When family history has to be downloaded

Chance discovery of a photo on the Internet connects one Armenian to a
painful past

By Houry Mayissian
Special to The Daily Star
Saturday, April 24, 2004

I waited impatiently for the picture that was loading, bit by bit, on
my screen. I felt that it would be a small piece of a big, unsolved
puzzle - my family's history. After a couple of moments of waiting,
the picture loaded. There they were: My great-grandmother,Aznive
Pootchigian at the age of five, with three of her family members in
Kharpert, Western Armenia, or what is now called Turkey.

The internet is amazing when it comes to the amount of information it
can supply. But I never thought I would find a picture of my
great-grandmother taken in 1912 in her hometown, a couple of years
before it was raided by the Turks.

I sat in front of my computer, unable to move, and examined the
picture -the people in it, the background, the caption - like an
antique. The picture seemed to be taken in a garden with big trees
appearing in the background. All four people carried an object I
couldn't identify: Something like a plant or flower, but yet seems to
be made up of cloth. My great-grandmother was the youngest in the
picture. She wore a long dress with small flowers on it. Even though
all four of them seemed to look straight into the camera at the time
the picture was taken, my great-grandmother's look was much more
serious, much more "direct" than the others. It seemed as though she
was looking at me, right into my eyes, rather than at the camera. She
didn't smile; she didn't look sad; she just looked serious.

I kept thinking about the strange coincidence that had led me to her
picture. I was using the "Google" search engine to look for Armenian
music. I noticed the family name "Pootchigian" in the description of
one of the Web sites. I had heard from my grandmother that my
great-grandmother's maiden name was Pootchigian. I also knew that I
had relatives by that name in the United States, but that contact
between our families had long since been lost.

I immediately clicked on the link that transported me to the Web site
of the Pootchigian family currently residing in the States. A whole
"new world" opened in front of me: Pictures, old and new, historic
data, a family tree, in which my mother, father and even big brother
were included. My name wasn't there, though. Contact between the
families had probably been lost before I was born.

I knew bits of facts about how part of my great-grandmother's family
had escaped to the US, how she had survived the Armenian genocide. But
I didn't know all the details. Suddenly I felt the urge to have the
whole story laid out before me like the picture I was looking at.

I printed out the photo and took it to my grandmother. I didn't know
whether she would recognize her mother at the age of five. The moment
she looked at the picture, however, tears started to come to her eyes.

"Oh my God ... It's my mom," she exclaimed with a faint voice that
seemed to be suffocated by her tears. I had never seen my grandmother
in such a "lost" state. Her eyes were filled with pain, longing and
confusion. The rosy color of her fleshy cheeks disappeared behind her
tears.

"My uncle and his children live in the States. He has many
grandchildren as well. My mom used to say that my uncle migrated to
the States to work before the massacres started. She had another
brother who was hanged by the Turks." And so my grandmother started
the story. A story every Armenian family has - one which brings tears
to the eyes of any listener, one which makes people wonder about how
savage humans can be.

My great-grandmother was seven years old when the Armenian genocide
started. It took the lives of more than 1.5 million Armenians and
deprived the rest of their homeland. During the years 1915-1918, amid
the confusion of World War I, the Young Turks carried out the
deliberate deportation and massacre of the entire Armenian population
of the Ottoman Empire. Most of them were massacred along the
road. Those who survived scattered across the globe. Almost nine
decades have passed, but the realization of being descendants of
genocide survivors remains firm in the minds of new Armenian
generations.

My great grandmother was deported with her mother and her two aunts,
like all the Armenians living in Kharpert.

"They spent days walking under the sun, barefoot, without food, water
or proper clothes, stripped of their dignity, stolen of their
possessions," continued my grandmother.

My great-grandmother had been separated from her mother in Diyarbekir,
somewhere along the endless journey. She was adopted by a Turk and
never saw her mother after that.

"She used to repeat the story over and over again. She remembered the
smell of death lingering in the air, the sight of mutilated corpses on
the sides of the roads they passed by, the savage treatment meted out
by the Turk gendarmes to those who were no longer able to continue
walking, the hunger, the thirst, the rapes, everything. Despite that,
however, despite all the things that terrorized her, as a child at
least she felt secure that her mother was with her to hold her hand,
to carry her, to cover her eyes when necessary. A while later,
however, she lost even that."

My great-grandmother was raised by the man who adopted her into his
family."She used to tell me that she secretly kept an Armenian book
from her school books with her. She used to read it secretly when she
had time alone so she wouldn't forget her mother tongue," my
grandmother said. With the help of an Armenian lady, my grandmother
was married at the age of 14 to an Armenian. Later, they moved from
Diyarbekir to Aleppo and then Beirut.

After I heard the story, I went back to the Web site to see the
pictures of the relatives I never knew about. The Pootchigians are now
a well-known family in California. One of them, Chuck Pootchigian, is
a member of the State Senate.

Yet the most important thing for me remained the picture. As I looked
at it, I wondered what they knew. Did they have a clue that they would
be victims of such a great crime? Probably not. But I know, and my
children will. So will all the new generations of young Armenians. And
so will the world, despite the ongoing denial by Turkey and the
failure by the international community to properly condemn this crime
against humanity.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress