By Alin K. Gregorian
WATERTOWN — Most children do not have clear ideas about their parents’ childhoods. They might hear bits and pieces and use their imaginations to color in the lives of their parents as children. Perhaps few can imagine the stories of Goodbye, Antoura, the memoirs of Karnig Panian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide.
Panian’s memoirs were first published in Armenian in 1992 by Hamazkayin Cultural Association and the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia. Now the volume has been translated into English, and published this year by the Stanford University Press, with a foreword by Dr. Vartan Gregorian. It has received great reviews both in the US and Lebanon.
Panian was born in Gurin in 1910. He was 5 when his mother and a younger sister and brother perished during the forcible marches. His father had been among the men who had been rounded up by the authorities in a previous sweep.
His story is at once astonishingly sad and yet hopeful. A boy who shifted between four orphanages, one of which, Antoura, was a proverbial hell on earth, became an erudite and educated man who married and had children and eventually became the vice principal at Djemaran, the Armenian Lyceum, in Beirut.
The contents were at times shocking for Houry Boyamian, Panian’s daughter, who was instrumental in the publication of the translated edition.
“There were things I didn’t know at all. Passages that every time I read, I cry. Especially the passage when he is describing all the friends and family dying. His sister was 2, and his brother, 3 and his mother. Very sad, sad passages,” she said. She added, however, that he also offers a remarkably resilient picture of scrappy youth.
He stayed in the desert for a few months, finding scraps to survive, until forces, tasked by Jemal Pasha, came and collected all orphans younger than 12 in what was then Greater Syria. It was Jemal’s assumption that children 12 and younger could be more easily Turkified and forget their ethnicities. The orphans, who included young Karnig, were taken to a Jesuit monastery in what is now Lebanon. That orphanage in Antoura became Karnig’s home for the next four years. “There were some cruel times. When World War I ended, the Turks retreated and the American Near East Foundation came to take care of the orphans,” Boyamian said.
Of the 1,2000 Armenian and Kurdish orphans there, more than 300 died during the four-year period in Antoura. They were punished frequently, forbidden to speak Armenian and had to answer only to their new Turkish names.
The stories, as one can surmise, are horrifying. In his book he writes how they had to resort to eating grass and pulverized bones or sneaking out at great risk to steal fruit from nearby trees.
He did not discuss any of this with his family.
“He didn’t want to cause us pain. He didn’t want to lament the past,” she said during a recent interview.
The horrors of Antoura were the subject of a column by Robert Fisk of the Independent newspaper, which in turn inspired documentary filmmaker Bard Maronian to make “Orphans of the Genocide” based on the orphanage.
Day to day, Boyamian said her father did not say much about the Genocide. However, she said, in 1969, he and some other orphans prepared a book of memoirs (houshamadyan) of Antoura.
While Boyamian said that her father in general was able to have a normal life, she said, “Every April 24 we couldn’t talk to him. He would fall into a deep sadness and stay in his study and the next day he would recover and go back to his normal life. He allowed himself to grieve that one day.”
Panian’s difficult days ended finally when he was taken in by the Bird’s Nest orphanage, run by American missionaries and the Near East Foundation, and taught by Armenian teachers who helped the orphans “regain their identity and some kind of normalcy,” Boyamian said.
“My father, who was eager to continue his studies, did. He had very good mentors. He worked for a few years and continued his studies. He used to say, ‘we lost so much. What can we keep? Language, culture and heritage.’ Having a goal and having had good mentors” allowed him to see his goals through.
Boyamian said that it was not only the administrators and the teachers of the Bird’s Nest orphanage who were supportive, but the other children, too. “All these orphans supported each other. They became family for each other.”
This support system, Boyamian said, propelled her father toward a better life.
Boyamian said that she felt her father had done so much for the Armenian culture that she felt comfortable to go into science rather than education. Thus she became a pharmacist and moved to the US with her husband and three children. “I worked for three months in the US as a pharmacist” when she was approached to head St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School, which had been launched the previous year.
“I felt I had a duty. When my father heard I became a principal, he was the happiest man,” she said.
When she and her family had left Lebanon, he had been incredibly sad, she recalled. “He said, ‘you and your family will lose your identity.’
Panian died at age 79 in Beirut, in 1989.
Many more chapters remain which can fill at least two volumes, Boyamian said.
Simon Beugekian translated the book and Vahe Habeshian made revisions and added explanatory footnotes. Panian’s daughter, Houry Panian Boyamian, wrote the acknowledgments. Prof. Aram Goudsouzian edited the initial draft prior to its submission to Stanford University Press and provided thorough revisions before its publication. Prof. Keith Watenpaugh was an outstanding advocate for the book, and his introduction and afterword artfully provide the necessary historical context on the Great War and the Armenian Genocide.
Boyamian and Dr. Lerna Ekmekcioglu, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will discuss the book at a program on Thursday, October 1, at 7:30 p.m., at the Armenian Museum of America Adele and Haig Der Manuelian Galleries, 65 Main St., Watertown. The event is co-sponsored by the Armenian Cultural Foundation, the Armenian Museum of America, Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) and Tekeyan Cultural Association.
Copies of Goodbye, Antoura will be available the night of the lecture, as well as through NAASR, Amazon and Stanford University Press.