LONDON — I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen is Leon Surmelian’s personal tale of deep sorrow and profound gratitude, of terrible loss and a lively embrace of life itself. The out-of-print book, first published in 1945, a bestseller in its time, was internationally acclaimed and translated into many languages.
The Armenian Institute, convinced of its relevance today, is bringing out a new edition for a new generation. With added photographs, a map, glossary and historical context, Surmelian’s memoir of his own experiences of surviving genocide and migrating to find shelter is a story that resonates strongly even today.
Growing up in multi-ethnic Trebizond (Trabzon), in what is now north-eastern Turkey, Surmelian enjoyed his extended Armenian family, his Greek neighbors and Turkish friends. In 1915, his childhood world shattered, his parents were deported and his siblings were divided and sent into hiding for safety.
The Armenian Genocide had begun and he was soon on his own, his quest for survival forcing him on an adventurous and meandering journey from one fragile shelter to another. His idealistic vision of saving his people through agriculture took him on a scholarship to study in Kansas. There, on an isolated farm, he found an unexpected sense of belonging to this new, alien place, America. Amidst the harrowing losses, Surmelian eventually finds his way through his love of words and his poetry.
His zest for life is always present in his words and there is much wry humor in his narrative capturing his determination to survive.
The devastation of a people and a culture, the struggles for survival of children as well as adults are far too familiar in our contemporary world. I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen is a witness to the sad news that little has changed, neither in the treatment of former neighbors as non-humans nor in the desperate courage and instinctive intelligence shown by the survivors searching for a new life. I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen is a book for today and a testimony to the humanity of survivors and the righteous who help them along the way.