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The Critical Corner - 08/08/2005

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Armenian News Network / Groong
August 8, 2005

  A Hair's Breadth From Death: The Memoirs of Hampartzoum Mardiros Chitjian.
  Taderon Press London and Reading, 2003, 433 pages.
  ISBN: 1-903656-30-3
  Distributed by Garod books.

By Narini Badalian


As 2005 marks the 90th anniversary of the Genocide, Armenians around
the world have mobilized with greater intensity to commemorate what
their ancestors were subjected to in the Ottoman Empire. At the same
time, they condemn and combat the cruel and pervasive denial of the
Genocide, which claimed the lives of over a million innocent victims.
Most of us can understand the theoretical and conceptual frameworks of
genocide. But what is it that was lost? One of the most indispensable
sources of information for the experience of the victims and the life
that existed for Armenians in the Ottoman Empire is survivor memoirs.

Hampartzoum Mardiros Chitjian's memoir "A Hair's Breadth from Death"
embodies the true pain and suffering of those dark years.  Knowing
statistics is one thing, but how such injustices, harsh deportations
and senseless murders manifest, is what Hampartzoum provides us with a
high sense of responsibility to detail and accuracy.  But more than
his years in the `inferno', as he describes his six year struggle to
live in Turkey between 1915 to 1921, he writes with care and passion
about his pre-genocide life, providing a deeper glimpse into the
Armenian family, community and culture which had thrived for centuries
and was suddenly uprooted in 1915.

After fleeing his yergeer (country) via Iran, where he also met
hardship, Hampartzoum found himself in Mexico and finally in Los
Angeles where he led a more than modest life as a successful business
man.  He made trips to Soviet Armenia, Istanbul and around the United
States to visit with other survivors, attending every Genocide
commemoration his health allowed him to. In 1975, his daughter
initiated an Armenian history and culture program in L.A.'s public
schools.  She asked her father to participate. Inspired by his
daughter and her inquisitive elementary school children, he began the
emotionally drenching process of digging into his memory and bringing
to paper his life story.

Hampartzoum Mardiros Chtijian provides what we expect and need from a
survivor's account. His detailed description of his home, town,
school, land resources and chores are impeccable. By the time you are
through with Part I of the three-part tome, you can rebuild Perri,
Hampartouzm's hometown in Kharpert.

But more than the colossal wealth of information, whether it be the
dimensions of the tools he used, like the logh to flatten the roof of
his home before snowfall, the mesmerizing ouri (willow) trees across
the landscape, or the way they used lamb ankle bones, as children, to
play street games; you become so acquainted with Hampartzoum, his five
brothers, three sisters, father, mother, paternal grandfather and
paternal aunt, that you forget you are sitting in your living room in
Watertown MA in 2005. You look around, searching for the 150 shops
that studded the center of Perri. But the worst part about forgetting
you're not in Perri is that there is no toneer, to bake lavash bread,
in your home.

Hampartzoum was 14 in 1915 and well aware of the precarious conditions
Armenians subsisted in. His maternal grandfather had been beheaded in
the 1894-1896 Sultan Abdul Hamid massacres. His two older brothers had
been sent to America before 1915, as a precaution. One day, the
school, which Hampartzoum attended and cherished, had been notified
that it would be searched for revolutionary materials. The teachers
were rounded up and told to warn the community to turn in all the
weapons to the Turkish officials. A committee of teachers, priests and
influential community members was formed. One priest was adamant to
appease the Turks, and he went so far as to convert from an Armenian
priest to an Islamic Mullah. I tried not to imagine other Armenians
who might have converted with such ease. Some Armenians secretly
bought guns in order to turn them in, thinking that this would spare
them, unfortunately, it turned out they were wrong. The teachers and
priests were the first to be beaten to death.

Perri was a town with 800 Armenian, 100 Turkish and a few Kurdish
families. Most of the shops in the center of town, owned by Armenians,
were confiscated by the government and turned into make-shift jails
where the Armenian males, including Hampartzoum's father, were brought
and tortured. After days of torment he returned home, covered in dry
blood stains. Advised by an Armenian who had converted to Islam during
the 1894-1896 massacres, he took his four remaining sons to a Turkish
orphanage where their names, language and religion were changed. These
orphaned Armenian children were stripped of their identities by
Turkish officials, their lives as they knew it were forever abducted.

Hampartzoum's youngest brother was killed, as they had no use for him
and the younger boys who constantly cried for their mothers. The older
boys were forced to plunder the homes of Armenians (which by now had
official Turkish governmental seals on them) and bring back the
confiscated goods to the Armenian church, which was also stolen from
the Armenians. After there were no homes left to pillage, the older
boys were to be killed. Lucky boys, like Hampartzoum managed to escape.
The rest of his family, who stayed in Perri as Armenians, were forced
on a death march. When they reached a river, his father advised
Hampartzoum's sister, because of her physical handicap, to throw
herself in the river, knowing the Turks would take great pleasure
torturing the helpless girl.  I had to stop here and wonder what
extremely dire circumstances a father would have to be in to direct
his daughter to commit suicide.

Hampartzoum, continuously resisting death, worked as a slave for Turks
and Kurds, on farms, as a shepherd, sleeping in the stables, keeping
warm from the animal manure, laboring hard torturous hours just for
something to keep his stomach from collapsing. He saw one gruesome
murder after another, corpses filling the gorges and rivers, people
tied up to be scorched by the sun, and even children and babies who
were not spared. Hampartzoum's heroism is evident through his
chronicles. The chores and life he had been exposed to before the
`inferno' proved quite valuable in his six year struggle escaping from
Turkey. He saved countless lives, by stealing from a bakery where he
worked to feed hungry orphans, caring for his tuberculosis stricken
cousin, finding places for his brother and others to sleep and
work. `I felt every Armenian that crossed my path was mine and I was
theirs,' says Hampartzoum. In a devastatingly antagonistic
environment, he put his life second to others.

The extent of his sacrifice is evident through the following story.

Hampartzoum was a slave in a predominantly Turkish village, Parchanj,
where a gendarme lived across the street from him.  This was in
1918-1919, when `ethnic cleansing should have subsided in accord with
the new [Ataturk's] government decree. Instead it worsened.
...Throughout each and every day, the moonehdeegs (Turkish town
criers) carried posters, chanting, `Anyone harboring an Armenian will
be fined and jailed for five years with a chain around their neck.''
These words haunted him then and through the rest of his life. The
gendarme who detested Armenians was, ironically enough, married to
one. The gendarme's wife beleaguered Hampartzoum, perhaps more than
anyone had in his life, harassing him by shouting "gavour boghee"
(infidel s..t). A year later Hampartzoum was living in safer
conditions in Kharpert where he found out that another government
decree stated that Armenian slaves were to be freed from their Turkish
and Kurdish masters.  Hampartzoum, without anyone having asked him,
set off back to Parchanj to save the Armenian girl who was a slave for
the gendarme and his Armenian wife. It just so happened that the wife,
who nearly got Hampartzoum caught and killed in order to save herself,
needed his assistance to escape. Without a word he rescued her. Some
time after this incident he was apprehended for no legal reason by
Turkish officials and brought to a jail, where he was to be killed
with 50 or so other Armenian boys.  A gendarme was staring straight at
him, and when Hampartzoum recognized that he was the gendarme from
Parchanj, he knew he was too be tortured. By chance, the gendarme was
ignorant as to how his Armenian wife had escaped and asked Hampartzoum
to find her and bring her back, and Hampartzoum again escaped from

As someone born in the early 1980's to a safe and secure environment,
I found it admirable and inspiring to read of the courage of
Hampartzoum in the face of overwhelming adversity. I found myself
staring out my front door, imagining what it must have been like to
live in constant terror. Society was no longer functional; not only
economically, but more so psychologically.

Hampartzoum, who came from a very devout family, writes: `you never
survive from a genocide', although he did survive in one sense, the
tragic years of his life tormented him forever, as is apparent from
his own words that he suffered from survivors guilt: `We were
completely defenseless!....My survival must have been a miracle, an
act of God!  But why weren't all of the other martyrs saved by the
same means? I have never stopped questioning this dilemma... Did I
escape only to relate my experiences as a living witness."

He relates his experiences in this 433-page book, with over a hundred
maps, photos and illustrations. The book, translated from Armenian
under the supervision of Hampartzoum, meticulously supplied with
details, was written with a purposefully `simplistic style' as Zaruhy,
his daughter, has noted in her preface. With his straightforward
style, you will have no difficulties in feeling Hampartzoum's honesty,
passion for the Armenian people, his fears for the future generations
and his quest for justice.

I recommend this memoir, which is perhaps the last published by a
living witness of the great calamity, especially to the younger
generations. While this review stresses his years in Turkey during the
Genocide, it must be noted that this is just part of the book, - a
part that we are eternally grateful to the author for sharing with us.
Yet, he does not by any means begin and end with the Genocide. The
reader will find Hampartzoum's life before and after the `inferno'
captivating. One can physically survive trauma, but how does one
conquer the mental aspect, how does one go on and create one's own
family? His determination, - not just to go on living, - but having
endured inhumane acts, to go on struggling for humanity stimulated me
to keep reading to try and understand this phenomenon. With a
tremendous desire to see the Armenian nation unified, Hampartzoum
reminds us that the Turks did not differentiate Armenians based on
their chosen political affiliation, nor the church they attended (if
they attended at all). He recalls the most memorable words of his
father, which were true then and conceivably still true now: `They are
going to eat our heads if we do not unite in our actions!'

Hampartzoum is no longer with us, and will not see the day when the
perpetrators of this vicious crime will face their past. But as the
intensity of the 90th anniversary of the Genocide around the world
attests, we will see the day.

Narini Badalian, a native of Watertown, Massachusetts is a major in
history at the American University of Paris, France. She graduated
from the Genocide and Human Rights Studies program provided by the
Zoryan Institute. She's a graduate of Melkonian Education Institute
in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Narini's articles have been published in various Armenian newspapers
and she's currently working on publishing her memoirs about a trip she
took through eastern Turkey.

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