The Movsesian family gathers in 1912 for a family portrait in Sepastia, just prior to setting off for the United States.

The Ties That Bind: Heritage and Heart Drive the Philanthropic Pursuits of the Armenian Community in Bergen

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By Michele Wilson

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of features exploring the rich histories and traditions of Bergen’s diverse cultures.)

BERGEN, N.J. (201 Magazine) — The unknown story of Bergen’s Armenian people — a group that comprises one-half of one percent of the country’s population, according to 2007 US census data — begins much like that of many immigrant groups: forced from their homes by enemy oppressors, they cross an ocean to find a better life in the giant American melting pot. They set up roots in a few clusters across the US — proximity to New York and silk mills in Paterson making Bergen an obvious choice — and build a community with the church at its center.

Then their story veers. They achieve great success by emphasizing education and community, allowing them to move from Paterson to Fort Lee and Englewood Cliffs, and eventually, to communities even more affluent. As soon as they can, they start giving back; this group’s influence is now all over Bergen: in a medical center pavilion named for philanthropists Sarkis and Siran Gabrellian. In the county’s four Armenian churches and the Hovnanian School in New Milford; in the library donated by Hekemian family members to honor their father, Samuel Hekemian, a successful real estate developer.

The Armenians who populate this corner of northern New Jersey are extremely proud of their accomplishments. “Armenians go back 3,000 years or more,” says Dennis Papazian, former dean, and director of Armenian research at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, who now lives in Woodcliff Lake. “You don’t last that long as a people unless you’ve got something going for you.”

Karen Topjian, born and raised in Bergen, who founded MCM Designs, explains what that something might be: “We are close-knit, family-oriented, education-oriented, community service-oriented,” she says. “Those core values have guided us…Christian faith has also guided us.”

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Coming to America

Though Armenians have thrived in America and in Bergen, most did not come to this country by choice. Rather, in 1915 and 1916, they fled present-day Armenia to escape persecution and killings by the Ottoman Turks, according to Peter Balakian’s historical memoir, Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past.

Though the Armenian death toll from the period is murky, historians put the number anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million. The Turkish government estimates it was closer to 500,000 people.

But the actual number doesn’t matter to Gregory Amerkanian, who works for Merrill Lynch. “It was 50 percent of our population,” he says. “It was an attempt to exterminate our population.”

All but one of 15 people interviewed for this article recounted personal stories of family members who fled from or died during this persecution. Yet all these years later, the subject remains touchy. Turkey has yet to officially recognize what much of the world calls genocide, instead attributing the deaths to World War I. The border between the two countries has been closed since 1993 (though in August, they took the first steps toward establishing diplomatic ties and reopening the border).

Regardless of how the world recognizes the massacres, it’s a significant part of most Armenian families’ history — whether openly or simmering somewhere below the surface.

When Balakian was a child, for example, his family didn’t discuss the genocide, particularly around his grandmother, who survived a death march. But today, he speaks about it openly, within his family and as an author and professor. “I don’t think you can separate one of the greatest human rights catastrophes from the identity of the [Armenian] people,” he says. “We’re all connected to that event. Whether we want to emphasize this connection or not is a personal matter.”

His 25-year-old daughter Sophia Balakian also turned these lessons into a career, working for a non-profit that teaches teachers how to discuss human rights abuses, including the Holocaust, the US Civil Rights movement and the Armenian Genocide. “I grew up with it as a major narrative in my life,” she says about the genocide. “I, as a descendant of a survivor, have an ethical obligation to deal with these issues.” Many Armenians share her sentiment, particularly in light of the Turkish government’s inaction.

Acknowledgment by Turkey would go a long way toward healing old wounds, says Rose Zenian Cravotta, from Englewood Cliffs. But, she adds, Armenians don’t need recognition or an apology to honor those who died. Each April, they hold two memorial services, one at the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, the other in New York City’s Time Square. The idea, says Arthur Halvagian, a real estate developer living in Paramus, is to remember what happened, educate others and prevent its recurrence. “We were taught to understand that the genocide took place, but we weren’t taught to be vindictive or hateful about it,” he says.

“You forgive, but you don’t forget.”

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