Surviving the Titanic: The Saga of Davit Vartanian

Davit (David) Vartanian was one of five young Armenian men making their way to the Free World for freedom, opportunity, and to earn money to send to loved ones back home in Tzermag, Keghi in Historic Armenia. Their misfortune was that as third-class passengers, they were booked in steerage, in the bowels of the ill-fated “unsinkable” Titanic.

The men were devout Christians, urged by their parents to leave their homeland to escape further persecution from the Turks. Had they remained, their fate as Armenians would have been sealed by being taken into the Ottoman army and murdered. Their destination was listed as Brantford, Ontario, Canada, where other countrymen were already living in Armenian communities and working in foundries.

A hopeful new beginning for the five young Armenians came to an abrupt halt when the White Star’s luxury liner, the Titanic, on its maiden voyage to New York struck an iceberg, and the commotion of boarding the insufficient lifeboats began.

Of the five Armenians, the two who survived were Davit Vartanian, 22, and Neshan Krekorian, 25, who eventually settled in St. Catherines, Ontario and died in 1978 at age 92. The body of 26-year-old Maprieder Zakarian was recovered from the icy waters and buried in Fairview Cemetery in Halifiax, Nova Scotia. Arsun Sirayanian, 22, and Artun Zakarian, 27, also perished in the Atlantic that terrible night of April 15, 1912.

According to his daughter Rose, Davit Vartanian left Tzermag shortly after his marriage to Mary in 1911, but not before teaching himself how to swim in a small creek near his home in Oror village. The newlyweds had no idea of the trials and tribulations the future held for them, but that would miraculously end in their finding each other again years later.

In a recent conversation with Rose and her son Greg Vartanian of Dearborn, Mich., recapping the story of Davit’s frightening survival brought again to reality the horrorifying events of 94 years ago. Davit died in 1966 in the Metro Detroit area after relocating here with Mary from their previous home in Meadeville, Pa.

Davit’s grandson Greg tells it like this: “Those in steerage had to break down barriers in order to escape the icy waters filling the ship. There were screams and confusion everywhere. And my grandfather jumped off the fastly sinking ship swimming towards a lifeboat, but they kept slapping at his hands to keep him out and he swam furiously to stay afloat before they finally pulled him into the lifeboat. It was hours later before they were rescued by the Carpathia.

Rose recalls the editor of the Lraper Armenian newspaper coming to town from New York and asking to see her father for an interview. When told there were two Davits, and asked which one he wanted, he declared, “I want Titanic Davit,” and thus the name stuck.

Remember, it was 1912 and word got to Davit’s young bride Mary in the yergir of the ship’s sinking. What happened to her Davit? In 1915, during the Armenian Genocide, Keghi was in turmoil. Villages were decimated, people were being killed or put on death marches.

In the meantime, Davit never gave up searching for his Mary Byzar. He wrote letters to newspapers, churches, and relatives. Years passed. Finally a letter arrived saying Mary was alive. He began sending money to her for her passage to Canada.

Rose says, “In those days money was in gold coins, so my mother had them made into a necklace.” When she was ready to depart the old country, relatives convinced her mother to leave the necklace with them because, they said, “Where you are going the streets are paved with gold.” What could have been a wonderful family heirloom was now only a part of the puzzle that marked the memorable love story of Davit and Mary Vartanian.

Mary came to Canada and an Armenian man took her to the foot of the Niagara Falls bridge. He would walk her half way across, he told her, before he would turn back; she should not turn around, nor look back, but keep walking since she was not a citizen. Davit was on the American side and rushed to greet her, finally being reunited with his wife after 10 years—after he survived the Titanic, and she survived the genocide.

Says Rose, “They were beautiful people. Dad took her home to Meadeville, Pa. It was meant to be. It was amazing Dad survived the sinking of the Titanic and that they were brought together again so many years later to resume their marriage. I have to tell you this, Betty. When mom came across the Niagara bridge she had a yorghan (comforter) tied to her back, which was brought from the homeland. A few years ago, I had the wool washed and cleaned and made into comforters for my sons Greg and Gary.”

Rose commented, “Dad never showed any further interest in swimming. He just wanted to stay away from water.” Greg added,

“The lower half of my grandfather’s body had a bluish tint from being in the frigid water for so long, and remained that way.”

Mary and Davit are “together forever” now in Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery with the marker stating “Titanic survivor.”

A true love story.

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Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”

3 Comments

  1. Someone needs to come forward with the real story of David Vartanians family. There is no mention ever of Jackies Sister Rose Vartanian who took care of Jackie until she passed away in the 1980s. He was mentally deficient. The latter Rose who passed away in 2012 never mentioned Rose Vartanian family member at all. Rose was like an aunt to me and cousin to my mother, this is sad she is left out of all of these stories :(.

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