A Family Defined by More than Survival

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By Stephen Kurkjian

Though it was more than two decades ago, I can still remember the moment when I connected with my Armenian identity, and the life-changing tug it had on me. It was mid-September 1992 and on a trip with my father to find his ancestral home in eastern Turkey we were walking through another neighborhood’s backyard thick with grapevines with a river flowing in the distance.

“That was an Armenian’s home,” our guide, Armen Aroyan, said to me, motioning to a large wooden residence ahead of us. “Armenians used to live there.” How could he know, I asked, if no Armenians had lived in the neighborhood since 1915.

Look at the windows, he said: see how wide they are. The Turks would never have allowed windows that big. They did not want people looking inside to see their belongings or even worse their women. But such things never concerned the Armenians — they wanted their windows as wide as could be, so they could get as much light as possible into their homes and see what was going on in the world outside.

Suddenly, it struck me how much that epitomized the Armenians I had known growing up in Boston — open, engaging, full of life. This belief that we can make it in the outside world — that while I may not have known the history of the Armenian people that no matter where we came from, we all seemed to be raised in the same household. We were driven to bring success and honor to our name and our family, and that a strict adherence to education, hard work and Christian values were the resources we were given to achieve it.

My mother may not have said it in so many words but her biography was a clear example of the Armenian spirit: a teenager during the Depression, she always said that the happiest she ever felt during those years was when she, the only member of her household in Dorchester to be working, would bring home her paycheck as a check-out girl at Kresge’s five and ten cents store in Codman Square to her mother. Of course, it wasn’t enough to feed a growing family of five but no one ever went hungry as four of her uncles, all refugees from their village of Khapert, had opened their neighborhood’s first supermarket, Kaspar Brothers, and would frequently drop off bags of groceries for their sister — my grandmother — Elizabeth Kasparian Gureghian and our immediate family.

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They were a living example of what became my mother’s coda for me and my two sisters: a family is like a hand — it doesn’t work well, unless all fingers are well and functioning together. If someone is ailing then you have to make them well if you hope to survive.

And written large, that looked to have been the message that defined all Armenians. This sense of brotherhood, of taking care of your neighbor seemed to be a common theme for us. Early on in my career as a reporter for the Globe, I would often be asked by callers in Boston — a most tribal city! — what nationality was Kurkjian, and when I told them I was Armenian, invariably I would get a response like this.

“Of course, Armenian. The landlord of our tenement was Armenian, and I remember my parents saying that more than a few times when times were rough, he let us go a month without paying our rent.”

Or: “My father’s surgeon was Armenian, and despite advanced cancer, he kept him alive for my daughter’s wedding.
Or even: “Our local grocer was Armenian, and his produce was the freshest and he taught my mother who was born in Ireland how to cook lamb shish kebab and that remained her favorite recipe.”

Despite these personal testaments, I never had the need or opportunity to learn our history, what our lives had been like in the faraway provinces of eastern Turkey. My father, perhaps too young to remember or too steeped in grief, had never seen the need to teach me about my own connection to the Genocide. My paternal grandfather, after whom I was named, had been found to have buried his handgun near his homestead in the small village of Keghi, and that was sufficient reason to place him on a death march with numerous other adult Armenian males from the village. The last anyone ever heard of him was his name had been scrawled with several other Armenians from his village who were martyred on that death march on a wall in the nearby town of Palu.

We didn’t find that wall but we did locate my father’s homestead that he had left as a three-year thanks to Armen Aroyan whose pilgrimage back to Historic Armenia we joined in 1992. It was nearly 80 years since my father had left the village, placed on his mother’s back and with his older brother and sister began the 300-mile trek to safety. His siblings succumbed to cholera before they could reach the border. On his return, my father washed his face in the cold waters of the brook that ran by the now-empty field where once his home had stood. And then, so the spirit of his late father could hear and understand that the Kurkjian family had not all perished, my father called out the names of all of us in the family who had came after him, all descendants of those who had survived the Armenian Genocide.

In the ensuing decades since that visit, stunned by the emotion that it has wrought from me, I have immersed myself in our history. Through membership in the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, I have learned much of our history, especially the Genocide, and gained a deeper appreciation of our culture and our identity as a people. That appreciation spurred my interest when an Armenian woman from Belmont presented me with a photograph that showed her grandfather and more than 50 other Armenians standing in front of a prison wall in Gesaria, shortly before they were all martyred in the Genocide. How had the Genocide come to this city in western Turkey, and how had the men shown in the photograph gotten wrapped up in it?

At the outset it seemed a perfect story to match my skills as an investigative reporter. I sought out Genocide scholar Vahakn Dadrian for a report on the events that had triggered the murderous rampage in Gesaria province and the city itself where 30,000 Armenians were registered as living in 1914. Then I had translated the Armenian and Turkish documents that proved beyond a doubt how the order for the horrific brutality had been issued by the Ottoman rulers and carried out — with false charges, kangaroo courts, hangings and death marches — by Salih Zeki, the provincial governor who was so murderously successful in Gesaria that a year later he was promoted to carry out the final campaign against the Armenians in the deserts of Der Zor.

But in the countless hours I spent on the project, I located and interviewed dozens of descendants of those in the photograph and martyred in Gesaria. The grandchildren of Vahan Kurkjian, the principal of a school whose widow and three sons survived and came to America all to live successful lives, including one son who became mayor of a city in New Jersey; or the son of Karnig Jurjurian, who had been sent to Boston before the Genocide began, landed a job as a motorman with the old Boston Elevated Authority and was able to convince the lawyer for its employees’ union, Louis Brandeis (later to become a pillar of American jurisprudence as a US Supreme Court justice), to assist in gaining citizenship for Jurjurian’s widow; or the granddaughter of Vartares Armenian, who settled in Massachusetts and brought to my attention the photograph as well as some of her grandfather’s papers including a letter he had written to his wife shortly before his death, saying though he feared for his life she should be strong and ”kiss my children’s eyes” in his memory.

Because of stories like those, I realized that my story needed to be something more than an indictment against the Ottoman rules and a call for recognition of and justice for the Genocide. It also needed to convey a testament to the will and sheer life force of the Armenian people. Like my parents’ miraculous lives taught me, we will not just survive, we will thrive.

Stephen Kurkjian is a Boston native who spent 40 years as an investigative reporter and editor with The Boston Globe, and during his career shared in three Pulitzer Prizes as well as 25 other regional and national awards. This year his book on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art theft, MASTER THIEVES: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist was published.

Stephen Kurkjian
Stephen Kurkjian