From Hell to Heaven: Memoirs of the Armenian Genocide and the Volunteer Corps
By Armenag Antranigian
Translated by: Vatche Ghazarian
Published by Hagop James Antranigian ,Ottawa, Canada (2015); 252 Pages
The year was 1896 and three-year-old Armenag Antranigian of Akrag village in Keghi was being carried on the back of an older brother, one of four boys in his family, during the pillage that took place that year, known as the Hamidian Massacres. Keghi was a district in the province of Erzurum in Western Armenia. The central town of the district was also called Keghi.
Armenag Antranigian had the amazing presence of mind and ability from a very young age to record a vast amount of historical information which culminated in an important book appropriately titled From Hell to Heaven: Memoirs of the Armenian Genocide and the Volunteer Corps, published in 2015.
Hagop J. Antranigian, grandson of Armenag Antranigian, writes in the acknowledgments, “My grandfather wrote the memoir in the early 1940’s and he had written it in Armenian, which has remained unpublished.”
You can imagine the author’s pain and agony as he recalled the events; through sheer determination he reopened his wounds in order to make a permanent record of his experiences. He was a resilient man. We owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his remarkable memory. Now in his grave, the brave Antranigian can rest knowing the travails of those dark days were recorded for all to read.
The author tells about the loss of home, land, and people and in his case in particular, the loss of his mother, brothers, sister-in-law, her children, and his beloved young wife Mariam.
Antranigian describes just some of the torture he endured: “The agony, pain, hunger, thirst, as I wandered the mountains and gorges, barefoot and naked, without home or bed, miserable and helpless.”
The book begins in Antranigian’s youth, covers local customs and traditions, accounts of his dangerous travels, his experiences during the Genocide, and his journey to America.
A man of strong faith, Antranigian often attributed his survival time and again only to the grace of God.
He describes the New Year’s Eve celebration in his village: “Villagers followed one another in the darkness to the spring. They washed themselves, then hurried home to warm up. This parade of bathing villagers continued until early morning, saying to each other, ‘May a happy New Year and a good Christmas fall upon you.’ ”
“No matter how thirsty you were, a glass of water from the spring was enough to cool you down,” he adds, an assertion all too familiar to those of us born to Keghetsi genocide survivors.
Antranigian’s vivid memory captures the everyday activities of village life before the genocide, such as neighbors filling pitchers of water from the nearby spring, those of the Muslim faith coming to the spring for namaz, for their ablution; Moso who guarded his family’s walnut orchards from mischievous boys.
It is joyful for me to read the names of familiar villages such as Sakazour and Hardef, the birthplace of my khnamees, Kholghotsi, the village of Baron Pilos Arakelian known to Pontiac Armenian friends as “Mike Thompson,” and Erzinga, home to Elsig Hairabedian who is also a close family friend. It also brings me close to my roots in Tzerman, my father’s birthplace.
Education unfortunately came at the high price of abuse. Drtad Postoyan of Khoops village in Keghi slapped his students for the slightest fault. In one case, a beating caused in the death of an outstanding student; consequently, many of the boys refused to attend school resulting in illiteracy.
The book features color photos of the ruins of Saint Minas Church in Akrag, and the Saint Giragos Church in Chanakhchi from where my Canadian cousin by marriage, Margaret Apigian, came from.
Surrounded by Kurds and Turks, it was unsafe for Armenians to travel to neighboring villages at night, especially alone.
The book describes everyday life of the Armenians in ways most of us born in the free world never knew. It also answers questions we didn’t know to ask because of our youth and naiveté.
Yes, there is a reference to the delicious pagharch, a Keghetsi favorite food. That’s how The tradition of offering pagharch as a token of honor to guests continues still today in Keghetzi homes. Pagharch is a large, bread-like, and mountain shaped baked delicacy soaked with hot melted butter and garlic infused tahn (yogurt), and seroun.
The 1908 Turkish Constitution, which promised “freedom,” was a farse. Soon, the savage decision would be taken to rid Christians, mainly Armenians, from Turkey.
On Sept. 1, 1908 Antranigian travelled to Constantinople by ship, suffering severely from seasickness. His cousin got Armenag a job in a press factory in Beshigtash. He was still a teen, and missed home and family very much.
He describes the chaos that took place when the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Archbishop Maghakia Ormanian, officiated at Lenten services. The worshipers greeted him with anger, swinging sticks in the air, intending to kill him. The Patriarch was saved from the unruly crowd who thought he was a tool of Sultan Hamid, who was soon overthrown and exiled.
“The Balkan nation in 1912 defeated Turkey, liberating some lands. The Turks poured their frustration out on the Christians of Constantinople through massacres. Massacring people was a profession the Turks were well trained for,” wrote Antranigian.
At this point, Armenians were in constant movement, leaving their hometowns and expatriating. Most left for America.
“Constantinople was unique with its magnificent scenery, I feasted on the scenery onto the bay of the Bosphorus, the wealthy lived very well, life for the poor was unbearable. Some reknowned Armenians spoke pure Armenian and lived well while the common class spoke half Armenian and half Turkish,” he wrote.
“Dear readers, sadly, since childhood the voice of my conscience filled my mind with surprising thoughts and showed me the good and evil in the days to come in the form of dreams. As you go through my story, you will realize that all my thoughts and dreams have come true, such as the Turks declaring their Constitution in order to gather all the Armenians in Armenia and to annihilate them. I always feared that the Turks would massacre the Armenians. I wanted to return home to see my mother and brothers because I knew the Turks had a hidden agenda,” Antranigian wrote.
“My heart has been awakened, my feelings of love came to boil in me when I met Mariam who had long golden hair. My thoughts freeze with the recollection of our mutual affection, which I will cherish eternally,” he wrote. Mariam and Armenag married after a traditional engagement. “My wedding was the last to occur in our village,” he remarked. The newlyweds became separated after a short time through difficulties of the time and sadly were never reunited.
This wonderful memoir is filled with tradition, some differing from village to village. Many are dear and unknown until now are presented in this very special book.
Baptisms, wedding traditions, travel dangers, and as you must know, the constant threat and hardship suffered by all Armenians leading up to the genocide, and the eventual death of Mariam, and Amenag Antrianigian’s arrival to America.
On Nov. 3, 1922 after immense hardship and facing death innumerable times, the author reached Ellis Island and finally Portland, Maine where he began work in a shoe factory. He had remarried to Arshalous Semergian of Adabazar, and together had five children.
“I bow before America until the end of my life” – Armenag Antranigian.