By Michael Rettig
FRESNO — Documenting and preserving the stories of one’s ancestors and their immigration to America is itself a noble endeavor, and it takes on increased importance for those whose ancestors survived genocide. The very goal of a genocidal regime is to obliterate a people and any memory of their prior existence. To remember those lost, as well as those who survived, honors their suffering and perseverance. For this reason, the Armenian Cultural Conservancy (ACC) of Fresno hosted a community lecture, Family Histories of Immigration to the United States, at the Woodward Park Library on April 25, following the 104th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
Presenters Deacon Van Der Mugrdechian, ACC board member; Zaroohi Der Mugrdechian, former principal of the Charlie Keyan Armenian School; and Dr. Matthew Ari Jendian, professor of sociology and director of Humanics at Fresno State, shared their family histories using oral histories, memoirs, letters, and photographs.
Deacon Van opened the event by emphasizing the importance of documenting family stories for future generations. He encouraged the audience to research their own ancestors and to share their histories with the community in similar lectures in the future. “This presentation is one step towards the Conservancy’s goal of preserving this history.”
Deacon Van and his sister Zaroohi shared the story of their grandfather Anooshavan Der Mugrdechian, using his memoir, Anooshavan: The Intrepid Survivor, as well as family photographs and stories. Anooshavan grew up in Aikestan, Van. He fought in the city’s defense during the Hamidian Massacres before moving to Urmi, where he met his wife Rakel Sahagian. He moved to the United States to seek a safe haven for his family, but responded to the call for volunteers to return to his homeland to fight in the Defense of Van in 1915. Anooshavan and the other Armenian volunteers successfully defended Van, but were forced to evacuate the city with the Russian Army. Later, during the long exodus from Van to the Caucasus, Rakel left their infant daughter Lucy on a rock because she felt they could no longer feed her. Upon hearing the cries of her daughter, Rakel immediately returned for her. They traveled through Siberia to reach Yokohama, Japan, and then to the United States. Lucy died in Fresno at the age of 102. Several community members in the audience remembered her.
Anooshavan’s family immigrated to Fresno County in 1917 when the congregation at the St. Gregory Armenian Church in Fowler invited his father, Der Melkisedek, to serve as parish priest. Der Melkisedek was a schoolmaster, teacher, and author in Van who opened the first all-girls school in the city and created children’s songs.