Raymond H. Kévorkian

For the past few decades, memoirs have occupied the focal point of our attention. Numerous families have sought to discover their origins, the history of their ancestors and, in the process, have come up with impressive and precise genealogies.

In Armenian circles, and especially in the heart of the Diaspora, this phenomenon has become extremely powerful. However, not all families are fortunate to have a well-read ancestor who undertook the task of transcribing his own personal experiences and explained the reasons that led to the loss of his original fatherland. Such memoirs, often jotted down in student copy books and written several decades after the actual events had taken place, are primarily addressed to future generations. However, because they are written in Armenian and still in manuscript form, they are often inaccessible to these descendants. It is necessary, therefore, to have a multilingual person who can assume this task on behalf of the rest of the family members. It is precisely this mission that Arda Ekmekji, grand-daughter of Hagop Arsenian, undertook the task of translating and annotating the memoirs of her grandfather, shortly after discovering their existence.

This labor of re-appropriating family memory is undoubtedly a capital venture and a stabilizing factor for the new generations who are in the process of seeking their origins and determining their identities. They definitely owe it to their ancestor, but also to Arda Ekmekji, the “transmitter of this memory”. Each work of this genre is endowed with a singularity that is due mainly to the narrator’s qualities of observation as well as to his level of grasping the significance of the events. The memoirs of Hagop Arsenian thus reflect not only a well-educated man but also a resourceful one, who, even in the most perilous situations, succeeds in keeping his head and finds the means of overcoming them. Undoubtedly, this pragmatism is mainly due to his experiences as a young man, growing up, supporting a prematurely widowed mother and meeting family needs, as well as to his student years in the Ottoman capital, at the same time juggling a professional career in pharmacy and a paid job in the paranoiac Abdul Hamid era noted for its constant harassment of the younger generations by his henchmen. (The author was detained for 35 days and deprived months of university attendance due to false and baseless accusations). This work is also distinguished by the fact that these memoirs do not cover only the events related to the 1915 genocide but equally to the period between the two world wars in Gaza, Palestine, under the British Mandate, thus providing a major testimony on the condition of the integration of the Armenian refugees in Palestine and the tension eminent between Jews and Arabs.

The Memoirs start with the author’s childhood in Ovajik (Izmit region), in a humble family in which the mother occupies the central place. Hagop happily attends the village’s Armenian school where, for a short time afterwards, he serves as a teacher. In August 1907, he receives his diploma in Pharmacy and until March 1914, runs a pharmacy in the neighboring city of Adabazar, where he also founds a family. When he settles in Izmit in the spring of 1914, life seems at its best for Hagop. Yet the following year all his achievements are ruined by the local authorities in the name of the war effort.

On July 26, 1915, he is deported with his wife, his mother and his two sons, but manages to pay his way by train to the gates of Cilicia. The rest of this “journey” is a series of daily trials which the Arsenian family braves day after day. Their convoy passes through stations such as Eregli, Bozanti (September-October), Adana-Osmaniye (early November), the camps of Katma-Akhterim, then Bab (early December) and finally Meskene, on the right bank of the Euphrates, thus evoking all these death camps where the Arsenians should have disappeared. It is not clear how this family survives six months in the Meskene Camp until June 1916, but it is certain that they were a hair’s breadth from the final episode of the Young Turks’ plan, namely the closure of all camps and the concentration of all the deported refugees in Deir Zor, before their final liquidation in the summer and fall of 1916. It is almost miraculous that Hagop Arsenian succeeds in July 25, 1916, in being posted as military pharmacist in Jerusalem where the units of the Ottoman IVth army were stationed. He arrives at this position precisely at the numerous Armenians working in the medical corps under assumed Turkish names, thus betraying the great lack of physicians and pharmacists among the Turkish troops. It is thanks to this status that Hagop succeeds in saving his family (including his in-laws) and manages to have them all repatriated to Jerusalem. Here we have a good example of an exceptional situation of a whole family being spared from the common lot, thanks to army needs and probably to the goodwill of one superior. From then onwards, the fate of the Arsenian family is closely linked to the St. James Convent of Jerusalem which shelters them as of August 1916 and provides them with a new lease on life. When the British directly threaten Jerusalem, the call to duty on November 6, 1917, separates Hagop once more from his family which remains in Jerusalem while he is sent to Damascus with his unit. By the end of September 1918, he becomes, together with numerous Ottoman officers and soldiers, a prisoner-of-war of the British, and stays for some time in the camps of Kantara, close to the Suez Canal.

However, he already knows that he has escaped the fate of his fellow citizens. He rejoins his family in January 1919, after numerous months of internment. Henceforth starts the Arsenian family’s insertion into the Palestine scene, which constitutes for us one of the rare, first-rate testimonies of the tensions between the Jews and the Palestinians between the two World Wars. At the Gaza hospital, where he works for more than 20 years, Hagop enjoys an exceptional role of observer only to become once more a refugee in 1948 as a result of the Arab-Israeli war.

Raymond H. Kévorkian
Paris, December 2010

Raymond H. Kévorkian, historian, teaches at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII-Saint-Denis). Since 1987, he has served as Curator of the Armenian AGBU’s Nubarian Library in Paris. Kévorkian is the author of numerous books on the modern and contemporary history of Armenia and Armenians, and especially of his recent encyclopedic work entitled The Armenian Genocide, A Complete History. (London, New York: I.B.Tauris, 2011).

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