her in English, with words so simple that I was sure she would understand: "Watch out, Auntie," I said with a laugh. "I'm going to throw you overboard." "Oh," she said, far more serious than I. "Just like my babies." I backed away, aware that I had just touched fire.
That evening, I asked my father for an explanation. He had heard a story long ago, something about Eva as a teen-ager, giving birth to twins on a boat and watching as sailors dropped their dead bodies into the Aegean Sea. He didn't know how the babies had died, or where Eva was going, or where her husband was. But we both sensed that the twins were part of a much larger story, which began April 24, 1915. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Turkey, under the cover of World War I, became what many historians consider the century's first genocide and what our family had always referred to as "the massacres," or more succinctly as "the Turks."
The Turks had always been present in my life, lurking like monsters under a child's bed. For my fourth birthday my grandfather--Aunt Eva's older brother, Sarkis--gave me a water pistol. "If you see a Turk, sonny," he told me, "you shoot him." Sometimes, when I stayed overnight at grandfather's house in El Sereno, I would wake up late at night and wander into the living room. There I would find a roomful of men shouting in Armenian, crying and jabbing their fingers into the air. "It's the Turks," my grandfather would say as he scooted me back to bed. "The goddamned Turks."
But my grandfather's tears were never my own. My childhood was standard San Gabriel Valley middle-class. Like millions of immigrants' children through the years, my father and his sister and cousins had chafed under their parents' expectations that they would somehow maintain an Old Country life in the new country. They broke their parents' hearts by marrying odars , or non-Armenians, and leaving the Armenian church. I only saw Armenians other than my relatives a few times a year, at giant picnics where the women cooked pots of pilaf, while the sad-eyed men barbecued shish-kebab and sat at tables under the trees, smoking and playing endless games of tavloo , or backgammon.
The world of Armenians seemed to me a lost world, mysterious and intriguing. Growing up, I felt a visceral pull to Aunt Eva, though I knew as little about her as I did about the strange and beautiful language she spoke with my father. When she visited, she brought grape leaves, homemade baklava and the wonderful cheese pastry we called boereg . After dinner she'd retire to the living room to listen to Armenian music while leafing through photos of her children, grandchildren and late husband. Wearing headphones so as not to disturb the rest of us, she would sing along softly in Armenian, tapping her feet. Sometimes I'd sit with her, holding her hand.
After I moved to Berkeley to go to college, I saw Aunt Eva less often and lost even that tenuous connection with things Armenian. I wore my ethnicity like a decoration, a conversation piece. By then I'd learned what was behind the rage of my elders. It was bad enough they believed that a million and a half Armenians had died at the hands of the Turks between 1915 and 1922; even worse that every Turkish government since has insisted there was no genocide, that fewer than half a million Armenians died and that both Turks and Armenians were victims of a civil war, famine and disease. But the massacres, an open wound to my grandparents' generation, remained academic to me, as distant as the ritual slaughter of lambs for community feasts.
Then came Aunt Eva's visit and her cryptic comment about the twins. The image of babies being hurled into the sea began to haunt me. I imagined their deaths to be a sign, a brutal symbol that the terror and hunger of life in Turkey was over. I still didn't know much about that terror, but I became fixated on finding out what it had to do with my life. It was time I entered the lost world of my people, my mysterious tribe.
"I KNOW WHY YOU'RE DOING THIS," AUNT EVA SAID IN ARMENIAN AS MY FATHer and I set up the tape recorder in her living room in Pasadena. "I'm 80 years old. I'm the last one left, and you want to know the story before I die." She settled into her favorite chair, where she sat most days watching television and the activity on the street beyond. "I never told this story," she said in English. "Nobody knows."
Eva Ohanian was born, she told us, in 1905 in the village of Toumarza, in central Anatolia, in a four-room clay house where pillows were the only furniture and water came from a spring in the back yard. There was every reason to expect that she'd live her whole life in Toumarza, where she'd marry young and have as many children as God wanted. But her story really began in 1915, when most Armenian stories begin.
Turks had been killing Armenians by the tens of thousands in sporadic pogroms, most recently in 1896 and 1909, in an effort to create a nation free of troublesome, non-Moslem minority groups. Then, during World War I, the Turks claimed that the Armenians might collaborate with the Allies and had to be deported. On the night of April 24, 1915, hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople were gathered up by Turkish security police and executed. The next day, Armenian families in virtually every part of the Ottoman Empire were rousted from their homes. Most men and boys were shot on the spot; the women, children and the surviving males began walking, under the rifle prods of Turkish soldiers on horseback. Their destination was Der El-zor, the desert east of Aleppo in present-day Syria.
Eva's brother Sarkis, already in America, had sent her a little money, and on the morning that the Turks came, Eva tied it up in a ribbon in her hair while her mother stuffed bread into her pockets. Within days, Eva, her mother, father and younger sister Nazalee were eating grass they pulled from the ground as they walked and drinking whatever water they could find out of sight of the soldiers. Eva saw stragglers shot to death; she saw the sick and starving crawling away from the march to die alone. She and her family walked for three weeks, until the soldiers left them for the night at an informal refugee encampment on the outskirts of Aleppo. Eva was 10 years old.
"Your grandmother died in Aleppo," she said to my father. "My mother." I watched her face, waiting for her to cry, and realized that she was watching me right back, just as carefully. "The first night in Aleppo," Eva said, "she wanted to wash our hair because we had lice. Suddenly, after finishing, she got sick. I remember her throwing up, then crawling on the ground saying, 'I'm sick, I'm sick.' My father sent Nazalee and me off to sleep. The next morning, I heard her saying, 'Keep going. Kill me, kill me.' Blood was flowing from her mouth, and she died. She died. She just died."
The three of us fell silent, each considering the horror. I would learn later that Eva's story was unique only in its particulars. In research for their upcoming University of California Press book "Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide," USC professor Donald E. Miller and his wife, Lorna Touryan Miller, the daughter of a survivor, interviewed more than 100 survivors, who told of seeing husbands and fathers bayoneted to death; of mothers who dropped back to care for dying children, knowing that such a move would kill them, too; and of young girls who joined hands and jumped into the Euphrates River, rather than be raped by Turkish soldiers. That night at my father's home, I pulled out several books about the massacres and stared at the photos of Armenian refugee children--the tattered clothes, the vacant eyes, the bare feet. I wanted them to feel less foreign to me, but I kept wondering how that was possible. What did I know about starvation, about cholera, about the despair that led young girls to leap to their deaths? If they're Armenian, I thought, I'm not.
"I NEVER SAW MY FATHER AND SISTER AGAIN," AUNT EVA TOLD US WHEN WE went back the next day. "My father's eyes had become so bad that he couldn't see. He asked two women to help him find a place for my sister to live; the four of them went off, and he said he'd come back for me. He never did."
Another woman in the Aleppo camp sold Eva to an Arab family, telling her that it was her best hope of survival. And in fact, while Eva dusted, washed and cooked in her new home, the Turks pushed the Armenians into desert concentration camps from which few returned. "The family treated me well," Eva recalled, "but I wanted to leave, to be with my people. I thought I'd have to live the rest of my life in that house."
One day Eva answered a knock on the door to find a couple whispering to her in Armenian, telling her to come with them. They had been sent by her brother Sarkis, who had arrived from America in search of his family. In Allied-occupied Adana, a city northwest of Aleppo, Sarkis had met by chance an Armenian from Aleppo, a young man named Hagop, who recognized Eva's picture and knew where she lived.
Just a few days later, 14-year-old Eva was reunited with Sarkis. "What am I going to do with you now?" he asked. But he already knew the answer. He showed her a photograph of his best friend, Ted Keochakian, an Armenian he had met in America, and told her she was engaged. In January, 1921, Ted came to Adana from Wisconsin, and Eva and Ted were married, a few days before her 16th birthday. Sarkis returned to America; Eva and Ted planned to stay in Adana forever.
But once again, forever was short-lived. When the Allies gave Adana back to Turkey in an effort to draw definitive postwar borders, Eva and Ted fled for Smyrna, then under Greek control. In September, 1922, troops stormed in to reclaim the coastal city for Turkey. They set fire to Greek and Armenian neighborhoods and rounded up male residents. Ted was sent to a prison camp, and 17-year-old Eva wandered the streets for days before joining thousands of refugees at the harbor of the burning city. Eva was eight months pregnant. "The Turkish soldiers and police were beating people," she remembered, "chasing them into the water and shooting them. They beat me. A woman next to me was pointing to me and screaming, 'This lady is pregnant. Her stomach is ripping, her stomach is ripping.'
"Finally, a soldier grabbed me by the arm and said, 'Go on,' and put me on a little boat that took me out to a Greek ship." The twins, a boy and a girl, were born the next day. "I never saw the boy," Eva said. "But they brought the little girl close to me. I was hungry, and she was hungry. She just kept crying and crying, and then she died." The Greek sailors dropped both the bodies overboard. When the boat docked in Salonika, Greece, Eva followed the other refugees to Athens. She had given up pretending to know where she would spent the rest of her life.
I waited for my father to finish translating, and then I looked back at Aunt Eva. "So many years have passed," she said softly. "Let them be far away. My babies were born, they died. What could I do?" Then, in English, "My heart. I talk. It's pounding."
Eva's years of flight were almost over. In the fall of 1923, Ted was released from prison, a miracle Eva was never able to explain. He found out through the Armenian grapevine that thousands of refugees were living in Athens. He discovered Eva there and wrote to Sarkis for money; seven months later, Eva and Ted sailed for America. They landed, appropriately, in Providence, in the spring of 1924.
"When we got off the boat," Eva said, "I remember thinking, 'We're out of the hands of the Turks.' Every time we had gone someplace, the Turks had taken it. Now," she said to me in English, "everything go away."
At the end of the conversation, I asked one last question: "Did you ever want to die?" She answered slowly. "When the Turks were chasing us, we often thought we wanted to die," she said, "but God wouldn't take us." She paused. "Now I don't want to die. But time's passing. Ted and Sarkis are dead, and when I close my eyes, I can hear their voices. I'm old, and God's coming."
I RETURNED HOME TO SAN FRANCISCO AND TRANSCRIBED THE TAPES OF OUR INterviews. My frustration grew as I listened; hearing about the twins hadn't helped me understand what it meant to call myself Armenian. I felt closer to Aunt Eva than ever but still couldn't touch her world. Maybe this is what happens to immigrant cultures, I thought. They disappear when we can no longer imagine our elders' lives. I locked up the tapes and transcripts, and with them my obsession with my family's history.
When Aunt Eva was 84, God came. After I made arrangements to fly to the funeral, I pulled out the tapes and listened to them for the first time in four years. "I've had a good life," I heard Aunt Eva say, "I wouldn't change anything." I winced at the irony. She had almost certainly led a longer, healthier and perhaps even a happier life than she would have if the Turks had never forced her from her house at gunpoint.
"It's a story of survival, not just of death," Lorna Touryan Miller told me when I asked how she could bear listening to more than 100 stories like Aunt Eva's. But what has survived, I wondered bitterly before the funeral. At the age that Eva was wandering the streets of Smyrna, pregnant and disoriented, my cousins and I were doing our geometry homework and going to Dodger games, hanging out at Huntington Beach and getting drunk on Friday nights, the boys thinking about girls, the girls about boys.
Yet as I ate pilaf and cheese boereg in my Aunt Sophie's crowded living room after the funeral, I finally realized that something very real had survived. The house was full of a fierceness for life, of a scorn for those who seem to drift through their days in a fog. We have an urgency about us, we Armenians. Maybe we're driven by a fear that at any moment the Turks can reappear and loot our suburban homes, marching us into the Mojave. Maybe I have vivid memories of something that never happened to me.
I went outdoors and looked at the sky. For the first time, I saw a different image when I thought of Aunt Eva's story: not the dying twins, but my great-grandparents, bleeding from the mouth and going blind in the desert. It occurred to me that, like angels on my shoulder, they'd been pushing me and blessing me for years.
"You've got life, dahruss, " they'd been telling me, using the Armenian word for son. "Don't dishonor us by treating it lightly." And I thought back to the pictures of the desperate orphans in my father's books. Suddenly, it didn't seem so crazy to think of myself as their tribesman. They'd come through the fire. In the wake of death, they breathed.
That night, on the plane home, I closed my eyes and heard Aunt Eva's voice. "I never told this story," she was saying. "Nobody knows." "That's all you could do for me, Auntie," I murmured. Never mind that my culture is not hers; we still have to tell our stories and hope that our sons and daughters take what they need from them.