Readings — From the November 2014 issue

The Last Witnesses

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By Meline Toumani, adapted from her first book, There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond, out this month from Metropolitan Books.

We sat in the parlor, waiting. Finally an old woman appeared in the doorway. She wore a polyester dress onto which ivory lace had been added at the wrists, and a pink crocheted shawl covered her shoulders. Using a walker, she lurched across the small room. She tried to smile up at us while also keeping an eye on her feet. When she reached the chair that had been set up for her, two members of the nursing-home staff held her arms as she lowered herself into a tentative crouch. They redirected her several times until eventually she landed in the seat.

Then her gaze snapped up at the assembled visitors. With her eyes wide open, she said in Armenian, “Tajik al gah hednerin?” — Are there Turks among them, too?

“No!” several staff members called out.

The woman was Onorik Eminian, a resident of the Armenian Home for the Aged in Flushing, Queens. As part of the annual Armenian Genocide recognition campaign preceding Genocide Remembrance Day, on April 24, a PR firm had invited journalists to hear eyewitness accounts from the home’s elderly residents.

I looked around at the other journalists — a few reporters from Queens neighborhood papers, one from Connecticut, and a student from Columbia University. Their faces were blank; only the student and I were Armenian, and the others had not understood Onorik’s remark. The PR consultant, a woman named Linda, had not gotten it either until one of the aides translated. Her face lit up.

“Did everybody hear that? She asked whether there were any Turks present!”

Then, the sound of pens scribbling.

I’d had it in mind for some time to visit this nursing home. As my ideas about my community’s relentless focus on the genocide — and the hateful anti-Turkish rhetoric that came with it — grew more critical, I worried that I was becoming callous about the tragedy itself. I thought the quickest corrective would be to sit down with some elderly Armenians to hear what they had suffered. But before I managed to arrange a private visit, I received the press release inviting journalists to this event.

“Every year we lose a few survivors,” the home’s director had told us in her welcome address. Her name was Aggie (short for Aghavni), and she was a trim, sixty-something woman who spoke with an extraordinary outer-borough rasp. “In fact, two of the people on your list” — we had been given a packet about the survivors we would meet — “will not be able to join us today.”

The day’s event was not unique, Aggie said; it was a matter of course to involve the survivors in activism and lobbying. A few months earlier, some of them had attended a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the Armenian Genocide Resolution. (The measure, which would make it U.S. policy to label the 1915 events as genocide, resurfaced every few years at the committee level but always fell short of full passage.) “We also bring some of the other elderly Armenians who feel that they are survivors, and I think in their own way they are.”

“They sit in the front row and get recognition,” added Linda. “It’s really great.”

Onorik was born in 1912, in Izmir, a western coastal city in Turkey.

“Would you like to explain how your father died?” Aggie asked her in Armenian.

Onorik’s voice emerged with the round, ringing timbre of an old-fashioned telephone. “Again you want to hear it?” She paused and then added, switching to English, “Just as long as there are no Turks here.”

“No, no, there are none here!” came a chorus. A staff member explained that on a recent visit to Washington, the elderly had come face-to-face with Turkish protesters.

Linda tried to move things forward. “Onorik, can you tell us what happened to you and your family during the Armenian genocide?”

“Every time I remember I start shaking,” said Onorik. She drank some water, sat quietly for a bit, and then said, “Kleenex.”

A whisper went up — what did she say? Linda called for translation.

“She said ‘Kleenex,’ ” someone explained.

“Onorik, how old were you?” asked Linda.

“I am fifty-one.” (She was ninety-six.)

“I was a little girl, I was playing ball, and my aunt and my uncle went to get the license to marry. It was a Saturday morning exactly, and then I saw the dogs on their horses, running, and holding knives.”

“She’s referring to the Turks,” Aggie slipped in.

“All of a sudden my grandmother grabbed me and pulled me inside. I said what’s the matter, Grandma? And she said it’s the Turks, they’ll take you! Come inside!

“We had a beautiful big yard in the house. And next door the neighbor, they put a stepladder and she said take the kid, we can go to the church or something and be protected. So they put me in the stepladder, I climbed next door, the building to the roof. My grandmother started to cry looking for her daughter. So we went to the church. It was a Protestant church!” Onorik’s sentences rolled over one another as though someone had shuffled a set of notes and handed them back out of order.

“It was so crowded inside there was no space. We had to sit outside with my grandmother, and she was crying and crying.

“So finally I don’t know how, that part I don’t remember, my uncle, my grandmother, my aunt, we went home. The doors closed, the windows closed. But all of a sudden they knocked the door. My grandmother says don’t touch the door.

“The Turk he says to me, pulls my hair, where’s your father? I said I don’t know, he didn’t come home yet. And he says don’t you lie to me. And he holds my hair and we look in every room. So there was two Turks. One started walking and the other says efendi, efendi, see this stepladder maybe they’re hiding downstairs.

“And they take me down and say where’s your father? I say I don’t know, he didn’t come home yet. They slapped me a couple times, pulled my hair, I had long hair. My mother says leave her, she’s only a kid, why are you hitting her? So we went down those steps and my father over there says to me shhhh. And they heard him, and they beat him up and brought him upstairs. And my mother was feeding the baby, we had a little baby, and they said why are you hiding your husband? And they beat him and he said leave my family alone. And I was there crying. And my mother sitting feeding the baby. And the baby cried. So they took the baby, my baby brother who was maybe one month two months old, they took the baby so my father got mad. So they slapped my father very bad. They took my father, they left, and I was crying, I want my father, I want my father. The Turk said you want your father? You’re gonna have it later on, not now.

“So then me, my mother, my grandmother, and my baby brother we all sitting crying and my father says don’t cry, honey, I will be back, and when I come back I’ll bring you figs. They took my father they went. I don’t know how long. I don’t know, I’m a kid.

“Those two, they came back. Listen this. They came back. And we opened the door and he said you want your father? And I said yes, where is he! And they opened a little bag and they opened the bag and they pulled out my father’s jacket, the sleeve. There’s your father. And also the pants. There’s your father.

“And my mother said don’t you feel shamed a little bit? You’re showing this little kid what you did to the father? He said you talk too much, you gonna get it, too.

“They brought the jacket and the pants and it was all blood.” With those words Onorik started crying. The attendants tried to comfort her.

After a moment she said, “So anyway. That’s all right. So this is it. They killed my father. So my mother starts crying, my grandmother, and I was crying, too.”

And then she paused, a bit confused, and a staff member prompted her from across the room: “They killed your father, they killed your mother, and they killed your little brother . . . ”

Onorik repeated the part about the bag of clothes. And then she continued, “I kept saying my father my father! And my mother said she’s a little girl, don’t hit her anymore she doesn’t know what’s happening and they said you have a big mouth you gonna get it, too.” And then Onorik gestured a shooting motion, and in a falsetto burst she said, “pop pop pop pop pop pop they killed my mother right in front of me.” And her grandmother and baby brother. Then they hit her with the butt of the rifle. “I got witness for you,” Onorik said, and pointed her jerking finger at a scar between her eyes.

“See, this mark, it didn’t go away, and I’m fifty-one years old, very soon I’m gonna be fifty-two . . . ”

Someone asked her how she escaped, and things started to get really mixed up.

“I think this is enough,” Aggie said.

But Onorik kept going. “Now I’m going to tell you in full!” She began a confusing chapter about disguising her uncle in a dress and head scarf, about her father making donations to German organizations, American flags, a ship, then somehow she ended up in Greece at an American orphanage.

“God bless American Navy I tell you, they saved my life, that’s why I’m alive today, fifty-one years old.”

As she circled around her story, the room filled with an awareness that nobody was in control. Several staff members tried to convince her that she had said enough. Onorik felt the pressure of her mandate to perform. That was obvious. The kindness of the staff members was evident, too. But to set loose such a narration and then try to corral it — well, who could say what to do? Was it kinder to stop her or let her talk as long as she needed?

As Onorik was escorted out, gripping her walker, kneading the carpet with it, she turned back slightly. “American Navy saved my life today. And I’m not lying, I got witness, this” — she pointed to her forehead again — “I’m not lying what they did to me!”

Perouz Kalousdian was born in 1909 in Palu. She used to be a fashion designer and had on a flowing red blouse and skirt of her own creation. A murmur of compliments — “Beautiful,” “What a lovely outfit” — came from the guests. Perouz nodded, then began without prompting.

“I was six years old when the war happened in my country. So they took all the men, they tied up two together, and they were gone, to Yeprat Ged” — the Euphrates. “It’s a river in Armenia.” Her voice had all the weight of New York, the husky vernacular to which immigrants donate on arrival, a bit of wherever they came from layered on top of whatever they find in Rego Park or Sheepshead Bay.

“So my mother, myself, from a big family there were about four people left. The Turks they took the men, tied two together, and they were gone. I saw with my own eyes, I was what, four or five?”

Aggie chimed in, “Six.”

“They took everything away from us. And this is the truth.”

Perouz had a forceful tone. But as she continued, there were only unresolved threads. A mother disappearing and reappearing, an orphanage in Kharpert, and another — or was she describing the same one? — in Aleppo, Syria. Perouz also seemed to understand that some burden of proof was now teetering on what remained of her memory. What could she do? She might not have remembered even a few years after the fact, at age ten or twelve, much less ninety years further on.

Somebody asked Perouz, “What do you want people to learn from your story?”

“What can they learn? They are here, Turks are there. We are saved, that’s it, they already forgot it. But I never forget it.”

Aggie reminded her that she told a committee in Washington that she wants the genocide to be recognized officially.

“Oh yeah, they took me there, that’s right, I forgot, sorry.”

“So you want us to know there was a genocide?” asked Linda.

“Yes. We went to White House.”

Hingeni Evrensel, the oldest in the group, was one hundred. She was born in March 1908 in Ordu, a city near the Black Sea coast famous for its hazelnuts. Her father had a big hazelnut store.

The case manager shouted, slowly, creating the effect of a record playing on the wrong speed. “Hingeni, hokis” — my dear — “this group of people have gathered here today for you to explain how the Turks massacred your family.”

“I don’t know a single thing, I was a baby.” (Yes hich pan muh chem kider, bebek eyi.)

She said a few more things, but it was impossible to understand. Age had burned the pathways connecting her brain and her voice such that what emerged had the rough texture of language but not the necessary dimensions. Her appearance, too, stood apart from the others, as if she had seen a harder life all along. Clumped locks of hair hung from her head in patches. Her face came from another epoch, as though a set of antediluvian Armenian chromosomes had not been passed on to later generations.

Sitting next to Hingeni was her daughter, Nadya, also a resident at the home. The director told us that because Hingeni was getting upset thinking about the past, her daughter would tell the story.

Nadya looked healthy. But when she began to speak, one could see that her mind had fallen far behind her body. Suddenly she was talking with gusto about the years she had spent in nursing school.

The director gently reoriented her to the matter at hand, and then, as though somebody had pressed a button and changed the channel, Nadya said, “Kurd people took the whole house.”

“She doesn’t know,” muttered her mother.

Nadya peered at the case manager through thick glasses. “You tell it.”

“If I knew it, I would tell it,” the case manager said.

Now Hingeni, the mother, lifted her head again. “Badmem?” — Shall I tell it?

“What did they do?” somebody asked her.

“What did they do?” Hingeni repeated. Then she said something that ended with sürgün, Turkish for “exile.”

Suddenly Nadya blurted out, in English, “You know Atatürk? They killed Atatürk. They gave him medication and he thought that it was good medication but —”

The case manager stopped her and turned our attention toward a woman who had been sitting primly, with excellent posture, throughout the discussion. Her blue eyes, neatly styled beehive of white hair, and red lipstick made her look like a genteel Southern lady.

She went by Charlotte, an Americanization of the Armenian name Arshalouys, which means “dawn.” Charlotte was born in 1912 in a town near Cappadocia.

“Charlotte, you’re going to tell them about how your family was killed and how you survived. That’s the story you’re going to tell them, okay?”

I knew that the point was to keep the women from straying to random topics, but I wished, if only to quiet the ready cynic inside me, that this stage direction would cease.

“I hate to go through all that,” Charlotte said. “It’s sad for me because my mother’s children never lived. And I lived. We suffered hunger, thirst, everything, walking for miles. My mother kept pressuring me. Aghchigus, kich men al, kich men al.” My girl, a little bit more, a little bit more. “That kich men al never ended.”

As she spoke, her dentures slipped and she paused to wiggle them into place.

“There was somewhere where we stayed overnight.”

“Where?” the case manager asked.

“I don’t know. Thank God I had my mother. If I didn’t have my mother, how would I have courage? My dear daughter, she said, bear a little more, a little more, there’s going to come an end of this. You’re going to have comfort. You’re going to have a home. You’re going to be happy. So who else did I have to listen to? I never had a father, I lost him. I lived because I had a shirt they sent to Jerusalem to be blessed. I lived through wars and everything. And came to America at the age of ten with my mom.”

“Do you ever think about seeing the place you came from in Turkey?” I asked.

“I do, but I feel I’m in the right place. They have to live their life. I lived mine as well as I could. And I learned from every step. And I thank America for it. And my wonderful mother. She was a nurse in the Kilikia orphanage, my mother.”

“Was your mother being a nurse a reason you were saved?”

“Yes. My mother was a nurse, and my aunt was a teacher. So that’s the way we got to safety. And it wasn’t easy. We were walking and walking and I was so thirsty. Mom, I can’t walk anymore.”

“Where were you walking?” I asked.

Andarneruh, anabadneruh.” The forests, the deserts.

Suddenly Hingeni, the oldest woman, blurted out, “Sood eh.” It’s a lie. She repeated this twice. Then “Cheghav” — which can mean either “That didn’t happen” or “It didn’t work.”

Nobody translated or asked Hingeni what she meant.

“That kich men al never ended,” Charlotte said again.

The way Charlotte kept repeating this depressed me, not only because the little girl had to keep walking but because her story had the fixed contours of one she had told a thousand times. It sounded like a story that over the years — and how could it not? — had been shaped by the other stories she had heard and read, and by the context in which such stories are told: a witness stand, a podium in the congressional hall, at the end of a journalist’s microphone. It had condensed itself into plaintive one-liners. The rest was inaccessible.

Charlotte found another detail. “They took us to a churchyard and gave us a little lunch. Where was the church?” she said, preempting our question. “I have no idea, I just know there was a church. And we came to America when I was ten —”

“Yes, you told us that already,” said the case manager.

The last woman we met was a ninety-four-year-old whose mother, an expert in the niceties of table settings, had been hired to train the people responsible for setting the dining tables of none other than Atatürk himself.

At the mention of Atatürk, Hingeni began chanting from across the room, “Atatürk Turk cher” — Atatürk wasn’t a Turk. What was she trying to express? What combination of brain chemistry and intention, what echo of irretrievable life was triggering her contrarian cries? Soon all the old ladies were making comments in different languages, now Armenian, now English, now Turkish, each in her own world of time and place and self, their memories filling the room like scene-shifting, cast-swapping, overlapping dreams.

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