April 6 2014

Idyll Banter: Once upon a time, the world knew

Written by
Chris Bohjalian
Idyll Banter

Filed Under
Chris Bohjalian

Later this month -- April 24 -- Armenians around the world will pause to
mourn the 1.5 million of our ancestors who were systematically
annihilated by the Ottoman Empire in one of the 20th century's first
genocides. Under the violence and fog of the First World War, three
out of every four Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed.
And while Americans of a certain age (mine) can recall their mothers
encouraging them to clean their plates by imploring, "Think of the
starving Armenians!" for most of the country the Genocide is largely
forgotten. It is, as my narrator Laura Petrosian calls it in "The
Sandcastle Girls," my 2012 novel about the cataclysm, "the Slaughter
You Know Next to Nothing About."

Once upon a time, however, everyone knew. There were bestselling books
and memoirs. There were movies. There was an endless stream of
newspaper articles, many on the front pages of the largest papers in
the country.

And there were people like Burlington's Ellen Weston Catlin sharing the story.

I learned about Ellen Catlin from my friend, George Aghjayan. George
lives just outside of Boston, but when he is not rooting for his
beloved Patriots, he is researching a history we share -- a history
most Armenians in our Diaspora share.

Catlin was born in 1883 and grew up on Pearl Street. She graduated
from Burlington High School and the University of Vermont, where --
according to the yearbook - she was a soprano in the Ladies' Glee
Club. In one UVM yearbook photo, she has wide, beautiful eyes, an
elegant sundial for a nose, and a swan's neck she has hidden demurely
behind a high collar. On Sept. 13, 1908, a "red-letter day in
Burlington," according to the "Missionary Herald," she received her
commission at First Church on College Street to join a group of
missionary teachers. She was off to a part of the Ottoman Empire
called Kharpert, where she would be teaching English at Euphrates

Although Kharpert and nearby Van today are inside Turkey, they're part
of the cradle of Armenian civilization. How extensive was the ethnic
cleansing there? According to Ottoman census figures, there were
roughly 204,000 Armenians living in the province of Kharpert in 1915;
by 1922, there would be only 35,000. And in Van? The Armenian
population was obliterated, falling from 197,000 in 1915 to 500 in
1922. Soon after that 1922 census was taken, there would be almost no
Armenians living in either province.

Unlike some Western missionaries, Catlin would not witness the worst
of the slaughter: She sailed home to Burlington in 1913 because her
health was failing and her father was ill. But she would return to
Turkey in 1919, after the First World War, and continue her work as a
missionary there and in Palestine through the mid-1920s. She wrote a
small book, "Suggestions for Armenian Students of English." (Just for
the record, I could use a small book, "Suggestions for English
Students of Armenian.")

As Aghjayan told me, "I think it's fair to say that the five years she
spent working with the Armenians of Kharpert had a lasting impression
on her -- so much so that when her health was better and the
opportunity presented itself, she returned."

At least one of her surviving letters is an indication both of this
country's awareness of the start of the Genocide and the dangers faced
by the Armenians. In the late spring of 1915, she expressed her fears
in a letter to James Barton -- originally from Charlotte -- the head of
the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston.
She wrote about the way Turkish soldiers and Kharpert city officials
had destroyed the United States seal at Euphrates College (where
Barton had once been President) and ransacked the furniture and desks.
She wondered whether Armenians were in need of "American protection."

I can only speculate what it was like for her to be here in America
when the news got far worse: When the Armenians were being slaughtered
where they lived or marched into the searing Syrian desert to die.
What must she have felt when she read that the Armenian faculty at
Euphrates College had been arrested, and many killed? When the college
was taken over by the Ottoman Army? It is likely that she was even
more aghast and more horrified than most Americans. After all, she had
lived and worked there. She had friends among the Armenian community.
In my mind, I can see her speaking out at churches in Burlington.
Sharing her devastation with anyone who would listen.

And today? Today Euphrates College is gone. Last May, George Aghjayan
and I walked the earth where it once stood. Like so much of the
civilization that marked Western Armenia, the ground there is either
barren or the antiquities have been replaced by modern buildings.

So the college is but a memory - along with the Armenian world that
once existed there.

Once upon a time, however, thanks to the likes of Ellen Catlin, the world knew.