My Mother’s Story: An individual’s account of the Armenian genocide

The St. James’ Armenian Food Festival is full of good food, but it’s also a way to learn more about Armenia’s troubled past. Here’s a firsthand account that will inspire you to celebrate a culture that almost wasn’t.

Anne Norris and hundreds of others in Richmond’s Armenian community have been working around the clock to make the lahmejoon, bulgur salad, hummus, and other culinary hallmarks of the annual St. James Armenian Food Festival.

Her late father, Jack Tootelian, wrote an account of his mother’s experience during the Armenian Genocide and published it in his high school literary magazine in 1939. This year, we commemorate that particular atrocity’s 100-year anniversary.

While an estimated 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives in the early part of the 20th century, we can pay homage to their vibrant culture this weekend at the Armenian Food Festival, which began today and extends through Sunday, September 13th.

If you’d like to know more about Armenia, Armenian cuisine, Armenian history, or Anne Norris and her family, stop by St. James Church at 834 Pepper Avenue. And don’t feel badly about being very excited about the food even as you’re sad about what you read below. The survival of Armenian culture is something to celebrate.

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My Mother’s Story, by Jack Tootelian, 1939

In 1914 my mother was a girl of seventeen, living in Izmit, Turkey. She has often told me the story of her experience in the World War.

“My father, Hageh Boyigian, was a typical Armenian who loved the simple things in life,” my mother relates. “He enjoyed smoking a good pipe, having a few small drinks of Armenian whiskey before supper, and having his relatives and friends come over in the evening to our spacious house to play cards and talk over the events of the day. Life was real and wholesome to us Armenians. We were content.

“It was a quiet day in that small town on the coast of the Black Sea. The horrible war of 1914 was but a few days old. My sister Elizabeth and I were standing in our large pear and apple orchard watching our father direct some of the hired men. The chores were just finished when the peace was suddenly broken by the thundering sounds of horses’ hoofs and the sharp reports of guns. My sister and I ran to the town square with every one else to see what had happened.

“We saw a small company of dust-covered Turkish soldiers standing beside their horses in front of the Armenian church. From the steps of the church their leader spoke in an authoritative voice: ‘All Armenians in Izmit and its suburbs are to be prepared to evacuate their homes within a week for other parts of Turkey because of the danger of the war. You will be brought back within about two weeks.’ That was all he said.

“And so in that fateful month of October, 1914, we Armenians of Izmit were put on cattle cars and sent south for two and a half days to the edge of the desert. After waiting there a week, we were ordered to start marching into the desert. The richer families were able to rent wagons from the Turks, but the poorer people had to walk. Many had not even money to buy food. My father was able to rent two wagons for our family, which consisted of my mother, my two sisters, Agavne and Elizabeth, my aunt’s family, and me, the youngest.

“As the days passed, thousand of Armenians from all parts of Turkey joined the ones from Izmit. We were constantly marching father into the desert, and soon even the people with wagons had to abandon them, for the horses and oxen could go no further, from sheer exhaustion.

“The Turks would force us to walk through parts of the desert in which there was no water at all. Towards evening they would lead us to a little spring or well, where we would all try to get a drink at once. The next morning at sunrise, we would again be forced to resume our never-ending march under the blazing sun. As we broke camp, we could look back and see twenty or thirty people who had died in the night.

“The Turks always carried enough water and food for themselves and their horses until they should reach the next camp. Young girls would offer to become the wives of the Turks for only a little water to drink.

“The soldiers, with whips and guns in their hands, would constantly try to confuse and scare us, so that we would be separated and lost from our loved ones. Elizabeth and I and part of my aunt’s family were soon separated from the rest of our party in the tremendous confusion. The soldiers took pride in seeing us suffer and cry in our bewildered state.

“Month after month my sister and I went from village to village across the desert, always searching for our mother and father and third sister, never knowing whether they were dead or alive. We went through the most horrifying and heartbreaking experiences that a person can. We saw young, innocent girls carried off by the Turks. We saw Armenian boys and men between the ages of ten and thirty taken off by the Turks, told that they were needed by the Turkish army, but actually lined up against some sand dune and shot down in cold blood. Hundreds of disillusioned mothers dressed their boys in girls’ clothes so that they might not be carried off and shot down without a chance for life.

“In my mind it would have been better to be shot down in cold blood than to go through the hell we experienced. The thirst, the hunger, the heat of the desert, and the continuous walking were far worse than a quick and painless death.

“Mothers of young babies would get so tired from lack of food and water that they would leave their babies along the road to die. I remember one young woman in particular. Her husband had been one of the first shot down. She had a three-year-old son and no money. As the days passed she became weaker and weaker. We tried to help her, but what could we do? If we didn’t save the little money and food we had, we would soon be as badly off as she was. It was every one for himself in that friendless desert. She soon realized that if something was not done, she and her son would be left to die in the blistering desert. One day, to save her son’s life, she gave him to an Arab who was riding along besides us. He promised to take good care of her baby. In a few days she dropped in the burning sand and died. Her death was caused not by starvation alone, but more by mental agony. As she dropped on the sand that last day of her life, she called out that she heard her baby son crying: ‘Mother, mother, where are you?’

“After Elizabeth and I had been walking through the desert for a little over three years, our party came to the outskirts of Musul, Turkey. Here an Armenian youth who had in some way become a friend of the Turks in that region, was walking among the tents trying to find some one from his home town of Izmit. As he was passing our tent, he recognized me. It must have been some supreme power that had guided hum to our particular tent, but whatever it was, we were saved. I asked him, hopelessly, if he had seen my mother and father. To my overwhelming surprise he had, and he said he would send Elizabeth and me to them.

“In a few hours Elizabeth and I, through the efforts of this youth, were put on a train and sent to Constantinople, where we were to meet our long-lost parents. In Constantinople we found our mother and our sister Agavne, but to our great sorrow we learned that our helpless father had been whipped to death by a cold-hearted Turkish private in a moment of anger.”

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