THRIVE is an AIWA-SF April project dedicated to highlighting Armenians worldwide. April 24th is a global day of remembrance for the 1.5 million+ Armenians who were massacred during the Armenian Genocide. Globally, Armenians are reliant survivors. Our heritage honors the past while celebrating the present and future.
By: Ani Sedrakian Yeni-Komshian, RN, MSN
On this April 24th, I’d like to draw attention to female genocide survivors who were our role models and how they impacted the lives of subsequent generations.
I am what I am because of those that came before me, who took the time to show me the way.
The memory of my maternal great grandmother Verjin, whom I had the honor to know,
remains so vivid in my mind. “Verjin Nene” as we knew her, was an extremely wise woman. When she spoke, everyone listened. There was something saintly about her; in fact, as a child, sometimes I would think there was a halo shining over her head. An extremely humble woman she was. A devout Christian, every word that came out of her mouth was “God willing”, “thank God” and she prayed a lot.
That’s where Medzmom Lucy, her daughter, got it from, as Medzmom spoke in a similar manner. She made a sign of the cross on the cheorag dough, she would bless the last water she would pour over our heads at the end of a bath. They did not always have access to church and priests during the genocide, so did they—by doing these things–take on the role at home? Keeping to their faith?
Verjin’s mannerisms. So delicate, so noorp. Born and raised in Konya, in a region where they were more Turkish speaking at that time, she taught herself Armenian. She married Haroutioun Kazandjian, and gave birth to 3 children, 2 boys and 1 girl, later adopting an Armenian orphan boy. Wife of a prominent man, she remained so humble throughout her life. Her husband, also known as Artin Chavoush, was the minister of protocol for the Governor of Smyrna. His work required travel for extended periods of time. That meant the whole family had to travel. As part of his duties he would set up the palace residence for the Governor’s stay in different locations and as a result, my grandmother was born in a palace in Izmir. Artin was highly respected by the Armenians, Greeks and Turks alike. From what my grandmother shared, at some point he left his post as the Armenian Genocide began, as he didn’t like what he heard, and wanted to distance himself from government. He went back into the family business of manufacturing and importing agricultural equipment from Europe. Verjin in addition to raising a family, helped those in need. Her kind deeds were many. When she would hear of an upcoming marriage, she would prepare a dowry for the young bride-to-be and secretly leave the gifts at the door, seeing to the needs of her community. As a young mother, she kept a close eye especially on her sons as they went out, even to the point of following them and hiding behind a tree to make sure they were safe. She always said, “know where your children are, what they are doing and with who they are spending time with.”
Her husband’s brother Setrak was one of the main people in charge of at the Train Station in Konya, which was a hub for the region, so a lot of trains went through Konya. Because of his position he was able to help hide and save many Armenians. Then things worsened for the people of Konya. The Turks rounded up the men and boys. Artin Chavoush was shackled and chained and taken away in front of his wife and children. Verjin and the children ended up herded on a train like sheep, vochkhari bes letsoutsin mezi, as my grandmother would describe. They were then put on boats and after some time ended up as refugees in Corfu. For 2 years Verjin somehow took care of her children, who knows where they slept, how they were fed. She somehow kept the family together and provided for them, thinking her husband had been killed. While staying at an overcrowded disease-ridden refugee camp in an ancient dilapidated castle in Corfu filled with Armenian and Greek refugees, she developed typhus. After she recovered, one day, she was wandering in the streets to sell jewelry for food for her children. Someone in the crowd called out her name, Verjin, Verjin! She turned around and saw that it was her husband. He had somehow been released by someone that knew him and respected him, and since then he had been searching high and low for his family. And even though he had not seen his wife for 2 years and they had both changed, he recognized her in the crowd and they were reunited. Circumstances took them from Konya to Greece, to Lebanon, to Palestine (where Artin Chavoush is buried). Later, the family emigrated to the US as a final landing. Where they established themselves and became very active in the church communities.
My mom also resembles her grandmother in many ways: wise, kind, strong in her faith and very much lovingly passing on the Armenian language and identity to her children and grandchildren. While in Beirut and Jaffa, my mom describes that at weddings she remembers her grandmother and all the elders would sing Armenian songs, as many of the songs have stories and messages, as if the songs where a way, a message, to the young family to carry on Armenian traditions.
What I take from my great grandmother and her example is the importance of the Armenian language, the importance of family, the role a mother plays, during hardship how that role is ever so much more important, of helping others without drawing attention to self, of remaining humble, the importance of community work, and the importance of prayer. These women, women like Verjin Nene–as delicate as they may have appeared–were strong, as they had to protect and provide for the family and carry the torch under such unimaginable circumstances.
Mom reminds me, “our ancestors could have become Islamized Turks and continued to live comfortably in their own homes on their lands, but they refused to give up their right to live as Christian Armenians. And we should not let their death and suffering be in vein.” She stresses and hopes “the younger generations must remember this and for this reason make every effort to live as Christian Armenians.”
Here in the diaspora, family, and community as the extension of the family, are even more important. The churches and organizations serve an important purpose of bringing us together and helping us preserve our identity. On that note, I urge everyone to become involved in their community. Let’s fill our churches, youth groups, scouting groups, choirs, dance groups, Armenian schools – till they are bursting at the seams. Let’s volunteer and bring our talents and skills to the community. How about the younger generation roll up their sleeves and all get to work! So that some of us that have been doing this for many years can retire, knowing that the younger generation will keep things going.
Living in the diaspora, I too had the added responsibility to raise my children with a strong Armenian identity. It required a bit of effort. My children attended public school, and they had a jam packed schedule with afterschool activities (organizations, theater, athletics, volunteering). They did not miss out on anything, and in addition to speaking Armenian at home, we enrolled them in everything available in our area – Friday night Armenian School, Sunday School, Homenetmen Scouts and athletics, ACYO, Church youth choir, Armenian Dance group, church and scout summer camps and all three served in church every Sunday morning. They were very busy, but have a strong sense of who they are. All three are accomplished individuals yet make time for community. After college, they ventured off to serve in Armenia participating in Birthright program and attended several camps in Armenia. Including serving as counselors in Javakhk. I have every confidence that they too will continue to hold on to being Armenian and pass it on to the next generation.
One final note. Many are focused on exceling in education and career, and of course that’s all very important and great, but not at the expense of the family and the community. Never at the expense of losing one’s identity. We have challenges ahead on preserving our rich language, history, culture and religion here in the diaspora. Let’s find ways to make this just as much a priority.
Children need to know who they are and where they come from in order to develop a strong identity.
About the Author: Ani Sedrakian Yeni-Komshian, RN, MSN a retired pediatric nurse, nurse educator. In addition to working at several hospitals, she has taught nursing at St. Luke’s College, SFSU, Samuel Merritt College of Nursing, Eastern Kentucky University. Ani has also been volunteering in various capacities in the Armenian Community for over 45 years.
Photo of Verjin (left), Lucy (right) and Sonia (child) – three generations. Church of St. James, Armenian Quarter, Jerusalem 1937
Photo of Haroutioun Kazandjian, Konya, pre-1915