By Sosi Thomassian
Levon Shahnazarian doesn’t accurately remember his date of birth, but believes that it was on June 30, 1913. He was born in Erzerum, in Western Armenia, the son of Serpouhi and Khatcho. My grandfather had two sisters and a brother. Even though he doesnít remember much about his family, he will never forget the day when he and his family were separated. Levon recalls that a Turkish policeman (gendarme) handcuffed his father, grandfather, and brother and took them away. Levon believes they were killed. These events occurred in 1915. This left Levon, his mother, grandmother, and two sisters.
The Young Turk government then forced Armenian families to march from their home to the deserts of Syria. Levon’s grandmother and one sister were taken on a separate deportation route than Levon, his mother, and sister. Not knowing where they were being taken, or what was going to happen to them all they could do was pray for the best.
Levon remembers how they were deported from one city to the next with little water and food. The Turkish gendarmes dragged them through the hot scorching sun in the desert. As Levon was describing the conditions of the desert he said to me, ” I remember being pushed around by the gendarme and saw people kicked when they wanted a little break from walking.
As the hot, long journey continued, my grandfather became not only older but also very alert to his surroundings. One incident that he will always remember was how Levonís mother left her new born baby daughter on the side of the road. Since she could not carry both of them, she had to choose between the children she loved deeply. Levonís mother decided to leave the baby girl because she was small and knew that she was not going to have enough energy to take care of a baby girl. Levon said in a soft voice, ” I remember my mother looking back to see how my sister Knarig was doing and hoped that someone would pick her up and take her to a safe place.”
As the years passed, Levon now was getting older and what he had seen could never be forgotten. When I asked him what he had seen there was a long pause of silence. Could it be that he did not want to remember or was it so bad that he did not want to tell me? Finally, after several minutes he told me what he had seen. He remembers a place called Der el Zor. This was a place where many skulls were piled very high. Not bodies. Just skulls. Later it was found out, that they were the skulls of Armenians. He also remembers a time he and his mother had to walk over dead bodies. This place was near the Euphrates River.
Somehow Levon and his mother made it to Marash, Turkey in 1920. This shows that they had been roaming around for five years. When they arrived in Marash in 1920, they didnít know where to go. An Armenian Church gave them shelter for a couple of months until Levonís mother found a job as a seamstress. Just when things were going in the right direction for them a war broke out in Marash. Mustafa Kemal and his army were once again attacking the Armenian population. Levon was wandering the streets and felt eerie about his surroundings. He saw small groups having discussions and realized that most of the stores were closed. So he decided to go get his mother from work. As he was entering his motherís work place, he saw that soldiers surrounded the area. He was frantically trying to get inside so he could reach his mother, but was unable to. A man pulled him out of there and said, “Get out of here and go to the church where it will be safe.” As he entered the church he heard gun fire and explosions. By now the church was filled with many families. Levon was hungry and had no other choice but to ask for food. My grandfather showed me by putting out his hand and begging, ” I am alone and hungry, can I have some food please?” And of course they would not refuse a little boy that had no family and an empty stomach.
My grandfather was placed in an orphanage in Marash. The conditions of the orphanage were not very pleasant but he could not complain because he had nowhere else to go. One problem of the orphanage was the amount of food they received. The orphans were served with food once a day, which consisted of one cup of tea and some bread. From the orphanage he was sent to foster parents. They did not take care of Levon as a mother and father would have. He ended up contacting malaria and was hospitalized for a few months. After he recovered he returned to the orphanage. In 1923, many orphans were transported to an orphanage in Jibal, Lebanon. My grandfather said they were served with three meals a day, had clothing, books and more. He was there for two to three years and then they transported him to Antelias, Beirut. At this orphanage, the orphans spent half the day at school and the other half learning a trade. The orphans had general working occupations such as: carpentry, tailoring, plumbing, shoemaking, and baking bread. By being introduced to various trades, the orphans were able to find jobs once they were released from the orphanage.
At the age of sixteen, Levon was old enough to find a job as a carpenter. He realized that he was not earning much money so he always kept an eye out for another opportunity. Levon and his friend found a job at Mobil Oil Company, in Beirut. He began to socialize and met different people. He and his friends lived in a boarding house where they paid a lady to take care of them by, cooking, cleaning, and doing their laundry. After a couple of years, people began to get married and left the place. In 1933, Levon met an elderly lady named Aznive who became like a mother to him. She also cleaned and cooked for him. In 1945, Aznive went back to Armenia to look for her family. In 1944, Levon met a girl named Sara at work and ended up getting married. My grandfather and grandmother had four children.
You might be wondering if he ever heard from or found his mother. While staying at the orphanage he received a few letters from his mother saying that she would come back to get him but she never did. One time he received a letter saying that his mother had remarried and she also enclosed a picture with the letter. But my grandfather felt very upset to hear she remarried so he kept only his mother’s part of the picture. Like many other survivors my grandfather searched for family members by advertising in Armenian newspapers. Fortunately, he found his uncle in Bolis (Istanbul), Turkey. They were able to communicate with letters but then his uncle passed away. Levon is still searching in the United States for his family, but so far has found no one.
The Armenian people have been through many hardships. The troubles the Armenians faced began before the year of 1915. In 1894-1896 about 300,000 Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Government. In 1915, the Young Turk government tried to annihilate the Armenian people. As a result of the Genocide, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred.
A person I love deeply, with all my heart, was part of the deportations. I was very fortunate to have this opportunity to interview my grandfather, Levon. I had no idea that he had gone through so many hardships. The worst part of all of this was not knowing what became of his family. As my grandfather says, ” God had blessed me to survive such obstacles in life.” My grandfather’s belief in the Lord and the will to survive ultimately brought him back to a full circle of joy by having four children and four grandchildren.
The most important thing of this interview was I was able to learn not only about my grandfatherís struggles but also what the Armenian people have been through.