And More than a Successful Restaurateur
George Mardikian’s memoir, Song of America (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956), which tells of his life and opening Omar Khayyam’s famous restaurant in San Francisco, is the story of an immigrant’s dream come true.
Only in the homeland of the Statue of Liberty could Mardikian’s Song of America have become a reality.
Self-motivated, he was fueled by love for his adopted country.
George Mardikian, with wife Nazely (Amirian) of Fresno at his side, gained fame and fortune in the restaurant business through long hours of hard work, bringing his fascination and love for good food to the attention of the world. By his own admission, he was always lifting the lids of cooking pots in his mother’s kitchen trying to steal a piece of delicious-smelling meat.
The 18-year-old immigrant boy born in Tiflis, Georgia, whose family later moved near Istanbul, emigrated to the United States and San Francisco by way of New York and Ellis Island, building a life away from the fear and destruction he witnessed in Turkey.
Before ANCHA (Armenian National Committee for Homeless Armenians), before he received the Medal of Freedom from President Truman, before he was a famous San Francisco restaurateur introducing the country to Armenian shish kebab and pilaf, and before escaping from a Turkish prison, George Mardikian was a freedom fighter. That’s what I discovered so late in life and what I want you to know, too.
It is through my “Scambile” column that I was contacted by Susan Donian Spartaro, who had grown up in Granite City, Ill., later becoming George’s administrative assistant. She told me how much she loved working for him and what a caring person he was. She sent me Song of America and upon finishing the book, my reaction was I must say a prayer for this amazing Armenian who did so much for the freedom of others.
George and “Naz” Mardikian had come to our smoke-filled agoump in Pontiac when I was a young girl in 1949 to conduct a fundraiser in an appeal to free captured Armenians he had discovered while touring U.S. military bases in Europe. They were trapped in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, and at war’s end were afraid they’d be killed or sent to Siberia if they returned to their homes in Soviet-held territory.
He told of the cold and lack of food they were enduring. He said it was up to us to rescue them from this terrible situation and to bring them to the safety of host countries. It was accomplished.
The word “mardik” means warrior and the Mardikian family and their descendants had always been warriors, hence the name. George Mardikian became a volunteer in the Armenian Legion during World War I, fighting for Armenia’s independence.
In the 1890’s Sultan Hamid set out to massacre Armenians. The people of the Mardikian village fought off the Turks for three months and the Turks invited George’s grandfathers to a supposed negotiation; instead they were taken away and later found shot in the back.
At the end of April 1915, the Turks took away George’s father, who was never to be seen again, in their round up of hundreds of intellectuals. On the maternal side of his family, they were driven from their homes in northeast Turkey, south toward Erzincan (Yerzenga). His grandmother, driven by grief and suffering, threw herself into the Euphrates River.
These events filled the young Mardikian with anger, vowing to avenge the deaths of his family and Armenian people. At age 15, he joined up with others his age and marched and starved and fought until Armenia got her first independence in seven centuries.
Rather than let his mother know he was still alive, now a seasoned guerrilla fighter, George felt a responsibility to his young new nation, and in Kars pitched in to organize an Armenian Boy Scout troop.
In the war between the Turks and the Russians, Mardikian and hundreds of others got captured and thrown into prison. These boys were made to chop ice in the frozen Kars River, not because the Turks needed ice, but because it was a way of killing off the young boys by exposure to cold. George’s hands were frozen. A Near East Relief car came by and the kindly Mr. And Mrs. White gave him three cans of Borden’s condensed milk, which he then gave as a bribe to the Turkish guard.
It was this Mr. White who claimed George was an American and got him placed in an American-run hospital to recover from frozen feet.
George got well and escaped Turkish capture, arriving in Alexanropol where he was made chief guard to 21,000 Armenian orphans housed in a barracks.
Want to know how Imrig Halva came to be? America shipped tons of “cream of wheat”; the cooking directions said to serve with cream and sugar, but none were available so the ingenious Mardikian baked it with pine nuts and syrup made of honey to make it palatable. Voila! Imrig Halva was born. A freedom fighter inventing halva.
He finally returned home to his mother who kept the gantegh lit, an Armenian tradition symbolizing waiting for a loved one to return. A great celebration and feast took place for the young George and soon his brother Arshag, who was in San Francisco, sent money for his boat to America and freedom.
It was with great pleasure and smugness that his mother told the Turkish police, who knocked on her door searching the house top to bottom for the escaped Mardikian, that he was not dead, that he was alive, and that he had just begun to live.
So this was the beginning of George Mardikian’s crossing of the ocean to freedom and eventual wealth in America. It was the land where, in the streets, he heard the sounds of people going to work, the clang of street cars, the voices of friendly policeman uttering “Good morning,” shop owners opening stores for business, and all the hustle and bustle which to his ears became a wonderful mélange of music: The Song of America.