Two Stories of Genocide Survival

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By Ruth Thomasian

With 40 years of people showing me their photographs and telling me their stories, I present to you the photographs and stories of two early Project SAVE photo donors, both Genocide Survivors.

Ardashess Hampar — his story

When first I saw this photo, I was drawn to the stately pose of a distinguished man, standing tall in front of a cut-stone wall. Looking straight into the camera’s eye, he held one arm bent behind his back while the other held a riding-crop-type stick. His revolver was holstered in front on a pistol belt at his waist. He appeared proud and in full command in his Scottish kilt with fringed knee socks and bonnet on his head. You could almost hear the bagpipes playing. Well, I thought, there’s no doubt about this bloke’s country of origin. Imagine how flabbergasted I was — a relative newcomer back in 1979 to documenting photographs — when my donor, retired businessman Ardashess Hampar of New York City, told me that it was himself. Then he told me his story of determination, disguise and intrigue.

Ardashes was born into the prominent merchant-class Hampartzoumian family in Kharpert, Historic Armenia, Ottoman Empire, in 1890. The family owned property and did business with Turks as well as Armenians. He told me of the horror that governed the rest of his life—when during the 1895 massacre his father was shot dead by a Turk who owed him a lot of money. Ardashes confided, “I have the face of his murderer in my memory for ever.” Six months later his youngest brother was born to his widowed mother. His much older eldest brother became head of the family. Life had changed forever.

Ardashess continued his schooling, graduating from the American missionary Euphrates College, c. 1911, with a BA in Liberal Arts. Then he got out of Kharpert with the help of the British consul. Disguised as a British sailor, he board a British vessel undetected. He then joined the British Army using the name “Hamp,” determined to serve his people in some significant way. The Brits trained him as an information officer —simply put, a spy— and assigned him to their Scottish Seaforth Highlanders Regiment based in Afion Karahisar, in central Turkey, to infiltrate the Turkish lines during WWI. With his command of three languages, Armenian, Turkish, and English, he was in a class of his own.

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During his forays into enemy territory, Ardashess found opportunities to help his people. In the course of the war, he rescued many Armenians from the Turks, specifically Armenian women in harems, and returned them, when possible, to their families. He found Armenian boys — street urchins fending for themselves, when there was no room in the orphanages, desperate for care but trusting no one. On the streets, they had forgotten their Armenian language but Ardashess knew that they were Armenian kids — they were the ones who were orphaned. While in their vicinity doing intelligence gathering, Ardashess developed relationships with them, introducing Armenian words into their conversations. He thus built trust so that they would go with him to safety when he returned to the British lines.

At war’s end, still in the British Army, Ardashess returned to Kharpert by automobile, prepared to evacuate his mother. She had not seen him for years and had thought he was lost to her forever. He told me how, as he drove her away, she kept touching and pinching him to see if it wasn’t all just a dream, to make sure it was really real.

But he was a man without a country. In Turkey he was a wanted man, and without the protection of his British service uniform, he would be a dead man. There was no Armenia for him, and citizenship in England or France was not offered to outsiders — even with his honorable discharge papers from the British Army. So, in 1933, he came to the United States thinking he could become a citizen immediately. On his third day in New York City, he stood before the citizenship-court judge who asked him if he could read — didn’t he know he had to wait five years? Now Ardashess was the one who needed to be rescued. With only his British military papers for ID, he feared that even in the United States, the Turks would discover his disguise. But with no other road to take, he waited out the five years, became Ardashess Hampar (another bend of his name to divert the Turks), US citizen. He married, had a daughter and was successful in the import-export business.

Showing me the portrait of himself outfitted in his Seaforth Highlanders Mackenzie tartan dress uniform was the opportunity for him to share his story for the very first time. He ended his story by saying that what he had been able to do for his Armenian people while in uniform was the most important work of his life. I was curious as to where the photograph had been taken, but he couldn’t really remember — perhaps in Afion Karahisar, he thought. But now, after so these many years, I, the social historian, suspect that it was probably taken upon his return to Kharpert, when a small group of grateful Armenians, who still lived there, presented him with a special thank-you gift: a hand-crafted cane inlaid with silver inscriptions and vines filled with flowers, that he holds in his hand in the photo.

As we finished our conversation, Ardashess ended his sad reverie, asking me not to reveal his identity lest the Turks discover his whereabouts. How sad that this proud and honorable Armenian had to hide his identity his whole life, forever in fear of, but also forever silent about, Turkish efforts to hunt him down.

 

Haighganoosh Serverian — her story

Haighganoosh Fendekian Serverian lived in Valley Stream, Long Island. Once a week back in the 1970s, she drove into Manhattan for the senior citizen luncheon, which is where I first met her. She was eager for me to come see the photographs she had. So I took the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan and walked from the station to her home to spend the day.

As we sat at the kitchen table going through her box of photos, Haighganoosh told me her family’s story. She had no photographs of them in Tokat, Historic Armenia. I certainly understood the improbability of escaping the Genocide with family photographs in hand, but she did have many photos of family and friends throughout the diaspora. My conversation with Haighganoosh gave me insight into how we Armenians could start putting the pieces of our history and heritage back together again by listening to each other’s stories.

Her mother died at age 29 after three years of sickness related to seeing her own parents and siblings’ families dragged away on the death march, while she was spared because her husband’s skills were needed by the Turks. After her death, Haighganoosh’s father was able to plan their escape from Tokat. Haighganoosh, at 14, took on the mother role for her sisters and brothers, a responsibility she cherished. The family headed west, aiming for America. From Marseille, they went on to Paris, but by then it was 1923, and the US quota for Armenians had changed. Only one in their family could go. Haighganoosh’s father assigned her to take the one boat ticket he had, and marry the man he had arranged to meet her at the dock in Providence, Rhode Island.

She told me of her fears. She had never been anywhere alone. She didn’t know how to speak for herself because daughters didn’t. “I very shy,” she said, “and listen too much.” Furthermore, she had absolutely no experience beyond the confines of home life and now had no mother to help and advise her. She did not want to leave her sisters and brothers.

But she dared not disobey her father. He assured her that the rest of the family would soon follow. As she looked in her box for more photos, she told me she was married the day she arrived in America and pulled out her wedding photo. “Oh,” I said, reacting immediately, “You mean you brought your wedding dress with you in your suitcase?” “Oh, no, no, no” she said. “That not how it happen.” The rest of her story is about a man, her husband, who had an innate sense about how two strangers would develop a life-long relationship.

So, a forlorn Haighganoosh sailed for America on a huge ship full of other young women going to meet and marry the men whose photographs they held close to their hearts. They asked where her photo was. She hadn’t wanted one. They asked her, “How will you recognize him?” She didn’t have an answer and told me, “I very quiet, I don’t say nothing. They tell me, ‘You very different, but it will turn out all right.’”

When Haighganoosh Fendekian stepped off the ship, two men await her: her proposed husband and a priest. The priest took charge and asked her if she agreed to marry this man, Hovaguin ‘Harry’ Serverian, explaining that she did have a choice — either yes or no. She admitted to me that, of course, she understood what would happen if she said “yes,” but if she said “no,” what would that mean? Back on the boat?

But that wasn’t the real problem, she confided. She had no voice. She was scared, confused, lonely and speechless. She couldn’t even look these men in the face. So she remained silent with her head down. They kept asking, and she kept her silence. Finally, the priest had an idea. He explained, “We understand your situation. How about this? When I ask you the question again, your silence will mean ‘yes;’ if you speak, that will mean ‘no.’”

That worked, and Haighganoosh and Hovaguin were united in marriage.

Hovaguin, a house painter, and later owner of a variety store, lived in Bridgeport, Conn., a two-hour train ride south from Providence. Haighganoosh continued her story by telling me of the proposal her new husband made to her on the train ride to her new home with her husband’s family. Acknowledging they did not know each other, Hovaguin exposed his pure and decent heart. He said, “We will not be husband and wife until we get to know each other. In a week we can have a real church wedding.” She said, “He was kind and more understanding than I could have imagined, and I began to speak.”

Her wedding dress and the photograph were his special gifts to her. And thus began their 40 years together creating a family with three children. Sadly, I never met Hovaguin. He had died 15 years before I visited Haighganoosh.

 

(Ruth Thomasian is the founder (in 1975) and CEO of Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, Inc., Watertown. She holds a BA in history from Albion College, and an MS in communications management from Simmons. As a social historian, she talks with people about their photographs, the personal side of Genocide, and other life topics. The photos become part of the archives and available for public use. The Mirror-Spectator published her bi-weekly photo ID column Help SAVE our Past from 1980 – 1981. She encourages readers to share their photographs and stories with Project SAVE Archives at 617-923-4542 or ruth.thomasian@projectsave.org, and www.projectsave.org)

 

Haighganoosh Fendekian Serverian with her husband Haiguin Serverian, and the groom’s niece Vartouhi Chakrian, October 2, 1923, Bridgeport, Connecticut; photographer unknown. Project SAVE Archives photo, courtesy of Haighganoosh Fendekian Serverian, Valley Stream, New York
Haighganoosh Fendekian Serverian with her husband Haiguin Serverian, and the groom’s niece Vartouhi Chakrian, October 2, 1923, Bridgeport, Connecticut; photographer unknown.
Project SAVE Archives photo, courtesy of Haighganoosh Fendekian Serverian, Valley Stream, New York

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