Survivors: Ohan Akaragian

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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: Ohannes Mardirossian

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Erzurum // 1910-2005

Ohannes Mardirossian was born in 1910 in Erzurum to Ghazar and Nano Mardirossian.  He was one of five children; Makroohi, Yeghsapet, Megerdich, and Garabed.  His family owned a wheat farm and a vast amount of land where gold was often excavated.  This wealth was lost as soon as the Armenian Genocide commenced.  Five-year-old Ohannes watched as his father gasped for his last breath as Turkish gendarmes hung him in front of his family.  The sight of his father’s last moments and the sound of his mother’s screams and desperate pleas were never forgotten.  His two older sisters, both stunningly beautiful with blonde hair and light eyes, were kidnapped by Turks and never seen again.

Megerdich, Ohannes, and Garabed, ages ten, five, and two, and their mother were sent on the march of death to Deir Zor.  Their mother died during the death march from dehydration, leaving the three young boys all alone on a march that had no end.  Sadly, the three brothers lost each other during the march.

An Arab man saved Ohannes; not out of goodwill, but for selfish reasons. He was taken to Kirkuk, Iraq where he was worked as a slave despite being a mere child.  In the years that he spent with this Arab family, he became fluent in Kurdish and Arabic but completely forgot how to speak Armenian. However, he never forgot the fact that he was an Armenian.

Ten years later, his fate finally changed.  A local man started coming to this Arab family to purchase fresh milk every morning.  Everyday, he would watch as Ohannes worked tirelessly on the farm while the rest of the family spent their mornings together indoors.  The man quickly noticed that Ohannes was treated differently and decided to approach him in the fields one day.

Ohannes took a chance and admitted to the man that he was an Armenian and not a blood relative of the Arabs.  The man, an Armenian himself, immediately offered his help to Ohannes.  They devised a plan to escape and executed this plan successfully the following morning.

At fifteen years old, Ohannes was finally free from the Arabs and in the hands of a fellow Armenian who was willing to help him create a new life and find his family.  The Armenian man found him a job at a bakery, where Ohannes not only worked but also lived.  Lonely and orphaned, Ohannes longed for his brothers.

One day, a customer named Dikran entered the bakery and introduced himself to Ohannes, who had only recently been employed there.  After discovering that they are both Armenian, they begin speaking about the Genocide.  Ohannes tells Dikran that he is from Erzurum and is looking for his brothers Megerdich and Garabed.  Dikran is immediately taken aback and tells Ohannes, “I know a Megerdich from Erzurum who survived the genocide.” Overwhelmed with the possibility of reuniting two lost brothers, Dikran immediately leaves the bakery in search of Megerdich.

Upon finding him, Dikran explains to Megerdich that he may have found his little brother. However, Dikran did not receive the reaction he was expecting. There was no joy or excitement in his eyes; Megerdich was doubtful.  After all, what were the chances of two brothers ending up in the same village in Iraq after being separated a decade ago in the Syrian Desert? Nonetheless, he agreed to accompany Dikran back to the bakery.

In the meantime, Ohaness was impatiently waiting at the bakery, consumed by the prospect of once again having a family. He had been alone for so long but remained hopeful, wishing so desperately to find his older brother.

As the two men walked in, Ohannes looked into Megerdich’s eyes and found tears in his own, as if he knew at that moment that he was staring at his older brother.

“We have the same eyes,” said Ohannes, but Megerdich was not yet convinced.

“My brother Ohannes fell when he was very little and he had a large scar on his right knee.  The only way I’ll know that you’re my brother is if I see that scar.”

Ohannes lifted his pant leg, revealing a scar that proved that he was, in fact, Megerdich’s brother. Megerdich’s expression immediately shifted, the doubt emptying from his eyes and suddenly being replaced with longing. The brothers embraced one another in a way that words could never express. Megerdich, who had recently married, took his brother home and never left him out of sight. Ohannes lived with Megerdich and his wife, and began to learn how to speak Armenian once again.

Megerdich found Ohannes a job at the Iraqi Petroleum Company where he established a stable and successful career.  In 1940, while attending the local Armenian church, he met and fell in love with Takouhi Mekhtarian, an orphan who was the daughter of genocide survivors from Ourfa.  They married and had six children; Mako, Ara, Yeghso, Alice, Raffi, and Sossi.  His two eldest daughters were named after his two sisters who had been kidnapped and whose fate he never learned.  He sent all six of his children to a private Armenian school, ensuring that the Armenian language would never be lost again.

Years later Ohannes and Megerdich found their youngest brother Garabed, who was only two years old during the Genocide.  It was with heavy hearts that Ohannes and Megerdich learned that their brother was raised by a Muslim family and considered himself to be a Muslim, rejecting his Armenian identity.

In 1975, Ohannes and his family moved to the United States, but brought with him memories of his past.  He would tell his grandchildren about the Armenian Genocide often, always with tears in his eyes.  Although he had never experienced love and affection during his childhood after the Genocide, he was a man full of love and laughter.  He spent much of his time playing cards and dominos with his grandchildren and always had pockets full of candy for them.

Other than his family, Ohannes had two other loves in life; the Lakers and Vegas.  He was a die-hard Lakers fan who never missed a game, and a frequent Las Vegas visitor.  Ohannes and his son would often plan 6 am road trips to Las Vegas but Ohannes would be up bright and early, dressed in his suit at 4:30 a.m., impatiently waiting for his son’s arrival.  He is remembered as being an adventurous, hard-working, kind-hearted, and loving man.

During his last years, his granddaughter visited Erzurum and surprised him by bringing back soil from his birthplace.  Ohannes was moved to tears upon touching this soil, as it brought back pained memories of loss and heartbreak.  He treasured it more than anything and kept it on top of his dresser.

Ohannes passed away in December 2005 in Los Angeles, where that cherished soil was poured onto his casket.  He is survived by his six children, thirteen grandchildren, and thirteen great-grandchildren.

Honored by Elizabeth Cholakian, Mary Manoukian, and Ara Mardirossian

Survivors: Atanas Demirdjian

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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