A genocide survivor's last wish

by Tom Vartabedian

Published: Tuesday November 02, 2010

Author's late mother, Ojen (Jennie) Vartabedian is pictured on right.

Haverhill, Mass. - Like many Armenian Genocide survivors, my mother would stand erect at April 24th commemorations with a red carnation in hand, recite her prayers and sing her songs with conviction.

The fact she was into her mid-90s paid little consequence.

As the years rolled by, she watched her coterie dwindle from 70 to a precious few. In her home town of Haverhill, she remained the sole survivor. Her Armenian name was Ojen --- an unusual one at that --- and her very last observance in 2008 had fate written all over it.

Only one other survivor from Merrimack Valley showed up that year and her name was Ojen. They could have rehashed the tragedy that befell their people during the genocidal years of 1915-1923 when 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of the Ottoman Turk.

But how many times must you hear the same diatribe, shed the same tears, before growing weary? Instead, they spoke of being the last of a vanishing breed. One Ojen said to the other, "You'll outlive me. I'm in a nursing home. You're living independently."

The other replied, "Yes, but you seem to be stranger than an ox. You'll go on living forever."
My mother passed away Oct. 19 in a blaze of glory with her family by her side. Even the nurses at Hannah Duston Nursing Home marveled at how she was able to defy death so persistently, unaware that she was able to evade the Turkish gendarmes as a child by hiding in a well for days.

The last sensible thing she said to me occurred about four days prior to her demise. She grabbed my attention out of the clear blue and this is what she offered in a voice that crackled with sentiment.

"Continue being true to your faith and your heritage. But that is not enough. Make sure your children and grandchildren practice their culture and worship God. If we don't have our church and our heritage, we have nothing. The responsibility is in your hands now."

Although it may have been premature, I do believe it was a sense of closue on her part, knowing that her wishes were revealed and how the ethnic baton was being passed from one generation to another.

This past Sunday, I gathered my Armenian School students together and told them her wish. Those who knew expressed their condolences. We used her life as an example of resiliency.

For what it was worth amidst a class of adolescences, I told them, "We owe it to these remaining survivors and those who died for their cause to lobby for recognition and get a genocide bill passed in Congress. We need an admission of guilt from Turkey and the restoration of our land and churches."

Jennie was laid to rest with a funeral fit for a queen. She may have been humbled by all the attention and probably never realized the true legacy she had left behind. Inside the casket with rosary beads in hand was a miniature Tricolor flag that rested on her heart.

A hand-carved wooden cross stood erect, prepared by a Russian immigrant who arrived here in the 1940s as a 21-year cousin she and her sister sponsored. On the day of her burial, a dear friend who had just returned from a pilgrimage to Syria handed me a plastic bag containing some sand. It was from the desert of Der Zor where thousands perished during a death march.

The sand was sprinkled in the form of a cross during the burial service, sending Jennie back to her roots.

I look back upon it all with no remorse. You tend to dwell upon the good times, even while being institutionalized the last four years. You see the smile, not the tears. You remember happy thoughts, not the tragic moments. Every new day was a gift.

She used to grin at the thought of how she ever wound up inside a nursing home. It was just for a visit, I told her. She had broken a hip and needed rehabilitation.

"Four years. Oh my! This was the longest visit I ever had anywhere," she often reminded me.

The woman was feisty. At the ripe age of 90, I took her car keys away after some erratic driving. She balked at such insolence. How would she transport herself to the gym anymore?

A few days later, I got a call from a neighbor. "Come quickly," she urged. "Jennie's in the garage and she's got the hood up in her car with wires in her hands." I sped the whole way and there she was, trying to jump start the vehicle.

But that was Jennie -- always in the driver's seat!

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Carolann Najarian. Courtesy image

Calendar of Events

Veteran Armenian American activist Carolann Najarian will present her father's memoirs on surviving the genocide and settling in America, at a Boston area event on October 30; for details about this and other upcoming Armenian happenings in America consult the Calendar of Events.





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