Ahavni Halvadzhyan in the center, her husband Magarditch Halvadzhyan to the right, and their son to the left of them.

Halvadzhyan Family Escaped Genocide to Create New Lives in Bulgaria But Soon Faced Communist Persecution

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By Margarita Ivanova

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

PLEVEN, Bulgaria — Armenians and Bulgarians have had close relations since the time of Byzantium and the creation of the first medieval Bulgarian kingdoms. In modern times, this relationship was reinforced from the early 19th century, when both peoples began a struggle against oppression by the Ottoman Empire. Soon mass immigration to Bulgaria created even closer ties.

After Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878, 4,000 Armenians came to Bulgaria. This was the start of the many waves of Armenians that fled to Bulgaria. Among the events triggering this immigration were the 1896 Hamidian massacres, the start of the Armenian Genocide in 1915, and the end of the 1919 Greco-Turkish War.

Borders in Bulgaria were opened to refugees in 1922 by the Alexander Stambliiski government. A total of 25,000 Armenian refugees came, but at the cost of leaving their lives behind.

Among these many refugees were the grandparents of Ahavni Halvadjian, a former Bulgarian-Armenian journalist. Her two grandparents, Ahavni and Magarditch Halvadzhyan (the spelling reflects different transliteration systems for the same surname), escaped genocide. They walked for months before finally arriving in Ruse, a large city in Bulgaria.

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Most of the other Armenians they were with continued on to France, but Ahavni and Magarditch took the risk to stay nearby and settle in the city of Pleven, Bulgaria. The two 16-year-olds were welcomed by the Bulgarians around them and became immersed in the culture. They not only had to rebuild a home from scratch, but also their entire lives, including a business. They easily made friends and were helped by their Bulgarian neighbors who provided them with resources to build a house.

“Bulgarians helped my grandparents,” Halvadjian said. “These strangers didn’t owe them anything but they respected them. They made an effort to bring the Armenians’ new culture into their society, and it was not something my grandparents were used to.”

Their future no longer seemed miserable and hopeless for Ahavni and Magarditch. They opened a factory for Armenian Oriental desserts. It was a dream they did not think was possible after they were forced to flee Armenia.

The members of Armenian communities eventually integrated into the lives of ordinary Bulgarians. They created factories, churches, schools, and many other businesses.

“My grandfather hired many Bulgarians to work for him and his business continued for years,” said Ahavni.

As larger numbers of Armenian refugees appeared in Bulgaria, the number of Protestant Armenians grew alongside members of the Church of Armenia and they in turn formed Evangelical churches and communities.

The establishment of the Communist regime impacted the Evangelical churches. The new authorities promoted policies of atheism on a state level. Halvadzhyan’s business also suffered detrimental changes.

“The communists took my grandfather’s business and arrested him because he was a capitalist. He ended up being put in a communist camp for three years,” Ahavni said, “They tortured people, and there was a lot of disease too. Many people died in these camps. Unfortunately, my grandmother also died at a young age because of stress when he was sent away.”

The loyal workers employed by Halvadzhyan’s business took a stand against Magarditch’s arrest. He had many Bulgarians on his side. “When he was arrested, the people that worked for him tried to testify for him and tell the police and communists that he was a good man and wasn’t exploiting them, but even that wasn’t enough.” she said.

Ahavni says that her grandfather didn’t like to talk about these kinds of past experiences because of the obstructions those three years created for all of the ensuing generations in the family.

“My grandfather’s arrest even changed my father’s chances of marriage,” Ahavni said. “When my dad married his first wife, her parents made her end the marriage only weeks afterwards because she couldn’t have a father-in-law who was considered ‘an enemy of the state’.”

The trickling effects of communism and the Genocide even still affect Ahavni to this day.

“The sad thing is that I have a lot of family in the [Ottoman] Empire and in the United States that I can’t trace. Little children in my family were left orphans, and everyone lost their connection. We can’t find records, especially from that time,” Ahavni said. “It is almost impossible to find someone now even if you have the time. Families are broken and lost.”

 

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