By Hagop Vartivarian
WATERTOWN — Helene was born on June 26, 1933 in Boston to the tradition-respecting household of Khachadoor and Yeghsa Pilibosian of Kharpert. Her parents, survivors of the Armenian Genocide, remained strongly attached to their roots. She attended Watertown High School and the Katharine Gibbs School, and went on to Harvard University, graduating with a degree in the humanities in 1960. She married Beirut-born Hagop Sarkissian, whose father, well-known Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (ADLP) member, Hovhannes Hovsep Sarkissian, contributed to the daily newspaper Zartonk for many years.
Hagop Sarkissian worked at the Baikar Association. Helene’s amiable father Khachadoor (1903-1989) was one of the founding members of the Tekeyan Cultural Association in the United States. After the latter retired, he gladly helped at the Baikar Association, particularly in administrative matters.
In 1964, Helene was appointed editor of the Boston ADLP newspaper, the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, thus becoming the first female editor of the ADLP press. Her assistant was Noubar Agishian of Beirut, who was also the assistant editor of the Armenian-language daily newspaper Baikar. Noubar was preparing his doctoral degree in physics. Helene’s husband, Hagop, who himself was an ADLP member, also worked at an American publishing house. As he was quite familiar with the world of journalism, he was able to be helpful in Helene’s work. Helene’s salary in those days, 40 dollars a week, was in itself an indication of her spirit of sacrifice. She succeeded two editors who were very well known in the Armenian community — Bob Vahan and Varoujan Samuelian (distinguished by the nickname “Juicy”).
Helene Pilibosian joined the Bay State ADLP Zovickian (Dzovigian) Youth Chapter. Her political party godfather was the then-editor of the newspaper Baikar, Dr. Nubar Berberian. In this fashion, the Pilibosian-Sarkissian family continued the fine legacy of its parents through the ADLP.
Every week, Helene transmitted to the American-Armenian readers of the newspaper information from various Armenian communities of the United States, as well as from Armenians in other countries abroad and in the homeland. The news media in those days adopted a different type of behavior, especially considering that the ADLP newspaper was being edited during some of the most intense days of the Cold War. She maintained the traditional direction of the political party despite the pressures of American foreign policy against the Soviet Union.
As she pursued ever more profoundly her literary and journalistic interests, she turned more towards philosophical and psychological themes and began to write editorials from this perspective on the preservation of the Armenian language in the new generation in America and on the scope of the contemporary Armenian Question and claiming justice. She wrote about the Armenian Genocide, premeditated and planned by the Turks. This was important, for the newspaper which she edited had for decades been the English-language voice for decades for wide circles of the ADLP in America.
Helene wrote against injustices in the American social order such as the American participation in the Vietnam War. She wrote about the relationship of two opposing Armenian political parties in the United States, the ADLP and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, beginning with the assassination of Archbishop Ghevont Tourian, and continuing with the ADLP’s position in defense of Soviet Armenia as a result of the Cold War.
In the October 17, 1964 issue of the Mirror, she stated what was expected from the newly opened Armenian schools in the US and spoke about the reevaluation of Armenian identity there, adding: “Armenian voices are also heard from many of the countries, including America, as some have attained fame in their countries of adoption by bringing what is distinctly Armenian into their work and being referred to as Armenians. For example, Arshile Gorky is recognized as one of the original and most important of American artists, for he brought his Armenian identity into his work.”
The 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide opened up broad horizons for the new generation as claimants. From the crying and lamenting of scattered surviving remnants, the Armenian nation now moved to a collective position of forcefulness. New Nemesis operations began in the spirit of Gourgen Yanikian and the martial actions of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA).
The columns of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator seemed too narrow to contain the many hundreds of pages printed in remembrance of the Armenian Genocide. They seemed too small to present the themes of the struggle for liberation, the movement of the Armenian Legionnaires, the Cilician Dream, the challenges of national preservation, the maintenance of Armenian culture, the importance of the Armenian language and the importance of the role of the main Armenian communities of the Middle East. Yet a new voice began to be heard everywhere on various national Armenian issues, and the newspaper reflected this. Relations of the diaspora with Armenia took on a new nature, as the Soviet Union no longer was taboo for Armenians abroad. Helene was already editor during these days. She wrote about all these matters in her editorials, giving her personal analysis and the interpretation of the political party to which she belonged.
She dedicated an entire issue on its 50th anniversary, on the exact date of April 24, to the Armenian Genocide, and sent one copy to each American Congressman, President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphry. It included an article, “Mourning Is Not Enough,” written by Leon Zaven Surmelian. Surmelian was the author in 1945 of a bestselling memoir on his childhood experiences of the Armenian Genocide, called I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen. Pilibosian’s own editorial, “Out of Smoldering Ashes,” was later reprinted in the Congressional Record in Washington DC.
In 1966, she left the position of editor. The newspaper changed its nature by 1970 and became more politicized thanks to the immigration to Boston of new political party members from various Armenian centers of the Middle East. They understood the mission of the Mirror-Spectator differently than their predecessors.
When Barbara Merguerian took on the role of editor, Helene returned to work as assistant editor from 1975 to 1981. Helene wrote articles about the great English poet Lord Byron studying the Armenian language in the Mkhitarist monastery in Venice, the Armenian-language collection in the Watertown public library, and bilingual education programs in the Watertown public schools. She reviewed many books by American-Armenian writers, and also had pieces in the literary quarterly Ararat published by the Armenian General Benevolent Union.
During all the years of the Lebanese civil war, beginning in 1975, she encouraged American-Armenians to extend a fraternal hand to help the members of this central Armenian diasporan community in their myriad of social, economic and educational needs. Helene always believed that the American-Armenian community would be renewed and completed through the new generation born and prepared abroad. Meanwhile, she visited the Armenian communities of Europe and, twice, Lebanon.
She founded Ohan Press in 1983, when she published her first collection of poetry, Carvings from an Heirloom: Oral History Poems. After this, she published At Quarter Past Reality: New and Selected Poems, which won first prize from Writer’s Digest, and History’s Twists: The Armenians. Many of her early poems have been cited in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature and have won various prizes.
She wrote They Call Me Mustafa: The Memoir of an Immigrant together with her father Khachadoor, and then published it in 1992 (with a second edition in 1999). It was honored at a Massachusetts State House commemoration and included in an electronic database by Alexander Street Press. In 2010, she published My Literary Profile: A Memoir, which won honorable mention in the New England Book Festival in 2012.
Ohan Press has published 10 titles, of which many are penned by Helene. The latest of her volumes of poetry is A New Orchid Myth, a science fiction story from CreateSpace in 2014.
Helene passed away on December 5 at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital after a short illness. Her funeral service took place on December 14 at the Armenian Memorial Church and she was interred in Ridgelawn Cemetery, both in Watertown.
(Translated from the Armenian)