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Armenian Immigrants Recall a 90-Year-Old Tragedy

Armenian Immigrants Recall a 90-Year-Old Tragedy
Published: April 23, 2005 in the New York Times

A cheery sign in the New York Armenian Home in Flushing, Queens, yesterday informed its elderly residents in colorful letters of the current date, season and weather. And of an anniversary: ''Remember April 24, the Armenian Genocide.''

A framed proclamation by Gov. George E. Pataki hung nearby, declaring April 24 as Armenian Remembrance Day to commemorate the Turkish massacres of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915. It called the killings ''the 20th century's first such calculated effort to destroy people on a massive scale'' and added that ''the Armenian Genocide led academics to coin and utilize the very term genocide.''

It is doubtful that even with failing memories, any residents at the home needed a reminder.

''This time of year, they all get disturbed and remember,'' said Jenny Akopyan, assistant director of the home.

Tomorrow, thousands of Armenian-Americans from across the Northeast are expected to gather in Times Square to mark the 90th anniversary of the murders of their relatives and forebears by Ottoman Turks during World War I.

On April 24, 1915, Turkish soldiers arrested hundreds of Armenian leaders in Constantinople, then tortured and executed them. The mass slaughter of Armenians over the next several years is often called the first genocide of that century and a precursor to the Holocaust.

The Armenian Home, on 45th Avenue in Flushing, opened in 1948 and has long housed many genocide survivors who escaped by playing dead, fleeing or other means. Most of the residents are from families decimated by the genocide, but only a half dozen -- all in their 90's -- actually escaped it as children.

The most recent death of a survivor was in August: Lucy Derderian, age 103, who ''only survived the genocide because her mother was smart enough to hide her under the dead bodies during a massacre,'' said Aghavni Ellian, the home's executive director.

Ms. Ellian walked into the home's day room, where about two dozen elderly Armenian immigrants sat watching ''The Price Is Right'' on a large television next to an ornate Christian shrine bedecked in crimson and gold. She carried a lamb dish that had been delivered for later: madal, a roast blessed by a priest and traditionally eaten on April 24.

The residents had just finished small cups of thick, strong Armenian coffee. Few survivors could offer completely lucid recollections, but each had some snippet of horror seared into memory.

Gulumya Erberber, 93, said that Turkish soldiers had beheaded her father, a wealthy academic, and seized his riches and several houses. She was 3 years old then, and her mother fled with the five children to a mountain village where the townspeople did not speak Armenian but did help the family.

Israel Arabian, 99, leaned on his cane and related how he was forced to work for a Turkish officer who took Mr. Arabian's teenage sister ''as a wife.'' He ran away and grew up in a Greek orphanage before eventually coming to New York and settling in Queens.

Many Armenians bitterly denounce the Turkish government for denying that the killings constituted genocide. In an interview yesterday, Tuluy Tanc, minister counselor for the Turkish Embassy in Washington, said the accusation of genocide was ''unfair and untrue,'' a legal ploy to gain reparations.

''We don't see what happened as genocide, quote-unquote,'' Mr. Tanc said. ''Unfortunate and tragic events took place during World War I and bad things happened to Armenians, and Muslims and Turks also.''

''The number killed is much less than they say -- it's more like 300,000 Armenians who lost their lives,'' he said, adding that Turkish leaders had recently asked Armenia to set up a commission to study the killings.

Onorik Eminian, 93, said she was a young child living in the city of Izmir when the Turks killed her parents and other relatives. She said she has never stopped having nightmares about it, especially in April.

''I saw plenty, sir, plenty,'' she said. ''I saw them go in and they broke our churches. They took old ladies, old like me now, and shot them one by one. This I saw in front of my eyes. They chopped the arms off our schoolteachers and hung them from the trees in the street to teach us a lesson. We watched our priest come delivering food, and they killed him and threw the food into the street.''

''Are you sure you want to hear my sad story?'' she asked. ''I was playing in front of our house when they came on horses. My grandmother pulled me in. The Turks grabbed my father -- he was hiding Armenians in his coffee shop -- and I cried, 'Daddy, Daddy, don't go' and I held onto his leg. Then one soldier told me to shut up and hit me right here with a rifle. Look, I still got the mark.''

Weeping, she pointed to a bump on her forehead between her eyebrows and dabbed her eyes with a tissue.

''I said, 'Where's my father?' and they said, 'Here's your father,' and they held up his jacket and pants.''

She grew up in an orphanage, and eventually came to New York, lived in Astoria and had two daughters who never saw any mention of Armenian genocide in their history books.

''If you write this in the newspaper,'' she said, ''will the Turks come here and kill me? I'm still afraid of them.''

Photos: At top, Onorik Eminian, left, chatted yesterday with Charlotte Kechejian at the New York Armenian Home in Flushing, Queens. Both survived the Turkish massacre of Armenians in World War I. Above, Ms. Eminian received a hug from Aghavni Ellian, the home's director, as Rose Girgosian looked on. (Photographs by James Estrin/The New York Times)

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