By Laurence Ritter
Today, the youngest living survivor of the Armenian Genocide is about 90 years old. They are grandparents and great-grandparents who survived the genocidal days at the beginning of the 20th century as little children. Over the last three decades, many told their stories for posterity on audio tape or video tape, in different communities and programs around the world. Altogether, some 2,000 recorded histories have been gathered by more than half a dozen institutions, including the Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research and Documentation, the Armenian Library and Museum of America, the Armenian Assembly, individual historians including Richard Hovannisian and Donald Miller, as well as the Armenian Film Foundation.
Only the Zoryan Institute attempted to include survivors who lived in Soviet Armenia, however. A few Yerevan-based social scientists interviewed and took notes on the stories of local survivors, but did not tape them.
The thousands of child-survivors who came into Eastern Armenia — which soon became the Republic of Armenia — lived in the huge orphanage in Alexandropol (Gumri.)
Today, the number of survivors around the world has dwindled to a few hundred. Ankin, is among the last of the survivors living in Armenia.
Under an autumn sky, in a corner of Armenia, it’s a simple meeting with one of the last survivors of the Genocide. Ankin remembers Van, remembers the troopers, remembers the village. And, she remembers the horror. Turks and blood, corpses and a desperate escape.
Sometimes it seems we’ve waited too long to hear these against-all-odds survivors.
It was Christophe who first met this old, ageless, woman. He took a somber yet beautiful photo of her. We had gone back to Khor Virap many times before daring to enter again this poor village house where four generations live under one roof.
Our pretext was that we wanted to bring her the photograph, which Christophe had taken. As everywhere else in Armenia, the door was opened wide to strangers, and we walked in to find her — this grandmother from another world — sitting in her yard, on a cloth of some sort, her hair tied up in a scarf. She was in the same spot as in the photograph taken several months earlier, as if time had fixed her there.
And the dialog began — although with difficulty — with this woman of Van, 93 years old, whose local dialect can still be heard in the discrete musicality of her phrases.
Her son, standing with us, kept repeating, “Tell them mother, tell them; tell them all that you remember.”
At her age, all talk is disjointed, reduced to the essential. But it’s no less beautiful, no less strong, this improvisation. She is dressed like the women in the old photographs from the lost Armenian lands.
I do the calculations in my head. She is about 93 years old, so she was seven years old, maybe eight, at the time of the genocide.
Her father was killed by the Kurds. This is the part of the story she tells, and retells, identically each time. A Kurd from a neighboring village enticed her father away to alert him that the next day the Turks would encircle the village — then killed him as he left town. When the Turks arrived, they were all there, the whole family: Ankin and her mother and a younger brother.
They were all deported.
What did you see? What did you see, was the question one of us hazarded.
What we saw? Corpses, she said, corpses.
They crossed the border into Armenia near the north.
The Forgotten World
In one of the villages, the survivors decided, among themselves, that the abandoned Turkish homes will only go to those families with men. So, for months, Ankin, her mother and brother, slept in the shade of a stable wall.
She remembered the young men in the village, and mentioned one, half swallowing his name. During the exodus, he had managed to save a Bible by separating it in two. One half he had taken with him, the other he had wrapped in a pouch and buried near a river, in a sort of natural hiding place, level with the water.
But those souvenirs floated, following some unknown course, until one day, by chance, they came to a stop in this village, at the foot of Ararat, on the other side of a border which had become inaccessible, and behind which she was born.
She’s finished telling her story. She looks around and sees her great-grandchildren, her daughters-in-law, her garden.
“I’m very old now,” she says. “But God doesn’t seem to want me, although I so much want to die.”