I read Tom Vartabedian’s excellent story that appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of this ethnic publication covering the momentous occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Hairenik Armenian Weekly. In fact, I have read it over and over again, absorbing the true meaning of this event. The story has reprised forgotten incidents and images from my past, and the role the Hairenik played in it. For your Hairenik readers they are memories that they may enjoy and even help to bring back their own experiences. I shut my eyes and I am a youngster once again. I see my father, who was a wire drawer at American Steel & Wire, coming home from work. He is wearing work clothes and stops at the refrigerator to drink from a quart bottle of cold milk. This is a ritual I was accustomed to witnessing every day. Following his bath (we did not have a shower in those days) we would sit down to dinner.
When we were finished eating, Poppa would go to the living room and sit in his favorite chair next to the humidor table filled with his favorite White Owl cigars. Resting on top of the humidor was the ever-present Hairenik Armenian Weekly. At that time I could not read Armenian so the publication remained a mystery to me. The Armenians in Cleveland, Ohio were made up of clans. Our clan consisted of seven families: the Eminians, Bajaksouzians, Gazarians, Mesrobians, Dadaians, Pilibosians, and Keshishians. In every clan house we visited, the Weekly was always there. It was the same with the other clans like the Arpagian clan. Somehow the Hairenik had found its way into those homes. Even when we went to the Armenian community Center on East 55th Street, there would be a Hairenik Weekly waiting in the library of the building.
I realize now that the publication was a bond that provided hope and the motivation to live on. It kept the traditions, the customs, the religion alive in a small group of people who had managed to survive a chaotic implosion in their lives. In every Armenian house in Cleveland, the Hairenik represented a thread of life that wove itself from family to family. And now, 75 years later, this octogenarian remembers those precious members of my clan—the fathers, mothers, the children I grew up with. In the memories that rush back, I remember an old photo with young men, and I recognize them. My Father, Mano Bajaksouzian, John Atoulikian, Fossie, Hagop Yougouhian, and more. Many of them I learned were Gamavors. But the picture was unique. It was in the eyes of the men. It was the spirit that I could see, and I knew that what they believed in and what the Hairenik stood for was in that spirit.
When I was 10, my friend Simon Bajaksouzian and I joined my cousins, Mike and Sarkis Keshishian, around my Aunt Turvan’s kitchen table. In that kitchen, Aunt Turvan taught us the Armenian alphabet, how to read Armenian, and Armenian history. That Armenian school was the Cleveland version of Armenian education. That marvelous teacher, who at 15 years old escaped the genocide in Malatia, carrying her year-old brother on her back, died in 1942, but she left us with a gift, the alphabet, the words and the history. She also gave me one more gift: the ability to pick up the Hairenik Armenian Weekly and read it with some effort.
Tom Vartabedian mentions the icons, Tashjian, Mandalian, Darbinian, and Donabedian. But I remember another great writer who deserves to be mentioned here. His name was Kevork Topalian and he, too, was a major contributor to the Hairenik. This great writer was a humble stock clerk at the May Company Department Store, going unnoticed by his peers in the store. Topalian had mastered the complex ancient classic Armenian language known as Grabar. As an author he used the pen-name Melidonasi (the name for ancient Malatia). Topalian was also the driving force behind the publication “Babookhti,” which is the name for a small river in Malatia. Published in both Armenian and English, I had my first short story published in the Babookhti. I consider it an honor, and I believe that Kevork Topalian deserves to be in that most respected group of Hairenik writers.
I wish we could fulfill Tom’s request for a writer from this area that could report on community activity, but I do not think it is feasible. The Armenian population is nil and in 2010 is still split into two camps. That is the sad tenure of this story. And yet we actually have two churches! I wish fervently that a miracle would create a writer who would appear to answer Tom’s request.
This old man rambles on so it is time to stop. Cleveland was a remote island, an oasis between the densely populated Armenian areas of New England and Michigan in my youth. Our population was sparse. It took 15 hours to drive to Boston, 3 hours to Detroit, and 7 hours to Chicago. The Hairenik Weekly for our AYF members was our lifeline to our heritage. Almost every month, I still meet with four companions I grew up with. We were born in the same year—1926—and grew up sharing our lives as Armenians and Americans. I am thankful for that.