Gayane Petrosyan

My Grandfather Samson’s Story

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By Gayane Petrosyan, Samson’s granddaughter; translated by Vardan Petrosian

YEREVAN – Samson Petrosyan is the father of my father Vardevan (Vardan). None of his grandchildren have ever seen their grandfather Samson.

Samson lived in the village of Gharavank in Kaghzvan province, which was subsequently renamed by the Turks as Tashburun (Taşburun). It was near the city of Kaghzvan, historically part of Western Armenia but currently in the Republic of Turkey.

My grandfather’s father, Fr. Petros, was a well-known, respected and rich individual in Kaghzvan, whose father was known as Grigor. It was probably because he was a priest that my grandfather’s village bore the name Ter-Petrosyan, but subsequently the surname prefix “Ter” was removed, possibly following the creation of Soviet Armenia.

Fr. Petros had seven sons and proudly proclaimed everywhere that there should be no female heir to the family. He never had a daughter.  Unfortunately, I know the names of only six of Fr. Petros’ sons: Ishkhan, Patvakan, Aghabab, Vardevan, Minas and Samson. I assume that Petros named his seventh son after his father, Grigor.

When I was little, I was always amazed at where my grandmother Vardanush found the unusual names of her sons. However, when I grew up and my grandparents and uncles told the story of my grandfather Samson’s family, I realised that they were not just random names, but each related to sad stories, and I felt very guilty.

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The story which I am about to tell is one that my grandfather Samson told his wife, my grandmother Vardanush, and one which was passed down from generation to generation to his sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

The year was 1915. I am not sure from where or under which circumstances my grandfather (then aged 17) returned home, but my grandmother used to say that when he saw that the door of their house was locked he remembers his own father’s words: “If you ever return home from a distant place and see the door closed, go and dig under our walnut tree. If our family’s riches are buried underneath it, then you will know that there has been an escape and we have left our village.” My grandfather proceeded to dig underneath the walnut tree and, upon seeing the gold in the pot, cried sobbingly. He covered it with soil, hoping that someday everyone will return home.

During the days of the Great Genocide of 1915, the Turkish Janissaries held a special rally to take the Armenian youth to the army, but in reality, they imprisoned them so that they could not protect their families during the massacres. Every day, the names and surnames of young people were read out and called in prisons, and they were killed. One day, they read my grandfather’s name. The commander of the Janissaries ordered the Janissaries to behead the “gyavur” (traitor), then dip the clothes in blood and give it to him.

He took my grandparents to a deserted place to kill them. My grandfather bends down, throws some dirt in his mouth to say goodbye to the ground for the last time, and at that moment the Janissary recognized my grandfather’s back. He asked my grandfather where he is from and, upon learning that he is Samson (son of Fr. Petros, the deacon of Kaghzvan), he drops his gun and wraps his arms around my grandfather, saying that he had served in his father Petros’, house which had saved his family from starvation. He reminds my grandfather that he is Ali, the man who (until my grandfather was ten years old) used to carry him on his shoulders. My grandfather remembered him instantly.

Ali did not kill my grandfather. Instead, he waited until it got dark and then took my grandfather to his home, slaughtered a mouse, dipped my grandfather’s clothes in the mouse’s blood and handed it to his commander. He dressed my grandfather in the clothes of his dead son and kept him in his home for several months, hidden from the Turks. During that time, my grandfather kept asking Ali to send him to Armenia.

Ali’s son was dead, but the son’s bride still lived in the house. My grandfather, Samson, told the woman that she had an indescribable beauty and Ali always attempted to persuade my grandfather to marry her and become his son. My grandfather rejected him every time. When Ali tried to persuade him one last time, my grandfather had the courage to tell a Turk within his own home in the heart of Turkey, “if you wish you can kill me right here, right now, but I will not marry a Turkish woman.”

Ali finally realised that attempting to convince young Samson was pointless and, at night, accompanied my grandfather across the Turkish border to Armenia and then to the city of Ejmiatsin, where all the migrants were going. Among these migrants, Samson happened to become reunited with his uncle Minas, with whom he spent his days and nights. My uncle persuaded Samson to leave Ejmiatsin and go to a remote village to work, as there was a lack of jobs in Ejmiatsin due to the volume of immigrants.

My grandfather then wanders to the village of Kosh (which in ancient times was known as Kvashavan, the summer residence of the kings). Vanush Gevorgyan, the grandson of Ter-Gevorg from Kosh (whom we call uncle Vanush), told me that when Samson came to the village of Kosh, he met Abraham from the Pzzan family (the villagers would call him Apo). Abraham hires young Samson to do manual labor in his home.

One cold winter, Vanush’s grandmother, Lusntag, sees Samson crying in the street. She asked him why he was crying and he replied that a dog lived a better life than he did. He told her of how he lived a carefree and luxurious life in his father’s house where they had servants, and that now he was hungry and suffering day and night, hot and cold, just for a piece of bread. Very moved by this, grandmother Lustnag turned to her husband and persuaded him to take Samson to live with them. She told her husband, “you brought a Yazidi to live with us, and yet our own Armenian Apo is not living well.”

Realising that Apo would not give Samson to him, Ter-Gevorg turned to the priest and together they persuaded Abraham to take Samson with them. Noticing Samson’s humbleness, diligence, intelligence and literacy, Ter-Gevorg loved him dearly and even baptised him in the village church as the fourth brother of his spiritual sons Khachatur, Vachagan and Benjamin.

Samson became a member of the family and became a support for Ter-Gevorg’s sons. Ter-Gevorg decides to marry Samson off and, soon, members of Ter-Gevorg’s family built a small house for Samson and marry him off to Vardanush (from Mush). At Samson and Vardanush’s wedding, my grandfather (realising that people of Mush drink a lot) told someone in Russian that these people from Sasun are crazy and if they drink they will definitely fight. One of the guests (who was from Mush) understood Russian and subsequently informed the people of Mush what he had said.

Upon Samson’s journey to Kosh, some people from Mush stopped the bride and groom, and members of the Ter-Gevorg family with guns and forced them to return their daughter. No matter how much Ter-Gevorg attempted to persuade them, the people of Mush would not concede. Upset and wounded, Ter-Gevorg promised them some animals in exchange for their permission to take the bride. He honored his promise.

From the marriage, Samson had five sons whom he named after his brothers and father: Petros, Ishkhan, Vardevan, Patvakan and Aghabab. Petros and Ishkhan died of starvation as children. Later, my father Vardevan also named his eldest son Samson after his grandfather, and my uncle Patvakan named two of his three sons after his missing uncles Ishkhan and Petros.

My brother Samson is said to be very similar to his grandfather, not only in appearance, but also in his intelligence and literacy. My grandfather Samson was very literate and spoke several languages during those years.

My grandfather Samson died at a young age of tuberculosis in 1935. He is buried in the cemetery next to St. Gevorg Church in the village of Kosh (Armenia) which later became the cemetery of his family. His tomb is located above the grave of his late father, Ter-Gevorg. To this day, when talking about my grandfather, the people of Kosh refer to him as Samson from Pzzan. The Pzzan family loved my grandfather very much and their children/grandchildren did not know until fairly recently that Samson was not their real uncle.

After Samson’s death, his aunt Eva found my father and uncles. She had also emigrated from Turkey. Eva lived in the Leninakan city of Armenia (now known as Gyumri) and had four sons. An epidemic broke out in Leninakan in those years and my grandfather’s aunt, Eva Zadoyan, was taken to hospital. When she returned home, she could not find her sons. Some said her sons had died and others said that the Americans had taken them away. Up until the end of her life, Eva lived with my uncle Patvakan’s family but did not find her sons.

We have since heard from some unreliable sources that my grandfather, Fr. Petros (father of Samson), allegedly lived in Yerevan during that time, but that father and son had not met. Many years later, when my uncle Aghabab (Samson’s son) was working as a member of construction crew in Jrvezh demolishing old houses, one of the residents of these houses angrily told him that he ruined houses wherever he went. My uncle inquired about this and found out that the man was from Kaghzvan and recognised my grandfather’s father, Ter-Petros. My uncle Aghabab told his brothers about this. My uncle Patvakan inquired and learned that my grandfather’s brother’s son-in-law Vardevan, was living in Ejmiatsin and went to meet with him.

My grandmother Vardanush’s family also has a painful history. Vardanush emigrated from Erzurum. Her father and uncles were very rich. Her father’s family members fled from Erzurum but her cousin did not manage to escape. Later, the villagers who fled to Armenia said that the Turks had captured her cousin and beaten him to force him to tell them where his family’s wealth was, promising to release him afterwards. He led them to a large pit in the yard of their home, where he showed them that he had hidden his family’s gold, valuables and carpets. Breaking their promise, The Turks killed him and seized all of my grandmother Vardanush’s wealth.

I am deeply saddened and wholeheartedly regret that my husband and I (upon creating Ashtarak TV) never filmed our grandmother Vardanush telling her and my grandfather Samson’s life story about their migration.

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