Judy Ohannesian holds one of the scissors his maternal grandfather, Parnak Paulian, made as part of his business in the village of Efkere, a small community about 18 km northeast of Kayseri (Gesaria) in present-day Turkey. “Although I do not know for sure, I assume that my grandfather brought these scissors to America as evidence of his skill as a scissor maker. To my knowledge, he never worked as an ironman in America. It appears he worked as a tailor in New York City where he studied to learn English,” she says. (all images courtesy the artist)

The story of survival has unfortunately become a popular leitmotif of modern biographies and communities. The violence of social upheavals during the modern era has generated an endless stream of refugees and migrants, the result of the whims and machinations of empires and nation states. A new series by Artyom Tonoyan asks the descendants of the Armenian Genocide to reveal their precious keepsakes that were saved from the fires of calamity. The photos that he captured offer an emotional face to an event that precipitated the first international humanitarian effort.

In the series, Treasures of Memory and Hope, the Minneapolis-based academic and photographer convinced 18 Minnesota- and North Dakota-area Armenian Americans — many of whom are the second or third generation descendants of families who escaped the Genocide — to share those family keepsakes. The resulting images are intimate records of lives that continue to hold onto items from a place that rejects them to this day.

Tonoyan sees the project as particularly important since Minnesota is one of many place that Armenian Genocide survivors settled but is also part of a growing list of places that no longer are homes to a living survivor, almost all of whom are gone. Just this week, Asdghig “Starrie” Alemian passed away at the age of 109 in Massachusetts.

“Our community, as you know, no longer has survivors among us,” Tonoyan said.

What we have are descendants of survivors and items and photographs from the era. And these items serve as a sort of memory anchors and bridges connecting descendants with their survivor ancestors who saw these items as valuable enough to keep with them through the years and in many cases through death marches.

Caroline Melkonian Ylitalo explains her keepsake: “The comb I’m holding belonged to my grandmother Maryam. To prepare for the march toward the Syrian desert, Maryam and her mother loaded a donkey with clothing, food, and household items. Along the road, most of their belongings were stolen or confiscated by the Turkish soldiers; other items were sold for food. Only the scissors and comb were left. My grandmother kept them as a reminder of her old life in Kharpert.”

There is growing concern in the global Armenian community that genocide recognition by the perpetrators, namely the Turkish state, which continues to deny the facts, will not occur before the last survivor dies in the coming years.

Tonoyan’s photo project raises questions about what is saved and what it is about these objects that their owners felt compelled to protect. While some of the items come as no surprise (photographs, papers, etc.), some items, like a comb, are more curious. I asked Tonoyan his thoughts on the keepsakes.

John Desteian holds his family Bible from 1890. He explains, “The Bible came over with my father’s family in 1905. My grandfather was the head of a large family of goldsmiths and jewelers. Cholakian, their original surname, was changed by the Turks to Desteian, a variation of Desdegul.”

“The most surprising item was the family Bible of John Desteian. It was literally a surprise,” he said.

We just had spent about one to one and a half hours in his house photographing and interviewing him for the project. He had shown some items, photos and a very distinct walking cane that I believe his grandfather had used and had brought with him from Constantinople and I had photographed those. And then as we are about to leave his wife says “John, did you show them the Bible?” He was just as surprised as us asking what Bible? The Bible turned out to be this 1890s almost pristine Armenian-language Bible printed in Constantinople, bookmarked at the Book of Job, which is one of my favorite pieces of literature and probably very apt and relevant to the exhibit project. So I had him pose with the Bible for a couple of shots then he rested it on his sofa and put his hand on it to carry on the conversation. And I snapped him with his hand on without any direction. And that photo is actually one of my favorites in the entire collection because it was so unrehearsed and “unintentional” so to speak.

The exhibition, which has been designed for churches and other less conventional art spaces, was premiered at St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and traveled to the Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, and will open at the Roman Catholic Basilica of Saint Mary, also in the Twin Cities, with additional venues planned for 2020.

Francine Tashjian holds a family photo from before the Genocide. She explains, “My name is Francine Tashjian, daughter of Alice and granddaughter of Frances, whose story is told in Alice’s book, Silences: My Mother’s Will to Survive. While her brother Hamazasb was sent to America before the Genocide, Frances remained behind in their home city of Sepastia. She was the only member of the family to survive the death march.”

Alma Dardarian Warner holds up a precious family item. She explains, “The vest I am holding came to America with my father. The bracelet belonged to my mother. My pomegranate necklace was given to me by my daughter Beth, who brought it back from a Fuller Center service trip to build homes in Armenia in 2012. These are things I treasure, but most of all I treasure the strength and courage of my parents and the values and beliefs they have passed on to the next generation of my family.”

Peter Hajinian holds a gold ring and explains, “This ring was given to my great-grandmother Tamom Salbashian when she married Sarkis Hajinian in 1909 and moved into his family’s house in the village of Tomarza. A village of 10,000 or so Armenians, with a few Greeks and Turks, Tomarza sat by the base of Mount Erciyes near Kayseri in the Ottoman Empire. A few years later, Sarkis left to find his fortune in the new world. Passing through Jerusalem in 1913, he got a tattoo to mark the event and became Haji-Sarkis Hajinian. From there he traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then on to South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Tamom lived with her mother-in-law Catherine, sister-in-law, nephew Hratch and niece Melonie. Having no children of her own, Hratch and Melonie would have kept her busy … In 1921 Tamom and Haji-Sarkis traveled to Izmir, then on to America, and in 1922 their first daughter was born. Through it all, Tamom still carried the ring. She gave it to her third child, my grandfather Nazar, and when he passed away my father inherited it.”

Lou Ann Matossian holds a fringed purse covered with glass beads in 14 colors that was likely made by an Armenian prisoner in Ottoman Turkey. She explains, “Notable for its motifs of Armenian Christian faith and national liberation, this was the cherished heirloom of an Armenian-Kurdish family.” She was eventually given the purse by the man who owned it and you can read the whole fascinating story at Treasures of Memory and Hope.

Christopher and Joseph Tashjian hold copies of Alice Tashjian’s Silences: My Mother’s Will to Survive, a book that records their mother’s experience during the genocide, while the other is holding a letter that Frances wrote to her brother Hamazasb in 1914, describing the worsening conditions in Armenia.

Margaret Vartanian holds a family photo from Malatya in present-day Turkey.

Chacké Yeterian Scallen holds two photos inherited from her father Sahag Yeterian, who was born in Adana in present-day Turkey. “In all, my mother lost about 50 members of her family. My father lost only a younger brother. His other two brothers were out of the country when the massacres started. But my mother’s side was completely exterminated. Nobody came out except my grandmother and my mother,” she explains.

The Latest

Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

One reply on “The Family Keepsakes Saved From Genocide”

  1. What strikes me is it is always seems to be the same picture, the same family: the men with their obligatory Fez and the women most often in ethnic dress and no one smiles. It speaks to a shared destiny a shared fate.

Comments are closed.