By Stephen Kurkjian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
PRAIRIEVILLE, La. — June Holden, now 70 and living in Louisiana, has long suspected that she was Armenian. There was the olive skin, dark hair and flashing brown eyes that set her apart from her blue-eyed, sandy-haired siblings. And there was more: her mother had told her once about an Armenian man in her past, someone for whom she had worked for as a waitress in Richmond, Va., after her husband had abandoned the family.
The question of her father’s identity burned inside June for more than a half century, until this year when she decided to try to do something about it. She turned to a DNA ancestry service, 23andme.com, which measured her DNA and confirmed her suspicions: although her mother and her mother’s husband were both of Northern European descents, June Holden’s DNA showed she was 43.4 percent “Middle Eastern.”
Still there was the question for Holden of who her father might be so she typed this request beneath her photograph on the website: “I want to find out more about my family’s heritage…looking for DNA blood relatives on my paternal side, my bio Dad/family.”
In June, Janet (Achoukian) Andreopoulos, a remarkable researcher and amateur genealogist, learned of Holden’s quest and offered to help. Within a few short weeks, Andreopoulos proved through DNA matches and family interviews what Holden’s mother had hinted at — Michael N. Darhanian, the owner of Mike’s Grill, a popular Richmond restaurant between 1944 and 1960 — was June’s father.
The success that Andreopoulos achieved in discovering that Darhanian was June’s father has added an Armenian to the rolls of Prairieville residents. More broadly, it points to the key role that DNA research could have in unlocking Armenian family ties and histories that have long been buried by the destruction of the Armenian Genocide.
One only has to gauge the popularity of shows like PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” or see the rapid growth in the number of websites that seek to use DNA for genealogical discovery to realize Holden is not alone in seeking her ancestors or finding her kin. The drive is, in fact, especially compelling and relevant for Armenians.
So much of Armenian individual family histories were lost in the Genocide. Beyond their parents, siblings and maybe first cousins, most members of the Armenian Diaspora are unaware of what their extended family looks like. Whatever birth or baptism records may have been kept by churches in historic Armenia were lost as were most family Bibles which were traditionally used to record important family events.
Andreopoulos became familiar with this gaping hole in Armenian vital records when she took on the job of identifying members of the 1000 families Armenian families who had lived in the eastern Turkish village of Evereg at the time of the Genocide. DNA research confirmed those relationships and revealed even more descendants.
Understanding DNA Research
So how does DNA research work? By providing laboratories with a thimbleful of saliva, the websites find matches in the sequencing of the 23 chromosomes that will identify an individual’s blood relatives. The closer the family relationship, the greater percentage the individuals will share, and conversely, the more distant the relationship, the less DNA they will share. As a result, according to DNA tables:
If the individual whose DNA is being measured has an identical twin, their DNA will be 100 percent similar. A parent or brother or sister of the individual will share about 50 percent of their DNA. An individual’s DNA will be roughly 25 percent similar to their grandparent or grandchild, and similarly 25 percent similar to their aunt, uncle, niece, nephew or half-brother or half-sister. The DNA of first cousins will be about 12.5 percent similar.
Holden had gone forward with taking the DNA test earlier this year at the urging of her son who wanted to present his wife and children with a detailed family tree. Holden had told the son only once — at the birth of his own child — that she believed her father was Armenian but said no more about it until this year. The mother of two sons and married to the same man for more than 50 years, Holden appears to have led an unsurprising life and saw no need to tell anyone else in her family about her belief that her father was Armenian.
In June, when Andreopoulos learned of Holden’s quest to find her father, all she had to begin her search was Holden’s DNA make-up, a birth certificate, which had been made out by her mother and said June had been born on March 6, 1945 in Richmond. But there was also June’s memory of a conversation she had had with her mother when she was 15 in which June was told that her father was an Armenian man named Mike and he had run a “deli” in Richmond, Va.
Familiar with the available resources that a researcher has access to — such as census reports, voting records, newspaper clippings and city directories — Andreopoulos found that about a dozen Armenian men with the first name Michael were in Richmond in the mid-1940s and several of them, including, Michael N. Darhanian, owned restaurants or were in the food industry.
Andreopoulos narrowed her focus to Darhanian after talking to several older Armenians who lived in Richmond in the 1960s, including Rev. Arsen Barsamian, now associate pastor at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown, who had presided over St. James Armenian Church in Richmond, and John Baronian, a retiree. But because Darhanian had died in 1970 at the age of 64, Andreopoulos knew if she was to prove that he was June Holden’s father, the link would have to come through his surviving family relatives.
Baronian remembered Darhanian, and connected Andreopoulos to Anne Tootelian Norris and her 91-year-old mother, Elizabeth Darhanian Tootelian, a second cousin to Darhanian. Through them, she learned that Darhanian had an even closer relative, a niece, Marian Avedikian Kachadurian, now 86, of Dearborn, Mich., and Marian’s daughter Karen Kachadurian.
Remarkably, all four said they would be willing to take the DNA tests and determine if Holden was Darhanian’s daughter and a member of their family. “We felt it was the honorable thing to do,” said Anne Norris when asked why she and her mother had agreed to have their DNA tested. “I put myself in June’s shoes, not knowing for sure who her father was,” said Karen Kachadurian. “I didn’t know too much about Mike, maybe this was a good way to get to know him, through June.”
All four paid $100 and submitted samples of their saliva to the 23andme website in June. Six weeks later, in July, the results came back: Holden was related to all four of them. And as Andreopoulos expected, Holden’s DNA matched more closely that of the Kachadurians, which confirmed that they were closer relatives to Michael Darhanian than Anne Norris and her mother.
“I’m glad it has given June some peace of mind to finally know who her father is,” said Norris. “And we are very happy to have another family member and are looking forward to meeting her and and the rest of her family.”
Gaining A New Family
Holden has spoken several times to Anne Norris and Karen Kachadurian, and through them has learned much about her father. Darhanian had lived his life in Richmond, having been born there in 1905 after his father emigrated to the United States from Agin in eastern Turkey. Although he was married twice, Darhanian had no other children. (He was divorced from his first wife when he met and became smitten with Holden’s mother.) Mike’s Grill, the restaurant he operated for nearly three decades, was known for its Italian cooking, pizza and desserts. Its menu was so good that it also became known as a favorite for such New York Yankee stars as Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford who would eat there when the team would make its annual stop in Richmond to play the Yankees’ Triple A minor league franchise there.
June has also shared the little of what her mother, Ethel Allen, had told her about Darhanian — and it brought some relief to his family members who feared that Darhanian had abandoned June and her mother, then 28, on hearing of the pregnancy.
Instead, Holden told them that Darhanian had told her mother that he was willing at least to provide a home for her, June and June’s sister, and support them if she remained in Richmond. But for whatever reason, he was unwilling to take in Allen’s two sons as well. Allen turned down Darhanian’s offer and returned to her family’s home in North Carolina, where her husband came back to household and supported June and her siblings before divorcing her mother in 1958.
June Holden is still getting accustomed to knowing the identity of her father, Michael Darhanian, as well as the other members of his Armenian family. She plans to bring her family to Virginia next year to meet Anne Norris and her mother, and hopes to do likewise with the Kachadurians in Michigan. She also plans a visit to Riverview Cemetery in Richmond to visit the grave of her newly-discovered father.
“My new cousins have been so welcoming to me, they have made the whole experience worthwhile,” she said in a recent interview. Later, she says, she hopes to immerse herself into her new Armenian heritage — our culture, our history. “From what I’ve learned so far, it is an ancient and honorable civilization. I feel blessed now to be part of it,” she said.
Finding Family Trees
Beyond finding distant relatives for our family trees, DNA research may have an even more compelling role for Armenians in the future – helping in the discovery of whether men and women long thought to have died in the Genocide had in fact survived. Those who survived would have done so because they were forced to adopt Islam as their religion, and accept being taken in by a Turkish or Kurdish family.
The precise number of those who might have been spared death in this way in 1915 is not known but the question of whether they are descended from an Armenian man or woman is drawing popularity among Turks – and curiosity, at least, among Armenians in the diaspora. A conference on “Islamized Armenians” was held at Bogazici University in Istanbul in 2013. Sponsored by the Hrant Dink Foundation, the conference featured participation by several well-known Armenian Genocide scholars and researchers, including Raymond Kevorkian and Taner Akçam, of Clark University in Worcester, and drew coverage in the general Turkish press.
A paper on the conference summarized its purpose: “Even though many of the Armenians…reunited with their families in upcoming years, many of them took Turkish, Kurdish or Arabic names and remained a ‘Muslim’ for the rest of their lives, their stories were kept silent. While until very recent times no narrative of history provided a place for the Armenians who survived by Islamizing, the last years saw an increase in the numbers of novels, life stories, witnessing and historical research that shed light on the issue.”
Such survivors have died in the century that has passed since the Genocide taking their life stories with them but DNA testing can provide a resource for their descendants who are interested in finding possible relatives in the Armenian diaspora.
George Aghjayan, a respected researcher and writer on Armenian history, recently wrote in the Armenian Weekly of his experiences in connecting with long-hidden, distant relatives in Turkey after having his DNA sampled on a separate website, The Armenian DNA project. Then this summer, he received notification that the DNA of a separate Turkish man matched his fully enough to be first or second cousin.
In speaking with the man and tracing his family history, Aghjayan think it is likely that the man descended from the sister of his maternal great grandmother — a woman whom George’s family had long believed perished in the Genocide.
“Through DNA, I know I have found a family relative whom I would never have known,” Aghjayan said in an interview. “I am thinking it has also spared the life of at least one of the 1.5 million that we know died in the Genocide.”
(Stephen Kurkjian, whose book, MASTER THIEVES, on the historic theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was published this year, won three Pulitzer Prizes during his career as an investigative reporter and editor with The Boston Globe. )