By Alin K. Gregorian
WATERTOWN — If you live or work in Watertown, chances are you have seen Ruth Thomasian, walking briskly from one end of the town to the other. Her quests usually take her to and from Armenian establishments (including the offices of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator) where with her experienced eyes she hunts pictures for the archives of Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, as well as meetings in town which champions human rights.
Her efforts have grown Project SAVE and put it on the map. Now the group, based in the Armenian Museum of America building in Watertown Square, is celebrating its 40th anniversary on Saturday, November 21, at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library in Lexington.
According to award winning writer and poet Peter Balakian, “Project SAVE is not only a photograph archive, but also serves as a witness to history. As a writer, I am deeply concerned about the preservation of Armenian artifacts and images of our history from before and during the Genocide. This is important for historians and researchers. For a great, ancient civilization that was nearly wiped off the earth in 1915, the reconstruction of our past is essential to our present and future.”
Thomasian grew up in Belmont, as Ruth Thomason, a last name Anglicized by her father. She had a twin sister, Mariam and a non-Armenian mother, who was instrumental in instilling a love of her heritage in her daughter. After graduating from Belmont High School, she went to Albion College in Michigan.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for her,” Thomasian said. Her mother’s German- Connecticut Yankee heritage, which was well documented, taught her that information about one’s heritage should be readily available. This was not the case for her father, a descendent of Genocide survivors. “It was a dead end,” she said.
“If we don’t leave our legacy behind us, our children won’t have anything to remind them” of their past. “You have to know who the generations were behind you to know who you are,” she added.
Thomasian, who founded Project SAVE in 1975, got her start in New York City. “I mostly began it because I needed it,” she said. At that time, she was a Broadway costume designer and frequently she had to reproduce costumes that needed to reflect a specific time and place.
One of the plays she worked on was by an Armenian dramatic group. “They heard I did costumes and asked me” to work on the production’s costumes. The play was set in Tbilisi (Tiflis), Georgia. “I knew Armenians there wore different clothes but I could not find any visual archives at the New York Public Library. There was nothing on how people lived and looked,” she explained.
Therefore she started her search. “I asked people at a seniors’ luncheon. One man pulled out a photo from his pocket.” The idea for photos and historic backgrounds was born.
In the photo, he had his family members back in the old Armenian lands, as well as spliced in photos of family members in the US. All the family members in Turkey were killed and he came to the US 10 years after the Genocide and through the Red Cross, was able to connect with the members who had moved to the US before the Genocide.
The photo was the only connection he had with his past.
The story of the picture will be part of the documentary by Nubar Alexanian which will be shown at the group’s 40th-anniversaery celebration on November 21.
This first photo led to others. Thomasian started collecting photos and visiting the people who were giving her photos and they just loved it. “For seniors to have a young person interested in their lives. They all had their stories and pulled photographs out. Some of their kids hadn’t even heard the stories.”
She added, “I made the time and they were so grateful that someone was listening. I knew this was the work I had to do.”
For Thomasian, the photo and its provenance and ownership all go hand in hand to provide a complete picture and preserve a slice of history.
“I was a milliner in the theater world but I decided you can’t always talk to the elders,” therefore the choice was made.
She wrote a piece soliciting photos in 1975 and sent it around to the Armenian papers. After putting in a lot of her own money into the nascent group, she applied to various state-wide organizations who handed grants and started her organization.
The first decade of Project SAVE, she decided, would be dedicated to gathering stories that the picture donors had not shred with anyone. “I didn’t bring up the Genocide, but they told me” their horrifying stories, she said.
Then, in the 1980s, she started recording the oral histories behind the pictures.
“We really were cataloguing the pictures,” she said.
For the past decade, Project SAVE has also issued calendars with themes; this year’s is “Our Children Carry the Light.”
“It has done pretty much what I have wanted. I knew no national archives and no source of visual information. I couldn’t see what our forefathers and homeland looked like,” Thomasian explained. “The archives for research purposes made no mention of Armenians in the popular culture. The Metropolitan Museum, for example didn’t know Armenians from the Turks.”
Thomasian also conducted research on photographers in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, many of whom were Armenian.
In the next 40 years, Thomasian said, it will be the responsibility of the next generation to carry on the work. The plan is to convert everything to digital so that they can last.
Thomasian recently brought on board as her deputy Tsoleen Sarian. Sarian may be new to the office, but she and Thomasian have worked together before.
Said Sarian, “In the past decade, I have served with Ruth on a steering committee where she speaks strongly for including women in our commemorations as keynote speakers and honorees, something I honestly hadn’t really paid much attention to.
“At Project SAVE, I admire her advocacy for the stories and the memories of all of our elders. The ‘white genocide’ has continued over the past 100 years resulting in the loss of much of our Armenian culture, folklore, customs, and values. Yet Ruth established an organization to hold on to our collective memory, organize it, and provide access to this information and distribute it. “The individuals captured in the photos, their names and stories are documented, which means they are not lost and forgotten. We are able to teach their stories, give their testimony, and share their information to the greater world.”
She concluded, “Years ago my grandparents had known the importance of contributing their family — Shnorhokian and Khatchadourian — photographs from Aintab to Project SAVE Archives. It’s important to me that I’m now able to work for what they valued. Whether it is my enjoyment of the photographs, or learning the individual histories, or actively contributing to the vibrancy of my culture and heritage by acting as a steward, these are all valuable and gratifying to me personally and professionally.”
Thomasian said it was important to keep up with technology as it was changing so rapidly.
“Our collection reflects immigration patterns,” she said. For example, she said, there is a large presence of Armenians from Kharpert who ended up in Worcester. One reason for original Armenian settlers there was the similarity of Worcester’s hilly landscape to their hometowns.
Now, she said, Project SAVE also has photos from the Soviet era from Armenian immigrants, though there are still not too many. Also lacking are photos and stories from immigrants from Iran.
To order tickets to the November 21 banquet or calendars, visit www.projectsave.org.