My great aunt, great grandmother, great grandfather and grandfather, about 1903
There is a city in eastern Turkey called Harput. It's not much more than a remnant of a middle sized city. It was from there that my grandfather, Ohannes Peshekerian, his brother, Avadis, and a sister, Araxi, immigrated to the United States. They came to the US sometime just before the outbreak of World War I, but they were not unfamiliar with violence. In the half century before that war, Armenians were a persecuted lot. My grandfather and his siblings have long since passed away and so I never knew in great detail what the circumstances of his arrival in the USA included. I was too young when he died to ask significant questions about his background. All I do know is that he was apprenticed to a shoe maker in the old country. Were his parents expected to make the trip later? Did they even have notions of leaving their home in Harput and try for a new life in a distant land? I don't know and chances are I'll never know; nor will my own children.
What is certain, though, is that his parents died at the hands of the Ottoman Turks sometime during that war. According to my grandfather, they were murdered by the Turks. His brother, whom we all just called “Uncle,” corroborated that event much later, when he was in his 90's. I never knew how they were murdered but the systematic destruction of Armenians throughout Anatolia for nearly a hundred years was accomplished by various means. Reports by western diplomats and missionaries which still exist are full of accounts of atrocities; atrocities later to be repeated in Europe itself just a couple of decades later.
I was the apple of my grandfather's eye - possibly because I was the only male born who carried his own blood. My sister certainly never had the relationship with him that I did. It wasn't a bad relationship, just not as full as mine was with our grandfather. I spent hours with him in his later years, when he lived alone in downtown San Francisco.
He had a small, one man real estate office in North Beach, in the heart of the Italian community, and in those hours we spent alone, I learned about Armenians. I learned about the atrocities; about his parents – my great grandparents, being destroyed. I was taught the Armenian alphabet, a few words, and even some songs he took with him from the old country. My grandfather told me stories of Armenia. He described it as some kind of paradise of fruit orchards and vineyards full of lucious grapes; a place of bounty. He told me of the two great lakes, Van and Sevan, and of Mount Ararat, where Noah's ark finally came to rest. And he told me, ever so proudly, of how Armenia was the first nation to officially adopt Christianity in Roman times.
“The Turks,” he would tell me, “are animals! Beasts!” And he would go over the chapters and the verses of what has come to be know as The Armenian Genocide. Barely 10 years of age, I was held rapt with the stories. Sometimes, when he had work to do, he would sit me at his old Underwood typewriter - the kind where you could see all the moving parts beneath a heavy iron frame – and I would pound away names, words, and endless lines of XXXX's.
One day, probably in the early 1950's, while I was engrossed in a line of X's, a man come into the office, presumably to do some business with him. I noticed him coming in, but I quickly returned to my typing. I then heard my grandfather shriek, “Get out of here, you God damned Turk! GET OUT!” and he came out from behind the counter and practically kicked the poor guy out the door. I looked up, at once scared and shocked to see the scuffle.
I had never seen my grandfather with such anger. “He's a god damned Turk, Bobby! He's an ANIMAL! NO Turk comes into this office.”
To look at me, you'd never know I'm an Armenian. I don't have olive skin; nor did I, in my younger days, own a thick mop of dark brown hair. The recombining of my Armenian mother and my Irish-German father's DNA awarded me – for better or worse - a ruddy complexion, green eyes and blond/brown hair, and above-average height. A male version of the Kardashians I'm not, nor ever was, even on my best day.
Yet, as probably every human being who has Armenian blood flowing in his veins knows, learning “the story of the massacres” is part of growing up. There isn't a single person of any kind of Armenian background who hasn't some story to tell of their ancestors, some distant relative who suffered at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in the late 1800's or during World War I. Even the newly created Republic of Turkey, in it's earliest days continued with the killings. To most Turkish people, Kemal Ataturk is credited with bringing a new nation into the 20th century. To most older Armenians, though, he is certainly not. He was just another in a long line of powerful Muslim men who persecuted the Christian Armenians.
Under the house
When my grandfather died, I was around 18 or so years old. After he passed away, my father and I cleaned out his hotel room on Grant Avenue. There were stacks of books which we dutifully collected and then stored in the basement of the house we lived in down the peninsula in a suburban little town; and there they stayed for another 30 years or more, untouched, gathering dust and subjected to the ravages of damp winters, mold, and paper eating bugs of one kind or another.
One day, in my late 50s, as my mother's health began to fail, my curiosity about those books was somehow piqued enough to go under the house, among the spider webs and nails hammered through the sub-floor above and take look at them. They turned out to be a treasure trove of books long out of print but written by famous men of the day. And nearly all of them had some relationship to the Armenian genocide. There were eyewitness accounts of the killings by Viscount James Bryce, Henry Morgenthau, and Arnold Toynbee, as well as works about Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. It was, in fact, a literary snapshot of a particular time and event in history. I even found a copy of T.E. Lawrence's “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” (I later came to surmise that my grandfather was not so much interested in Lawrence of Arabia's war exploits as he was his accounting of his torture by the Turkish bey after having been captured.)
Paging through the bug-eaten and water damaged books, I found margin notes in nearly all of them, written in pencil by my grandfather. They either underlined or opposed some statement by the author. There was plenty of “god damned Turks” interspersed with his commentary. There was even some writing in Armenian (which I never learned to read or write). Clearly and understandably, for my grandfather, he was unable to rid himself of the demons of his youth. His anger and hatred for anything Turkish was as fresh and strong on the day he died as it must have been on the day that he learned his own parents were destroyed decades before. It was a complete hatred, absolutely devoid of reason. Though he escaped death, he was an emotionally damaged man for the rest of his life.
For me, this instilling of what my grandfather's experiences were as a young boy, and certainly his own attitude about his oppressors, dripped inevitably into my own views. In some vague, hard to define way, the very word “Turk” carried with it the sad and angry remembrance of what had happened to my grandfather and his family. For most of my life, I'm sorry to say, I have carried a certain reservation about Turkish people and even the nation itself. I am intellectually very aware of this emotional hesitation to fully accept Turkish people. I understand that I am three generations removed from what happened to the Armenians, yet there is that nagging, cloying, emotional memory of my grandfather throwing that Turkish fellow out of his office.
My sister and I are all that is left of our own family. Mother and Father are both long gone, along with our grandparents. From time to time, we talk about our “Armenian-ness” to each other. Both of us still have unanswered questions. Many times, when the subject comes up, it is usually because our own kids are now asking questions about their great grandparents. They are wanting to complete their own circles of knowing who, exactly, they are.
And so we are planning a trip to Turkey and the modern republic of Armenia for the spring of 2013.We are taking our children to Istanbul (where our grandmother was from), to Harput (which still exists) and then on to Armenia. The kids are doing all kinds of research into putting the details together. They are excited. I am somewhat hesitant but my curiosity overrides any notion of not going along. This will not be a cruise on the Aegean by a long shot. We may be backpacking – or sub-backpacking – on this trek.
We will meet plenty of Turkish people, I'm sure. And maybe then, in doing so, I can drop the vestigial prejudice handed down to me. Honestly, it's really about time.