Sweet Van: Genocide survivor has mother’s memories to sustain a long life

Aharon Manukyan’s eyes widen when memories of his childhood take him back to his home in Van, then to an orphanage in Alexandrapol and the big, round chocolates of a Mr. Yaro, a patron of that orphanage.

The orphanage became the boy’s home when he became exiled like so many thousands who were chased from their homes during the 1915 Genocide. Not so many survivors remain these 90 years later. Aharon was only 1 year old when his family was run out of their home. His account of deportation relies on stories told by his mother.

His 91 year old face shows all its age, when he retells his mother’s account . . .

The Vanetsis put up a fight against Turkish invaders, aided by Russian forces. But when the Russians pulled out, the 200,000-strong Armenian population left for Eastern Armenia. Aharon’s father died during the battle to save Van.

“My mother passed the deportation path with me on her arms and (brothers) Meliqset and Vahram pulling on her skirt,” Aharon says. “When we were crossing the river it was very red, and the water carried corpses.”

Aharon’s mother, Mariam, hid their family valuables in her father’s grave in Van, then set out on foot with the three children for Echmiadsin. There, she had to beg for food to keep the children alive. Soon, she took the children to the orphanage in Alexandrapol (now Gyumri), then returned to Echmiadzin to look for a job.

Aharon remembers the years spent in the orphanage.

“The orphanage belonged to an American couple. The husband’s name was Mr. Yaro and the wife’s name Miss Limin,” Aharon says, pronouncing names of orphanage trustees like a five-year old child, distorting the pronunciation. “They were very kind people. They lost their only child and devoted all their love to the orphanage children.”

He lists the orphanage food as if so many decades had not passed since he ate them: milk, soup, gata, halva, dried fruit. The orphanage seemed a paradise for a child who passed through starvation.

“It was only once that I did not go to school. I had a sore throat and I did not feel like going to school. There was an American whose name was Miche. When children did not want to go to school the mother-superior, Sandukht, the orphanage headmistress, called Miche. Miche came, took out my trousers and, thrashing, drove me barefooted through snow to the school entrance,” Aharon smiles. “This was the last time I was absent from school.”

The American couple adopted Aharon and his brothers and intended to take them to the United States. Aharon’s mother learned about it and rushed to the orphanage. She had found a job in Yerevan and could take the children with her.

“My mother was in charge of technical services at a laundry in Yerevan. In a short while, Mrs. Limin came. She offered 40 pieces of gold for my mother to let me go with her to America. She told my mother that I reminded her of her dead son. But my mother refused,” Aharon laughs naughtily. “I would be a wealthy man now. They say Mr. Yaro had 200 offices in America.”

Aharon has bright memories of his mother. During her whole life Mariam told endlessly about the town of Van – the Armenian districts of Aygestan and Qaghaqamech, churches, the town fortress, Armenian habits and culture.

“My mother told us,” Aharon remembers, “that during windy days water in the lake rose and fish, which were thrown ashore, moved to the town through rivulets. People caught them very easily. Tarekh (herring) was a very tasty fish. And in the nearby village of Artamet, a type of very sweet apple called bagyurmas, grew. One of such apples weighed more than a kilo.”

“My father never misses a chance to speak of Van,” says Aharon’s daughter Ruzan, 47. “For example whenever we eat fish he says: ‘you should have eaten tarekh (herring) from Lake Van’. We all know he also has never had it, but we understand that it is very important for him to speak of Van. It is kind of paying tribute to his homeland and to my grandmother.”

Aharon looks at nowhere and smiles. He is not in the room, but moved to his past now and like a film come episodes from his life and his mother’s image . . .

“There was a hot spring coming from underneath St.Virgin Church,” Aharon repeats what his mother had told him. “Every kind of sick person came and took a bath in the water and was healed. People threw gold pieces into the water as a payment for their wonder healing.

“My mother, although uneducated, was a very kind and wise woman. All my life I have been reading and learning things, however the values I have had in my life come from my mother - good manners, honesty, kindness. These I passed to my four children.”

In 1945, inspired from his mother’s stories and the family’s fate, Aharon graduated from Yerevan State University in the faculty of history. And he never forgot that he is Vanetsi.

He says he is partly satisfied, knowing that this year some European states formally acknowledged as fact the Armenian Genocide. He dreams of seeing the day when Turkey will be called to account for those atrocities.

His glance is again far away in the past, and he sometimes smiles indulged in sweet memories. And sometimes frowns from a history that has given him the label of “survivor”.