No announcement yet.

Armenian acts as spokesman for tragedy

  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • Armenian acts as spokesman for tragedy

    Armenian acts as spokesman for tragedy

    Southfield man, 97, survived mass killings of 1915-16, shares story with
    Metro area students

    The Detroit News
    Wednesday, May 18, 2005

    By Ellen Piligian / Special to The Detroit News

    SOUTHFIELD -- Souren Aprahamian, a small man wearing thick spectacles, a
    neat gray suit and maroon tie, is enjoying a meal of ham and potatoes at
    his weekly senior citizens lunch, held every Tuesday at the recreation
    center of St. John's Armenian Church on Northwestern Highway.

    It's something Aprahamian of Southfield has been doing since his wife of
    71 years died in 2002.

    It is here that the 97-year-old grandfather of three and
    great-grandfather of two, who lives on his own and still drives is among
    friends, mostly Armenians, in the crowd of about 100 people.

    The oldest parishioner at the church, he is a treasured member of the
    Armenian community. But his kind smile and quiet manner belie a tragic past.

    Aprahamian is a survivor of what is known as the first genocide of the
    20th century, the Armenian genocide of 1915 and 1916.

    He is sitting with Simon Tashjian, 92, of Bloomfield Township, another
    survivor of the genocide.

    "He's a very nice man. He's quite intelligent," said Tashjian, who has
    known him since 1921, when his family immigrated to the U.S. "They came
    to this country without much and they made a life for themselves."

    Aprahamian has many devout friends. "He amazes me. He's so alert. He
    remembers everything," said Rosalie Papazian, 77, who often drives
    Aprahamian to the lunches.

    "He's proof positive of the Armenian genocide. But he didn't let it
    hinder him. He remembers the past but he's active in the future."

    The Armenian genocide occurred during World War I in eastern Turkey. The
    Armenians say the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire killed 1.5
    million Armenians through massacres and mass deportations and forced
    death marches into the desert where they succumbed to starvation and

    Armenians, who are Christians, say the nationalistic Muslim Turks wanted
    to purge them from the country. Turkey, meanwhile, has never
    acknowledged the genocide.

    Aprahamian, who was right in the middle of the persecution, has no doubt
    what he witnessed was a genocide. Women, children and the elderly were
    left behind to fend for themselves, he said.

    Aprahamian, the youngest of four children, recalls heroic battles in
    Van, near Lezk in 1915. Despite being heavily outnumbered and with few
    weapons, the Armenians, including his father, held off their Turkish
    attackers for a month.

    Eventually, the Armenians were forced to leave their homes for Soviet
    Armenia. Though his family later returned to their village, they would
    leave three more times until they left for good in 1918. Over the years,
    they endured marches of hundreds of miles, at times under enemy attack,
    to live in camps, finally ending up in Iraq under the protection of the
    British military before coming to the U.S.

    Aprahamian recalls a march in 1918 with his mother and sister-in-law. He
    was so ill he was strapped to their donkey's back. When they came upon
    an uncle, Aprahamian said his mother was scolded for carrying this "dead
    body" when others were abandoning healthy children.

    His mother replied that her sick son was her only hope: "What else is
    there for me to live for?"

    On July 4, 1921, Aprahamian, then 14, arrived in Detroit with his
    mother, an uncle, an aunt and a nephew. Aprahamian said that night the
    fireworks alarmed his mother, who at first thought the Turks had
    followed them to the United States.

    "Of our family of 50, only 15 survived," said Aprahamian, whose father
    and one sister died during the deportations. Today, he is the sole
    survivor of those 15 and indeed one of the few living witnesses to the

    Dyana Kezelian, assistant principal of the elementary and middle schools
    of the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School, which is attached to the
    recreation center in Southfield, understands the value of having
    Aprahamian speak with her students. It's something he has done often
    over the years.

    "He's a person they can see and relate to," she said. "We're losing that
    generation (of survivors)."

    After the senior citizens lunch, she escorts Aprahamian, who walks
    slowly but needs no assistance, to a seventh-grade classroom, where he
    recounts stories he's told many times before.

    "It's interesting that you can talk about all these things in school and
    then see someone who saw it all in front of him," said Vartan Kurjian,
    12, who said his grandfather survived the genocide.

    Another student, Haigan Tcholakian, 12, of Farmington Hills, said, "I
    give him credit for going through something like that and being able to
    talk about it. I find it very interesting to hear about (the genocide)
    from someone who went through it.

    "He keeps a straight face about it but I think on the inside he's
    breaking down."

    According to Aprahamian's daughter, Elizabeth, 66, of Farmington Hills,
    a retired administrator with Detroit Public Schools who spends most days
    now with her father, growing up she and her two older brothers did not
    hear much about the genocide from their father or mother, Arminuhe, who
    was also a survivor from Lezk.

    "We had a sense of it," she said, adding that it wasn't until 1965, when
    the 50th year was commemorated, that they began to talk about it.

    Still, said Elizabeth, she learned many details about her father's early
    life from his autobiography, "From Van to Detroit: Surviving the
    Armenian Genocide," self-published in 1993.

    "I think some of the stuff is too painful," she said, tearing up. "It's
    in the book but it's never been verbalized."

    Despite a horrific past, Aprahamian created a good life in Detroit and
    found something to be thankful for.

    "From every evil some good would come," he said. "If it wasn't for the
    genocide, I wouldn't be (in the U.S.). I wouldn't have this education. I
    was the first person from that village to have a college degree."

    In 1931, Aprahamian finished school with two bachelor's degrees in
    chemical and mechanical engineering from what is now Wayne State
    University. That same year, he married Arminuhe, then 18, whom his
    mother had introduced him to two years earlier.

    While she raised their children, he ran a couple of grocery stores with
    his brother between jobs as an engineer with the U.S. Department of
    Defense, first during World War II and again from 1958 until his
    retirement in 1974.

    "He was a hard worker. We didn't see him until Sunday," said Elizabeth,
    who said her father taught her to "be the best you can be because it
    reflects on your heritage."

    Perhaps Aprahamian's most important role now is as a spokesman for the
    genocide. The Rev. Garabed Kochakian, pastor at St. John's Armenian
    Church, calls him courageous and an important thread of history for the

    "He fears not to speak the historical truth of the Armenian people and
    the genocide," he said. "He's kind of a living example and reference to
    that truth."

    Ellen Piligian is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

    PHOTO CAPTION (Morris Richardson II / The Detroit News):
    Students Samantha Hart, Arev Tossounian and Alex Kurdian listen to
    Souren Aprahamian. He is a survivor of what is known as the first
    genocide of the 20th century, the Armenian genocide of 1915 and 1916.

    PHOTO CAPTION (Morris Richardson II / The Detroit News):
    Aprahamian speaks with Simon Tashjian, 92, another Armenian genocide
    survivor, during lunch at the Armenian American Veteran's building.

    Profile of Souren Aprahamian
    Age: 97
    Born: June 15, 1907
    Hometown: Lezk, village in Turkey
    U.S. home: Southfield, since 1964
    Education: Bachelor's degrees in mechanical and chemical engineering
    from Wayne State University
    Church: Founding member of St. John's Armenian Church in 1931
    Occupations: Owned Henry's Market in Detroit and Telegraph Shopping
    Center in Taylor; engineer with the U.S. Department of Defense

    Source: Detroit News research