By Josh DeHaas
MONTREAL (CTV) — A Montreal woman believed to have been the last documented Canadian to have survived the Armenian Genocide died on Thursday, January 19, just weeks shy of her 108th birthday.
Born in 1909, Knar Bohjelian Yemenidjian was only six years old in 1915 when the Ottoman Turks began their massacre. An estimated 1.5 million people were killed.
Yemenidjian’s niece, Nazan Artinian, says that she learned much of what she knows about the Genocide from her aunt Knar, because other family members were unable to discuss the atrocities.
Artinian says her aunt and mother survived initially only because Yemenidjian’s father (Artinian’s grandfather) was warned by a Turkish friend that “all the Armenians are going to be killed.”
The friend told him, according to Artinian, “If you want to live, leave your house, take your family and go to this farm and hide yourself there.”
Artinian says the family lived in the barn, sleeping amongst the stench of sheep and cows. She says they had little food and were sickened with Typhoid fever.
Eventually, the family left the farm but were forced to convert to Islam and take on Turkish names in order to survive, according to Artinian. “A great-aunt said,” she adds, “it’s better to change your religion and live longer than to … remain Christians and finally die.”
The family fled to Alexandria, Egypt in 1928. During the Nasser era, the family again fled to safer lands. Yemenidjian ended up in Canada in 1971.
Artinian says her aunt always encouraged the younger generation to speak Armenian — not Arabic or Turkish — because it was a language the Turks had denied them.
She says she’ll remember her aunt as someone who always had a book or newspaper in her hand because the Turks had deprived her of a formal education.
“My aunt used to say ‘I always like to read now because I always wished to go to school and I couldn’t all my life,’” Artinian says.
In 2015, at age 106, Yemenidjian was among just a handful of verified Armenian-Canadian survivors who attended a special ceremony on Parliament hill marking 100 years since the genocide began.
There are other anecdotal reports of Armenian-Canadian survivors from the genocide, but historians have not fully verified those cases through the appropriate record checks.
Yemenidjian was determined to be the last survivor verified through the Armenian National Committee of Canada.
Canada recognized the genocide in 2004.
Culture minister and Montreal MP Melanie Joly was among those who issued condolences to Yemenidjian’s loved ones online Friday.
Shahen Mirakian, President of the Armenian National Committee of Canada, said that “as we witness the passing of an entire generation that did not see justice being served throughout their lifetime, we stand ever resolute in our struggle against denial and impunity and restate our steadfast commitment in our pursuit for justice.”