By Michael Rettig
Documenting and preserving the stories of one’s ancestors and their immigration to America is itself a noble endeavor, and it takes on increased importance for those whose ancestors survived genocide. The very goal of a genocidal regime is to obliterate a people and any memory of their prior existence. To remember those lost, as well as those who survived, honors their suffering and perseverance. For this reason, the Armenian Cultural Conservancy (ACC) of Fresno hosted a community lecture, Family Histories of Immigration to the United States, at the Woodward Park Library on April 25, following the 104th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
Presenters Deacon Van Der Mugrdechian, ACC board member; Zaroohi Der Mugrdechian, former principal of the Charlie Keyan Armenian School; and Dr. Matthew Ari Jendian, Professor of Sociology and Director of Humanics at Fresno State, shared their family histories using oral histories, memoirs, letters, and photographs.
Deacon Van opened the event by emphasizing the importance of documenting family stories for future generations. He encouraged the audience to research their own ancestors and to share their histories with the community in similar lectures in the future. “This presentation is one step towards the Conservancy’s goal of preserving this history.”
Deacon Van and his sister Zaroohi shared the story of their grandfather Anooshavan Der Mugrdechian, using his memoir, Anooshavan: The Intrepid Survivor, as well as family photographs and stories. Anooshavan grew up in Aikestan, Van. He fought in the city’s defense during the Hamidian Massacres before moving to Urmi, where he met his wife Rakel Sahagian. He moved to the United States to seek a safe haven for his family, but responded to the call for volunteers to return to his homeland to fight in the Defense of Van in 1915. Anooshavan and the other Armenian volunteers successfully defended Van, but were forced to evacuate the city with the Russian Army. Later, during the long exodus from Van to the Caucasus, Rakel left their infant daughter Lucy on a rock because she could felt they could no longer feed her. Upon hearing the cries of her daughter, Rakel immediately returned for her. They traveled through Siberia to reach Yokohama, Japan, and then to the United States. Lucy died in Fresno at the age of 102. Several community members in the audience remembered her.
Anooshavan’s family immigrated to Fresno County in 1917 when the congregation at the St. Gregory Armenian Church in Fowler invited his father, Der Melkisedek, to serve as parish priest. Der Melkisedek was a schoolmaster, teacher, and author in Van who opened the first all-girls school in the city and created children’s songs.
Deacon Van shared that while he was preparing his photo exhibit for the night’s presentation, Dr. Jendian noticed his own great-grandfather in a photo, as the caretaker at the St. Hripsime School for Girls, which was established by Der Melkisedek. “Discovering both of our great grandfathers in the same photo in Van is another revelation of the connection we all have if we look deep enough,” Dr. Jendian remarked. Deacon Van and Zaroohi concluded their family history by sharing childhood memories from their grandparents’ home in Fresno.
Dr. Jendian presented his family history, wearing his grandfather Avedis Antrankian’s traditional Armenian clothing. Avedis, also from Van, grew up in a home his family had lived in for generations. However, Avedis’ early life was marked with tragedies. When Avedis was 8 years old, his father, Ohannes, was ambushed and murdered by Turkish gendarmes. Three months later, Avedis’ 17-year old brother, Armenag, died from an unrelated accident. Avedis did his part in defending Van by digging bullets lodged into the wall from Turkish gunfire and giving them to the gun smiths to reload shells, and often dodging bullets whizzing past.
Like Anooshavan and the Der Mugrdechian family, Avedis and his mother, Abrigsemeh, evacuated Van with the Russian army. They embarked on an 11-day, nearly 200-mile long, arduous walk to Igdir where they providentially encountered the eldest Antranikian brother Mourad who had voluntarily enlisted from America to help fight in the Defense of Van. Mourad arranged for Avedis and Abrigsemeh to travel by wagon and train from Igdir to Etchmiadzin, to Moscow, to Oslo, Norway, where they boarded Oscar II, headed to the United States and arriving on Ellis Island on July 28, 1916. After a short stay with sister Calipse Hotzakorgian’s family in Everett, Massachusetts, the Antranikians traveled cross-country by train and settled in Kingsburg, California, where brother Yeghiazar had settled. Avedis was known in high school for his poetry and athleticism, earning varsity letters in three sports—football, basketball, and baseball.
After graduating from Kingsburg High in 1926, he married Rose Missakian in 1933, and they worked in canneries until they built and opened the Elm Avenue Fruit Market in 1936, which became The Fresno Grapestake Yard in the 1960s. In 1943, Avedis was touted as a “local hero” on the front page of The Fresno Bee, for saving Mrs. Reuben Taylor from drowning in Preacher’s Hole in the Kings River. The young boy from Van who had such a tumultuous childhood, died in Fresno in 1973 doing what he loved—folk dancing.
Though many Armenians grew up hearing similar stories, it is important to document, preserve, and continuously share these memories with generations further removed from the Genocide. Presentations such as these foster collective storytelling and help elucidate the many connections among Armenians in the Diaspora. More importantly, they keep alive the memory of those who perished and those who persevered in 1915 so they will never be lost to history.
Michael Retting, is a recent Fresno State graduate; MA in History; former editor of Hye Shazhoom.