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One Survivor's Story Indistinguishable to Ten's of Thousands

 

A short story of astounding excerpts from one Armenian genocide survivor's history:

 

In the late 1800’s, a family by the name of Stepan and Husnig Kamburian lived in Ismid, Turkey, about 60 miles from Istanbul.  Stepan was one of the five brothers and one sister who owned and operated a walnut orchard adjacent to their homes.  Husnig gave birth to four children:  Sirpui, Dirouhi, Hagop and Kennovape Jeneve (whom this story is about). 

Sirpuhi, the eldest, was the serious member of the family and enjoyed mothering her youngest sister, Kennovape. 

Dirouhi constantly harassed, teased and dominated Kennovape.  In fact, one day Dirouhi had wrapped a snake around Kennovape’s neck which caused havoc.  Dirouhi was a tomboy while Kennovape was a sweet and demure child.  Dirouhi grew into a very beautiful woman and remained the same throughout her 84 years of life.  She was tall, had beautiful auburn curly hair, blue eyes, and a gorgeous complexion.  She was social-minded and was also self-centered but worked very hard for everything she had.

Hagop was a handsome young man who resembled his sister, Dirouhi.  He was always considerate, respectful and kind.

Kennovape, born July 15, 1900, was the youngest child and her father’s little darling.  She reached the eighth grade by the time she was 14.  At that time, Turkish was not taught in the Armenian schools.  In fact, there weren’t any Turkish schools, at least not in the Armenian villages and communities.  

The Turks of those times were illiterate, fairly inactive, enjoyed their rakhi (a strong flavored liquor) and women.  They lacked fine culture and were intimidated by the Armenian people who respected education, culture and hard work.  The Turks feared the Armenian population would dominate the territory in spite of the fact that there were only 3,000,000 in the entire country.  They ultimately decided to exterminate the Armenians.

 The outbreak of World War I brought great advantage to the Turks as the decision was made to attack Armenian villages in eastern Armenia.  Orders were issued during the week of October 29, 1914 and Dr. Shakir, a Turkish intellectual, was placed in charge of a special task force to organize the Armenian massacre.  The Turks regarded the Armenian presence on their soil as a violation of their sovereignty and an obstacle to their political ambitions.  Militarily, the Armenian provinces were considered indispensable to Turkey’s defense structure.  The background of Turkish oppression abetted by years of Turkish terror made the Armenians favor the Russians against the Turks.  For the members of the ruling party, the only reasonable solution to the problem was the expulsion and the wholesale extermination of the Armenian people.

 A detailed list of the number of Armenians living in Turkey was issued and the program to exterminate the Armenian population was ready to be implemented.  Deportation schedules were established and extermination camps were set up.

 The Turkish government dismissed all Armenian government employees and isolated the Armenian combat officers, taking their arms away from them and forcing them to work as pack animals to carry the military equipment for the Turkish army.  The Turks began a massive search of arms in the Armenian provinces.  Guns were seized and their owners were put in jail.  The Armenians in the villages were beaten and those in jail were tortured. This was only the beginning.

The Armenians complied with the Turkish soldiers as they had been terrorized by the Turks for so long, they dared not resist or fight back.  Past experience had been that the murder of one Turk would lead to mass annihilation of an entire Armenian community.  The Armenians found themselves powerless.

Turkish soldiers came to Stepan and Husnig’s home.  They were told they were “going somewhere and would return in a few weeks”.  The family packed a few items of clothing and food.  Little did they know what was to come on their journey ahead.  Thus started the “death march”.  Food was eaten sparingly, and when the food supply was depleted, carefully hidden money and jewelry were used to obtain food from the Arabs.  Ultimately, they had to rely on fate for what was to become of their lives. 

All five Kamburian brothers and their wives, children and grandchildren, a clan of about 50, started out on this violent journey together.  Hundreds and thousands of people were dying around them every day.  Young men were told to go into the river to bathe and were shot in the process.  Babies were left beneath trees to die and some women were throwing their hungry and sick babies into the blood-stained rivers because they didn’t want their children to be tortured and killed by the Turks.  The Turks would villainously observe the young girls during the march.  They selected the most beautiful girls and would force them to do Armenian circle dancing unclothed, and after that would violate and kill them.  It was impossible to help anyone because everyone was fighting for survival.

In a short time, all members of the Kamburian family had perished except children of Stepan and Husnig.  Kennovapes’ grandmother was 55 and could not keep up as quickly as the others during the death march so she was thrown into a pit with countless others and burned alive.  The marchers could hear their pitiful screams and could do nothing to help them.  Hagop was about 16 at this time and his mother dressed him as a girl and brushed his face with dirt to make him as unattractive as possible.  He escaped from the group, and his family believed he had perished.  Sirpuhi somehow got lost and also was presumed to have perished.

Dirouhi was married and had two children.  Her husband was a handsome, courageous man who had joined the underground during the genocide and was credited for killing Turkish soldiers.  Dirouhi received a note that if she wished to see her husband, she would find him at a designated house.  She rushed to see him, only to find that he was stabbed to a door.  During this time, the family had long run out of food.  Dirouhi’s children were hungry, always crying.  So Stepan, her father, went out to seek food, met an Arab and begged for some flour.  The Arab obliged and gave him a handful, and he hurriedly returned to the family, mixed the flour with some water and made two patties.  As he was about to place the patties on the fire, a Turkish soldier noticed the dough and questioned what he was up to.  He humbly explained to the soldier that he was going to feed his sick, starving grandchildren.  The soldier grabbed the dough from his hand, threw it onto the dirt and mangled it with the heel of his boot.  He turned to Stepan and told him he could now feed his hungry grandchildren.  Both children died that night.  Stepan, who was in his early 40’s, died of starvation a short time later.

One of Kennovape’s first cousins was pregnant.  A Turk cut open her stomach extracting the unborn baby and twirled it around at the tip of his sword.  They didn’t just discriminate; they butchered every Armenian they could get their hands on, from unborn fetuses to aging cripples.  They vowed to kill every Armenian male so that there would be no more reproduction from Armenians. 

Ultimately the only ones left of the family, just weeks before the massacre was halted, were Kennovape, Dirouhi and their mother, Husnig.  During the death march, Husnig acquired cholera, a fast spreading deadly disease.  When she could no longer walk, Dirouhi and Kennovape broke away from the rest of the marchers to care for her.  They made a makeshift tent and laid her there to rest.  The Turks ordered them to leave their mother, but they ignored them and embraced her lovingly, sobbing, knowing they would never see her again.  With whips in hand, the Turks again ordered them to join the marchers and their mother begged them to obey.  As the girls joined the long line of pathetic, frightened people, they kept turning their heads toward the tent and saw their mother lifting the bottom of the tent with only her face showing, while watching her daughters fade away.  Kennovape and Dirouhi suffered great emotional pain knowing they had left their mother to die alone.  Worse yet, they wondered what the Turks would do to her to expedite her quick demise. 

The days became longer and harder.  Both Dirouhi and Kennovape, all alone now, knew there was no hope for survival.  Most of the people were sustaining themselves by eating grass, grasshoppers and anything else they could find.  After a period of a grass diet, Kennovape lost her sight, but regained it in six weeks with only partial vision in one eye. 

One day, while those still alive were resting on the grass, a dark cloud appeared over them.  The cloud became so thick that it seemed like a blanket had fallen over them.  It was an infestation of locust, so massive that within a matter of minutes, they had eaten all the available grass.  A bishop, who had somehow escaped the early elimination of all the clergy, was among them and he looked up into the sky and shouted, “God, where are you?  I don’t believe in you anymore.  Haven’t we suffered enough?  The only nourishment we had left was grass and now that has been taken away too.” 

By this time, news had spread to diplomats of foreign consulates as they became aware of the “secret genocide” of the Armenian people.  Young Armenian men successfully formed a militia and started to rebel against the Turkish government.  The annihilation came to an end, and those who survived scattered to different parts of the world. 

Kennovape and Dirouhi were happy to be alive, often wondering why their lives were spared while all their loved ones were killed.  They were finally free from the terror of the Turks but would never be free from the mental tortures and destruction caused by the unimaginable horrors they had witnessed and experienced.

Kennovape, now 16 years old, and Dirouhi, whose husband and children had perished, settled in Adana, Turkey.  Dirouhi married her second husband, Yervant Keotahlian, who operated a coffee house.  One day, a Turk came into the coffee house and heard Yervant speaking Turkish to a patron and assuming Yervant was a Turk, he stared while conversing with him.  He was playing with a string of beads in his hand, and Yervant commented on how strange looking they were.  The Turk laughed and said, “Don’t you know what this is?  These are taken from the bosoms of young Armenian girls”.  Yervant fiercely pulled him off his chair and threw him out before he might strangle him to death. 

Life went on at the coffee house uneventfully, until one day, during the fall of 1917, a man came to Yervant’s coffee house.  His appearance was shabby and unkempt.  He asked for a glass of water.  Yervant felt sorry for this young lad and offered him some food.  He asked what his name was, and he responded with “Hagop Kamburian”.  Yervant stood there shocked and jolted.  After studying Hagop’s facial features, he started to shake with excitement.  He questioned Hagop about his family and when Hagop mentioned his sisters’ names, Yervant cried out that he was married to his sister, Dirouhi.  Yervant handed Hagop a towel, told him to wash up and gave him directions to his home. 

Kennovape was outside the house which was situated on a hill.  She noticed a man from a distance coming up the hill and as she watched him, she began to tremble.  She ran to the house to tell Dirouhi that a man, who resembled Hagop, was walking up the hill.  They ran outside and as the man drew closer, they discovered that it was indeed their lost brother.  They all cried out and as the girls were about to embrace him, he begged them not to get near.  He had been in hiding for so long and was ashamed of his physical appearance.  The girls did not care and welcomed him with open arms.  Hagop lived with his family thereafter. 

A second miracle took place when Kennovape was in a commuter train which made a routine stop at one of its stations.  Kennovape was looking out of her window into a train that had also stopped, heading in the opposite direction.  She started to stare at a young woman on the train and recognized her sister, Sirpuhi.  She started to scream her name, pounding on the window desperately trying to get her attention.  Sirpuhi finally saw her and they rushed off their trains tearfully greeting each other.  Sirpuhi was residing in Istanbul, and they spent hours talking about their many experiences.  Sirpuhi told Kennovape that during the massacre, her husband and two children perished and that she was alone and sick a good part of the time.   It was amazing that all four Kamburian siblings still had survived. 

In the fall of 1919, a man came to Yervant’s coffee house.  His name was Dede Kamakian.  He had returned to Turkey from America hoping to find a suitable wife to take to America.  He did marry and during a long exchange of conversation, he asked Yervant if he knew of a nice girl he could take back to America to marry his brother, Ghevont.  There were a lot of Armenian men in America because most of them had come earlier than 1915 and they were desirous of marrying an Armenian girl because otherwise, there would be a language barrier.  Yervant told Dede about her sister-in-law, Kennovape, and that he’d like to see her settle in a place like America, but this man Ghevont would have to be a good man and worthy of her. 

After Dede left, Yervant did some investigating and found someone who knew Ghevont from Tomarza, the village where he was born.  He learned that he came from one of the poorest families in their village but that the family was decent and reputable.  He said Ghevont was responsible and a man of good character.  His family consisted of three brothers and three sisters, his father, Haroutune and mother, Anna.  The family was not able to afford to send their children to school except for their youngest child, Karekin.  They were all very proud of him; he had dreams of eventually getting to America to earn a good living.  The family all spoke with pride about the monastery located in this small, poor village of Tomarza, and all were proud of their identity.

Kennovape had parted from her sister and brother reluctantly, but she felt it was time for her to move on with her life.  However, being a world away from them saddened her.  The next thing she knew, she was on a ship with Dede and his new bride, and even more shocking, she would soon be marrying a stranger.  All she had was a picture of Ghevont, and his appearance looked kind and gentle.  Unbelievable to us, but oh, so common in those days.  The trip to America took three months and she was seasick during the entire trip.  She arrived in America December 21, 1919 and was awed by the glittering lights and store window displays.   

Ghevont was shy and as nervous as she was.  He took her to Milwaukee and bought a beautiful wedding dress for her.  In fact, it was so lovely that five or six brides-to-be borrowed the dress for their weddings.  Ghevont Kamakian and Kennovape Kamburian were married New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1919 only knowing one another for ten days.  There was a terrible snowstorm both in Chicago and Milwaukee and the priest, who lived in Chicago, did not arrive until midnight.  They got married at Frankie Hall, located above what was Walgreen’s for many years at 10th and Milwaukee Avenue, South Milwaukee. 

These two strangers who knew each other for only ten days were to become married, not knowing what would be in store for either of them.  But in their 40 years of marriage, they remained eternally respectful and indebted to all who perished and all who lived through these horrors allowing Armenians to retain their Christian faith and know that future generations of Armenians would be assured to live a free and peaceful life.

Written by Anne Avakian

April 15, 1997