Kurkjian Research into Gesaria Photo Brings Genocide into Focus

By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BELMONT, Mass. — A single photo for journalist Stephen Kurkjian has been the means to tie together the shredded history of martyred Armenians on their ancestral lands, whose descendants, as a result of the Armenian Genocide, are scattered around the globe now.

Kurkjian stumbled upon a photo taken in Gesaria (Kayseri) of Armenian men who had been found guilty by Ottoman military courts on a variety of trumped-up charges. It is the fate of those 50-odd men in the photo that sums up neatly the lives shattered by the Genocide.

“Our story was made real by this photo,” Kurkjian said.

The photograph is unique in showing a group of identified men rounded up by the authorities, many of whose fates are known.

Speaking at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) on April 23, Kurkjian noted the message of condolence offered by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that day, calling on him to “give those of us to whom he offers condolences for the killing of our grandparents, free passage to the villages of our birthrights for proper Armenian services for those who were killed.”

Kurkjian has spent about a decade researching the Gesaria photo, finding out the fate of the men as well as contacting descendants.

“It was not an easy story to do,” he said, as every name led to “death, deprivation, defeat and denial.”

He added, “I keep things at an arm’s length when dealing with tragedy,” but the distance evaporated quickly when doing this very special story, as his own family hails from Gesaria.

Kurkjian spoke about how Belmont resident Elaine Patapanian contacted him about the photo, as her grandfather, Varteres Armenyan, was in it.

“I spent a lot of time trying to find the secrets behind this photograph,” he said, crediting NAASR’s Marc Mamigonian for helping steer him right as well as Arpie Davis for providing translations. Patapanian’s grandfather been taken to prison in July 1915 and then on to a long march outside Gesaria, toward Sivas. In a final letter to his wife, realizing that he should expect the worst, he had written, “Kiss my children’s eyes for me.”

It was this phrase that caught Kurkjian’s imagination and would not release him. “Perhaps it was because I had recently become a grandfather but the connection that it made for me was real. And I felt perhaps a sense of obligation to tell their story, of what had happened to them,” he explained.

Armenyan was one of 1,100 Armenian men in Gesaria who were tried by a military court from mid to late May 1915. In June, the hangings began. Most were charged with possession of weapons or membership in one of two banned Armenian political parties, the Hunchagian and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

Interestingly, of all those men, only two were acquitted and one was Armenyan. But acquittal did not mean freedom; it meant a death march.

All in all, of the 1,100 men arrested in Gesaria during this period, 900 were either hanged or killed during marches.

Kurkjian explained that this specific photo kept popping up, in a Damascus wall calendar. He found the photo also in the archives of Vahan Elmayan who was a witness to the killings in Gesaria and wrote an account of it in 1920 in an Armenian newspaper published in Chicago, called Yeritasard Hayastan. Elmayan also wrote of the events in Gesaria in 1965 in a large volume written in Armenian whose title, loosely translated, is Fifty Years Since the Great Catastrophe.

Kurkjian said that his search for answers showed that despite the tremendous work of people like Vahakn Dadrian, Taner Akçam and Mamigonian, there is still not a “cohesive archive that contains the relevant documents that would answer definitively the questions of what happened here, and why.”

He added, “Except for Armenia, no other government has ever supported through manpower or finances a comprehensive research effort, like we saw with the Nuremberg Trials and related investigations on how the Holocaust took place, and who was responsible.”

The photo, he noted, had survived because of the efforts of Haratoun Nakashian, and his daughter, Alice, who had preserved his papers and shared them with Kurkjian, helping him piece together much of their story.

Kurkjian said that in Gesaria, Salih Zeki, a regional executive, was filled with exceptional bloodlust toward Armenians. An explosion at the home of an Armenian gave him the pretext to round up all the Armenian men in the district. After the men were arrested and/or killed immediately, he went after the women, children and the elderly from Gesaria, forcing them on a long death march into the desert. The photo, he said, was taken in order for Zeki to ingratiate himself with the Enver, Talaat and Cemal triumvirate to prove his zeal in the extermination efforts.

“The Armenian Genocide shredded the tenuous tissue that bonds one person to another, families together. With so many villages destroyed and people killed, who your neighbor was or who may have been related to you by blood or marriage has been lost for most Armenians alive today. Certainly lost is the feeling of attachment to the land. Because of Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the genocide or apologize for what took place, many of the 10 million Armenians in the worldwide diaspora are reluctant to go back and visit the villages of their ancestors,” Kurkjian said.

Kurkjian is an acclaimed journalist formerly with the Boston Globe. He has won three Pulitzer Prizes for his investigative work with the Globe. He is also a NAASR board member.