Melissa Haygan Lake

By Melissa Lake

I wince as my professor calls out the attendance; “HAY GAN” he says, in two sharp, nasally syllables. “Actually, it’s pronounced like Hi-Gone.” He doesn’t correct himself and continues down the list. “Haygan” I say again, interrupting him. “It was my grandmother’s name. Today is the anniversary of our genocide.”

It is strange to think the one thing that we use to label ourselves for our entire lives, our name, is not even something we are free to choose. Our most constant and indelible part of our identity is often chosen before we even take our first gasp of air, gifted to us by people who are virtual strangers.  And yet, somehow, our names come to define us intrinsically. How strange the turbulent mix of fate and destiny and lack of free will melds together in a near perfect form millions of times a day to blindly identify an entire future. And yet, regardless of all this lack of choice, more often than not, that name that was chosen before we were ever given a chance to form our own presence can come to define us more than any other nomenclature we could staple to our persona.

I used to say that the only gift my grandmother ever gave me was my middle name, and while I know now that that statement is inherently false, as my grandmother bestowed countless intangible gifts like courage and strength and history upon me, my grandmother’s christening gift to me is my strongest connection to my heritage.

I used to hate my middle name. How bitter I was, surrounded in a sea of Marie-s and Ann-s, with a name no one could neither pronounce nor spell, a remnant of a people and a culture no one knew about. My cultural identity became reduced to the abbreviation “H.” and was something I neither talked about nor wanted to talk about. I was ignorantly ashamed of a remnant of a history more powerful and awe-inspiring than I could even fathom, and in my shame, I disgraced a culture far more noble than I.

For years I was H. , a one letter symbol of my cultural denial. I reveled in my ease at being able to conform; a white girl with a white name. But blind conformity is boring and bland. My whiteness was not nearly as fun or entertaining or interesting as my true ethnic heritage. Being Armenian actually was a lot cooler than being like everyone else, it turned out. So when I learned to embrace my ancestry, when I learned to love being Armenian more than I loved fitting in, I became Haygan again.

But Haygan came at a price, it came with a burden of history and memory and sadness. Haygan came with a sense of duty, because remembering is a holy, sacred thing, and it is a calling all Armenians share. Being born Armenian, being gifted with the name of Haygan, instilled in me an obligation to do what the world could not, bring justice to the generations of people whose future was never formed because of one of the greatest crimes against humanity to ever occur.

But there was a sense of beauty in being born Armenian as well, for we are a rich culture not defined solely by our tragic past. For a people who have suffered so much and who have experienced no closure, we are lively and welcoming and jovial. Our tiny country and its hundreds of diasporas has a voice louder than that of nations 100 times its size. We are powerful and determined and tenacious. Now, more than ever, the world is hearing what we have to say, and they are acting with us.

My grandmother is the strongest woman I have never met, gone before I had the chance to form in my mother’s womb. A woman born in the middle of a period of unspeakable blight, may the privilege and opportunity I was conversely born into paint me as the phoenix rising from her ashes, from the ashes of her past and her culture’s history, and may I bring her honor by carrying her name with the same cloak of fierce pride and strength that she shrouded herself in.

So today, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I am not Melissa Lake. On a day that reminds us of the egregious cost that comes from forgetting, I am the name that lies hidden, sandwiched between a chorus of cultural assimilation. Today, and all days, I am Haygan.

Survivors: Ohan Akaragian

ohan1

Kharpert // 1898-1980

Ohan Akaragian was born in Agn on June 12, 1898 to Baghdasar and Haiganoush Akaragian.  He was the youngest of six; Serpouhi, Melkon, Makrouhi, Pilibos, and Varvar.  The Akaragians were well known in the region. They owned farmland, as well as a store in Romania. The profit that generated from this business was used to create an irrigation system to support farmland in Agn.

Before the Armenian Genocide was orchestrated, the Akaragians lived in peace.  The Armenian population in Kharpert was educated, hardworking, and extremely close with one another.  Every morning the entire village would attend badarak at the local church before heading to work or school.

Ohan’s two older sisters, Serpouhi and Makrouhi, were married and lived in Bolis, Turkey.  Melkon was married with three children and worked in the financial district before opening a jewelry store. Pilibos studied in Romania and in 1912, at 21 years old, he died from an illness.  In the meantime, their youngest sister, Varvar, had been asked for her hand in marriage at the tender age of fourteen.  The Akaragians agreed to the marriage with one ultimatum, that she would continue her education, and she did before giving birth to three children.

As soon as orders to begin the mass killings of Armenians were given in 1915, the entire region was devastated.  Ohan’s grandfather and brother, Melkon, were hung.  Melkon’s wife and children were killed, along with Varvar and her entire family.

Ohan’s grandmother was approached by a group of Muslims who informed her that if she were to abandon Christianity and convert to Islam, they would allow her and her family to live. Without hesitation, she responded, “I will give up my life, but I will not give up my religion.”  And so her entire family, including Ohan, was put on the death march.

They managed to purchase a horse with gold to carry Ohan’s grandmother since her old age kept her from walking. The remaining members of the Akaragian family walked while witnessing the most horrifying sights.  Ohan saw a group of young girls, holding hands, jumping into the Yeprad Ked. Corpses lay everywhere they went; along the roads, in the rivers, scattered all over the region like fallen leaves in the wintertime.  Ohan and his mother quickly realized that surviving was nearly impossible.  Ohan’s mother, determined to save the only man left in the Akaragian family, bribed the surrounding Turkish soldiers.  She offered them a quilt that she had sewn gold into and in return, the soldiers would allow Ohan to slowly fall behind the march so that upon reaching the end of the long line of people, he could run.  But once he was at the end of the line, he would be on his own.  The soldiers would not help him escape, simply, give him a chance to get away.

Following their agreement, Ohan started walking slower, slowly separating from his family and falling back within the line of people.  And each time that he would almost be out of sight, his mother would call for him with unstoppable tears in her eyes.  And he would quickly come back to her towards the front of the line.  His mother would hold him in her arms, refusing to let go because she knew that they would forever be apart.  And so she called back for him three times and he came back to her every time.  As she finally let go of him the third time, she had one last request.

“Don’t come back.  Even if I call you again and again, don’t come back.”

These were the last words she spoke to Ohan.  Once again, Ohan slowed down his pace, leaving his family ahead.  And it was only a matter of minutes before he heard his mother’s voice, screaming for him, again.  Each scream louder than the one before, her cries intensifying with every passing second.  And he honored his mother’s last words with tears in his eyes and longing in his heart.  He kept his eye on his family from a distance until they were too far to be seen.

Upon reaching the end of the line, the Turkish soldiers held their part of the bargain and turned a blind eye to Ohan while he ran.  He headed back to Agn, only to find that Turks now occupied his family’s home. Having nowhere to go, 17 year-old Ohan knocked on his neighbor’s door. His Muslim neighbor took him in and kept him in hiding for several months.

Knowing that there was no life left for him in Kharpert, Ohan took off once again, this time to Bolis to search for his sisters and their families.  He hid during the day and traveled by foot in the nighttime and every time he came across a farm, he would study the people, and the possible work that needed to be done.  If he felt comfortable enough, he would seek work for several days, weeks, or months at a time, before continuing on his journey.

It took Ohan two years to arrive in Bolis and to be reunited with the only family he had left.  Serpouhi, Makrouhi, and Ohan had lost sixteen members of their close family during the genocide; their grandparents, parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. Ohan stayed with his sisters for a year until he finally decided to move to Romania.

In Romania, Ohan met his future wife, Elisabeth Tevanian, and had two children, Baghdasar and Haiganoush, naming them after his parents.  Despite being in a new country and creating a new life, Ohan was often consumed by dark memories of the past.  He did not talk about the genocide often, as it was too painful of an experience to share. However, he consistently had nightmares, causing him to frantically wake up during the late hours of the night.  And it was in these moments that he would confess to his wife the inhumanity he fell victim to in 1915.  Knowing that Ohan could not speak about the genocide without emotions taking over, Elisabeth would tell Ohan’s stories to their children, ensuring that they were aware of their father’s past.

In 1963, Ohan and his family relocated to Los Angeles, California.  Although he didn’t speak a word of English and had no experience in the shoe business, he purchased a shoe store that was for sale near their home. While his family wondered how he would start a new business in a new country, Ohan took a piece of paper and drew a line through the center of the sheet.  On the left side he wrote down shoe sizes, parts of a shoe, and days of the week in Armenian; gosheeg, guroong, yergooshapti, yerekshapti… He handed the sheet to his daughter who listed the English equivalents of these words on the right side.  And it was with this one piece of paper that Ohan provided for his family and went on to create a successful business.

Ohan passed away in 1980.  He is survived by his two children, three grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren. He is remembered as an honest and respected man, who loved abundantly.   He loved his family, his church, his people, and his community.

Honored by Haiganoush Akaragian, Ara Akaragian, and Jeannette Akaragian

 

Survivors: Atanas Demirdjian

Atanas

Kemah // 1904-1987

Atanas Demirdjian was born in Kemah in 1904. His family owned a store where Atanas and his older brother would help deliver products. In 1915, he traveled to Istanbul with his older brother. Atanas later learned that during his time in Istanbul, the Turks had set up slaughterhouses into the Kemah gorge, in which some 25,000 people were killed in a single day. Atanas’ immediate family, friends, and relatives were among those killed in Kemah. In Istanbul, the two brothers were taken in by strangers and hidden in an attic. Since Atanas was the younger of the two brothers, he would slip out of the attic to gather information of what was happening to the Armenian population, while his brother remained confined to the attic to avoid capture. One day, a Turkish officer realized that there were two Armenian boys hiding in the attic of a local resident. Instead of turning them over to Turkish officials and causing harm to the two young boys, the officer helped them flee the region. During their escape, Atanas and his brother were separated due to unforeseen circumstances. Atanas eventually made it to France with a group of other Armenians who managed to escape. It was among this group of genocide survivors in France where Atanas met his future wife, Anahid. Atanas and Anahid had three sons. Years later, they decided to leave their stable and comfortable lives in France, moving back to Armenia so that their three sons could marry Armenians and continue their Armenian bloodline.

Atanas passed away on June 6, 1987 in the city of Yerevan. He is survived by his three children, six grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren.

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Honored by Arthur Demirdjian