By Harry Parsekian
It started almost a year ago when I was forwarded an e-mail with an attached photo. The author was a Turkish academic seeking to find his aunt?s Armenian relative who might be living in the Boston area. To my great surprise, in the attached photo I vaguely recognized a young Myriam, now a lady of over 90, who I knew since my childhood. This is how a fascinating story began to unravel about Myriam?s older sister, Nevart, who was one of my mother?s dearest childhood friends.
My mother was born in Efkere, Turkey, which at the turn of the 20th century was a thriving community of 500 Armenian families and 50 Turkish families. Efkere was located approximately 15 miles northeast of Kayseri (Gesaria). During the 1915 Armenian Genocide, nearly all the men and boys of Efkere were segregated and ultimately massacred by the Turkish gendarmes (police). The women and children were then forced to leave their beloved village with whatever food and belongings they could carry, exiled with no idea where destiny would take them.
About 60 miles into their route of deportation, Hasad, an Efkeretzi Turk who Nevart?s family knew well, caught up with them in Azziza. He offered to save Nevart?s remaining family members if her mother would give the 16-year-old Nevart in marriage to him. Following an anguished deliberation, they realized their fate would certainly be death, so they reluctantly agreed to the proposal.
Hasad, true to his word and under his protection, returned Nevart?s family to their home in Efkere, which was now devoid of most Armenians. Hasad brought Nevart to a neighboring village of Efkere to live with him along with his Turkish wife and son. Three years later, in 1918, Hasad offered to return Nevart and their three-year-old daughter, Gucel, to her family. An aunt suggested to Hasad that he keep Gucel since he already had a son and she was his daughter. The aunt felt it would be difficult for Nevart, who was now only 19, to remarry in the future if she kept Gucel. Hasad agreed. Nevart was hastily sent to Istanbul with a younger brother and soon thereafter they immigrated to America to live with relatives.
Nevart?s younger sister, Myriam, remained in Efkere and became close childhood friends with her niece Gucel, who was three years younger. In the meantime, Nevart remarried and had a new family and settled into a lifestyle similar to that of my family who she occasionally hosted at her home. Many did not know and nothing was ever said about what this beautiful woman had endured in her youth. Eventually all of Nevart?s family, including Myriam, settled in America while Gucel remained behind with her father. For many years Myriam and Gucel corresponded, but over the last 50 years it had lapsed. That is, until I received the e-mail.
I emailed my academic friend and later spoke with him. Having received undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States, his English was perfect and it was easy to delve into our shared ancestry. He explained that he was the grandson of Hasad?s third Turkish wife. (I believe the law was changed in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal restricting men to one wife.) An intense curiosity took hold of me and I longed to meet Gucel, now 90 years old, and connect her with Myriam, who is now 93.
In June, I flew to Istanbul where I met my academic friend. He looked like a handsome western professor. We had an evening together talking about everything at a sidewalk restaurant in Beyoglu. The next day I flew to Kayseri and was met at the airport by Gucel?s sons, Kudret and Ahmet. You can imagine my heightened anticipation, as it seemed I was stepping back 90 years into history. We went up the elevator and as we got out there she was standing by the door of her apartment, a sweet smiling woman with a radiance of warmth that anyone could not help but love.
After much conversation we went to Ahmet?s summer home, near my mother?s village of Efkere. I was happily shocked when I saw photographs of Nevart and Myriam with their families prominently displayed on the walls of the house. I found this contrasting to the reaction I got when I had called one of Nevart?s daughters prior to my departure for Turkey to gauge her interest in my recent discovery. It seemed that her life was too busy to get involved in any aspect of her family?s past history. Later we visited Efkere and I was introduced as a friend of Gucel?s family and not just an Armenian in search of his roots. I met another gentleman whose Armenian father was left behind with neighbors at the age of three.
He said there were other part-Armenian families in the village. After a long day, we spent the evening at Gucel?s apartment where she listened to a message from Myriam that I had taped. Myriam recounted how Hasad Effendi had saved their lives and she was thankful that he had kept his word. She also mentioned her children and briefly complained about her failing health.
The next day I returned to Efkere walking the paths and streets where my mother had walked. The history of the Armenians in Efkere slowly seeped into my bones with each step on those cobblestone paths. This was the ?old country? village that my mother loved so much and where she had spent her early childhood days. I have always had a profound respect for the survivors and appreciated the incomprehensible trauma they endured. It is difficult for me to think that the then Turkish government or any government could inflict such horrible pain on its own citizens. The magnificent St. Stepanos Armenian Church lies abandoned looking west across the valley at the crumbled homes once occupied by the proud Armenians. Nobody knows how many Armenians, like that of Nevart and her family, were saved by yielding to difficult personnel pressures at the time.
I departed Turkey with a sense of fulfillment and a new perspective. I was able to reconnect two old friends again after being separated from each other for so many decades. Consequently, I gained many new friends. There are many descendents of converted Armenians living in Turkey. How many? Where are they? We may never know but I have heard and read of estimates ranging initially from a hundred thousand to presently over a million.
There is a revival in Turkey amongst the grandchildren of these survivors. They have spoken with their grandmothers and understand the fact that there is another version of history instead of the official government version they were taught; that of denying that a Genocide had ever occurred.
It was an exhilarating experience to go back 90 years and meet this beautiful woman, Gucel, who is half-Armenian and half-Turk.
This is a true story. Names have been changed to preserve privacy.
Source: “The Armenian Weekly”, Volume 72, No. 3, January 21, 2006