I wrote the following essay in 1993 after interviewing my grandfather Azad “Fred” Torigian. This essay was included in my 1995 undergraduate synthesis “Authentication of History: The Armenian Genocide of 1915.”
Azad Torigian passed away on November 8, 1996.
A certificate hangs on the wall in a small, two-bedroom apartment in Belleville, Illinois, reminding the immigrant of his experience on Ellis Island. The certificate states that he entered America by way of the island. His name is engraved on a wall in this gateway to America. He was an immigrant from a country called Armenia.
Black and white photos of the little boy are scattered all over the dwelling. The boy is about eight years old in the pictures which were taken in Russia.
Experiences in America have not always been the best for him. He never received the chance to attend college, but he always told his children and grandchildren “Get a good education, honey.” In fact, his son became a history teacher who chanted George Santayana’s quote “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Embracing this reference as a family motto was quite fitting, considering what the teacher’s father experienced.
Every day, the immigrant remembers the ordeal of the past. He remembers mothers tossing their babies into a river. He remembers corpses swelling under the sun. This is not the past to him. This genocide is the present. It is the future.
“My name is Azad Torigian,” states an eighty-three year old man. Torigian sits on the end of a couch, hands folded on his lap. As we prepare to talk, he clears his throat. With pain in his eyes, Torigian proceeds to tell his history.
“I was born in a little town known as Darman in Turkish Armenia in the state of Ezermun in 1909, November 25.” Torigian then explains a little about his family: “Mother had seven children.” All seven children, Arman, Rose, Elizabeth, Bill, Azad, Vincent and Sammy were born in Turkish Armenia. “One of them took ill and died. I wasn’t born yet,” commented Torigian. “And one of my sisters was burned,” Torigian said referring to an older sister, Elizabeth. “She had beautiful long hair. She played with fire.” In a matter of moments, her hair caught on fire and scalded her body. She died as a result.
Torigian recalls the sights of Darman: “In the front of our house was a pond.” Water from a nearby fountain ran into this pond. “People would bring their cattle for watering.” Torigian remembers Sundays in Darman. “We used to go to church and watch the buffalo fights and rooster fights, and my father’s mother used to take us to the field to get greens.”
Torigian narrates vivid childhood memories. His face lightens. “During the mealtime, the mothers, wives, would prepare the meal for their husbands and the elders in the house, and then they would sit at the table and then the wives… would serve.” He continued, “The ladies would sit down separate from the men.” What did Torigian think of this practice? “That’s their custom!” He replied. “Naturally, I was born over there. I was supposed to like it. I had no other choice.”
“And they always had the visitors come… people to spend their evenings with.” According to Torigian, the people would “play cards and eat and the youngest ones would sing. That was the custom there.”
It was the calm before the storm.
Torigian sits on the end of the couch, somewhat restless. He continues with his story…
“Daddy was over here before the war – before 1914,” states Torigian, referring to World War I. “He came to the United States with my uncle Pete to work, earn some money, and go back to the ‘Old Country’ again. They didn’t have the chance to go back because the war had started.
“Mommy had Rose, Bill, Vincent and Sammy. I was taken by my aunt.” He explained, “She came over… and told my mother that she liked to have Azad. If those three boys were massacred, at least she’d have one.” Torigian mentioned that his aunt said “’We’ll carry the Torigian name in the future if I can save it.’”
When the Turks were deporting the Armenians, Torigian’s mother, brothers and sister were forced to march to Deir-Zor, a desert in southern Turkish Armenian, with the people of Darman. “They moved us town by town, village by village.” While Torigian’s mother and siblings were asleep one night, Turks stole Vincent and Sammy. “During the night, the Turks would come into the caravan, and they took the youngest ones for their babies. They took them away and they raised them as their children,” claimed Torigian.
His mother, brother, Bill, and sister, Rose, were fortunate to find a way out. “A Kurdish family came and took my mother and brother and sister because my grandpa had done a favor for them, keeping their boy until he got well.” The three worked in the Kurdish family’s orchard until the war was over.
Azad was on an entirely separate journey. He points out to me that “my Aunt Hanoon that saved me is my great-aunt, and Lucy was grandpa’s sister.” He continues, “When they moved Aunt Hanoon’s village’s people, I was one of them… She came over before moving and took me back to her village, so I hadn’t been with my mother and brother and sister until I met them in the United States.” Torigian was not to see these members of the family until 1922.
“As I said, they moved my aunt’s village separate from my folks’ town. Every town they moved two or three days apart from each other so they didn’t get mixed up together.”
A tension rises in Torigian. “What I really remember… we were going over the bridge over the Euphrates River. They were taking us to the desert and they were going to leave us in that desert so we would die. Now, as we were going over that bridge, many of the mothers – they couldn’t take care of their babies anymore and they hate to see the Turks take their babies, so they threw the babies over into the river. And some mothers took the babies into their arms and then they threw themselves into the river with their babies, jumping in with them…”
Torigian focuses for a moment. “I was with my aunt and then babies were screaming, screaming, screaming. And I was also screaming with them. Babies were screaming over the river. I was also screaming with them. My aunt took me under her skirt and covered me, almost sitting on me, so the Turks wouldn’t see me to take me away. And once a while, she would lift her dress up a little bit so I could get some fresh air. As I hear the screaming noises, I start screaming with them. Then she would push me under her dress again, cover me and she said ‘Don’t cry baby! Don’t cry honey! I won’t let anybody take you away.’” He claims, “That screaming voice is in me as long as I am alive.
“Then we went over the river. They were taking us to Deir-Zor, desert. They were going to leave us over there so we would perish for good.”
“Nothing to eat,” he says. “On our way to that desert we would see the corpses laying on the ground… swelling under the sun. I remember very well.”
An escape route was in sight. “One day we noticed gypsies were traveling from town to town, and my aunt saw one of the gypsies and said ‘If you can take us back to our town, we have cans full of gold we buried. We can give it to you.’ So the gypsies kidnapped us, my great-aunt, my aunt Lucy and myself with them. They took us back to our town. As we came to our town and a few days after, the Russian army came in. The gypsies ran away. We were there all by ourselves – three of us in our town.” Torigian mentions that most of the soldiers in the Russian army were Russian Armenians.
He continues, “So Russia Armenians took us back with them. Not a very long time later, the Russian Revolution came on. Everybody was going wherever they wanted to go. Some of those Russian Armenian soldiers went back to their country and took us with them.”
Torigian then describes what seems to be a state of purgatory. “We went to Russia for a while, from town to town we went again. And not very long, the Russian Revolution came on. Then we have to run from town to town to save our lives.”
While fleeing from forces that wanted to take their lives, Torigian remembers that he was “hungry – very hungry. Nothing to eat. And then I remember those things and then later on we settled close to a little village town close to the city of Ani, that used to be the old Armenian capital. I remember one little incident. There was almost nothing to eat in that little town; there was hardly anybody just immigrants over there. I didn’t see bread for pretty close to a year. We lived on greens. We used to go to fields and get a certain kind of green.”
Torigian’s face communicated his past experiences of true hunger.
Through darkness and death, Torigian tells a happier tale. Once, the three found a mill on a little river. When the mill stopped grinding and the wheel ceased to move, Torigian recalls collecting a fish on the wheel. As it wobbled in his hands, “I screamed, scared. Finally I got it. I threw it on my shoulder and carried it to the house.”
To make money, Torigian used to “go to the market and get us some kind of fruit, like tangerines, peaches – stuff like that, and I used to go from door to door and sell it.”
At that time, Russia did not have a stable government and still used the Czar’s money. Torigian fretfully recalls “one morning we got up and the money was no good… I started crying.” Aunt Hanoon comforted Azad during this crisis. “My Aunt Hanoon says ‘Don’t cray baby, don’t cry. We’ll get… some different money… make it good.’”
Torigian then describes the next step of their journey: “From there we came over the Black Sea to Constantinople… The water was so black, just like coal.” Unfortunately for him, the waters were rough. “I got sick on it.”
Torigian stayed in Constantinople for almost a year. “They had an Armenian school there.” Torigian’s aunt “sent me to Armenian school for about six months.” He recalls barely learning his alphabet while attending school in Constantinople.
Finally, life turned around for Torigian. “One of those Armenians from the United States came over to Constantinople to find a wife for him. My uncle told him to see if he can bring me with him when he comes back to the United States.” Since his uncle was the only family member who was actually a United States citizen at the time, he had adoption papers made.
Both of Torigian’s aunts stayed in Constantinople. “We came over on a Greek ship,” claims Torigian. He continues, “we came back the Aegean sea into the Atlantic Sea. We have to pass by the Greek Aegean Sea… so we went to Athens… and saw the buildings.” As Torigian mentions “we went there as tourists.”
Torigian remembers the rest of his trip to the United States. “From Athens, we came on the Atlantic Ocean and we passed by Mt. Vesuvius in Italy – smokes all year round. The minute we hit the Atlantic Ocean, I got seasick – until we came to New York.
“From there we came to Ellis Island as we reached New York. I believed we stayed two or three days until my uncle… made the special papers and sent it to Ellis Island, and I came from Ellis Island to East St. Louis.:
After passing through Elllis Island, Torigian never returned the ‘Old Country.’ He crossed the Atlantic for the only time in his life as a child and lived decade after decade in North America. In his new country, he has seen weddings and babies being born. But to Torigian, the past coexists with his present and future. “Those things like going over the river, and those piles of dead bodies in Russia… burning up, and those corpses I saw lying all over – dead corpses and the incidents in the Russia Revolution” are events Torigian still lives through every day. He experiences these events in his mind.
“I always bend down, close my eyes until I get to the other side of the river,” says Torigian, referring to crossing the Mississippi River only miles from his home. “Babies on the surface (of the Euphrates) will always stay with me to this day when I sit down…
“I imagine those things all the time.”