When family history has to be downloaded

April 24, 2004 12:00 AM
The Daily Star
By Houry Mayissian

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.