Kricorian: A Candle in Dark Times

While doing research on the uses of political violence by “non-state actors” for my second novel Dreams of Bread and Fire, I came across a 1984 French documentary entitled “Terrorists in Retirement” (original title “Des terroristes à la retraite”). It told the story of a French Communist Resistance network made up of immigrant workers. The network’s leader was an Armenian poet named Missak Manouchian. In late 1943, the Germans arrested Manouchian and 22 members of his group, which was comprised of Eastern European Jews, Armenians, and Italian and Spanish refugees. The men were executed by firing squad in February 1944. The sole woman was executed by beheading in Germany some months later.

The cover of Kricorian's new novel.
The cover of Kricorian’s new novel.

After reading a little more about Missak Manouchian, an Armenian Genocide survivor who immigrated to France in 1925 when he was 19 years old, I realized even as I was writing my second novel that I had found the time period and milieu for my next book. How did the Armenian community of Paris live the four years of the Nazi occupation? What had it felt like for genocide survivors who had rebuilt their lives in France to look out the window on German troops marching down the Rue de Belleville? My third novel, All the Light There Was, grew out of these questions.

Early in the writing process, I conceived of the characters in the novel. The protagonist and narrator would be Maral Pegorian, who was born in 1926. Her father was a cobbler and her mother was a seamstress who did piecework at home. (Henri Verneuil’s film “Mayrig” and an unpublished memoir by Varoujan Barsamian inspired this last detail.) Both of the parents were orphans and genocide survivors who had met at Camp Oddo in Marseille. They shared their Paris apartment with their two children and the mother’s younger sister. And from there I imagined the rest—the neighbors, the schoolmates, the local police officer, the Armenian grocer, and the young men Maral would love.

After I had read through an enormous stack of books—historical studies, memoirs, novels, and collections of letters—about what the French called Les Années Noires (The Dark Years), I planned a research trip to Paris. I wanted to walk the streets of Belleville, the neighborhood where the Pegorians lived. I wanted to visit the Lycée Victor Hugo where Maral was a student. Most importantly, I wanted to talk with Armenians who had lived through the Occupation.

While I was in Paris, my friend Hagop Papazian volunteered to be my “fixer.” He located an Armenian woman who was seven years old when the German troops had marched down the Rue de Belleville. She told me how her family had briefly hidden one of her schoolmates whose family had been arrested during the infamous Vel d’Hiv roundup of Jews in July 1942. Hagop and I went to visit a nonagenarian named Nazaret Peshdikian who had been an amateur actor in the Armenian community theater and a member of the Hunchak resistance. He repeated several times the story of an Allied bomb that had gone astray in his Paris neighborhood, upending a rabbit hutch and killing his wife. He told us for a fourth time, almost in wonder, “My wife was dead, but all the rabbits were still alive.”

A few days later when I was at an Armenian street demonstration near the statue of Komitas close to the Seine, another friend introduced me to historian Anahid Der Minassian. After I informed her about my research project, she told me that when she was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl, her father had trotted her around to the offices of various German officials as living proof that the Armenians were an “Aryan” people.

Later in the week Hagop arranged a meeting with Arsène Tchakarian, one of the last surviving members of the Manouchian Groupe. Tchakarian has devoted his life to documenting the work and the lives of his friend Missak Manouchian and other members of his Resistance network. He is also interested in the roles that different Armenian political groups played with regard to the Nazis during the war. Among the objects he showed me was a photograph of a few members of the Dashnak party in Vienna standing in front of an Armenian tricolor that had been sewn to a Nazi flag.

The day before I was to depart for home, a friend of Hagop’s was finally able to secure a meeting with a man who added another facet to what I learned about the variety of Armenian experiences in France during the Occupation. The story this man told me about his time in the Soviet Army and subsequently in the German Wehrmacht gave me a context for an anecdote I had come across in Charles Aznavour’s autobiography.

Aznavour, the son of Armenian immigrants, was born Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian in Paris in 1924. His autobiography and his sister Aida Aznavour-Garvarentz’s memoir briefly covered the war years, during which Charles and Aida were aspiring young entertainers. Their parents, who were Communists, were part of a circle of friends and political activists that included Missak Manouchian and his wife Melinée.

Late in the Occupation, some Soviet Armenians appeared in Paris in German uniform. They were Soviet soldiers who had been captured on the battlefield and then held in P.O.W. camps in Poland under terrible conditions. They were pressed into the German Army, choosing the Wehrmacht over probable starvation. The Germans didn’t trust them on the Eastern Front, so they were sent to France to work on the Atlantic wall. When these Armenians were given leave, they often came to Paris where the local community held cultural evenings to welcome them.

The Aznavourian family’s contribution to the Resistance was inviting these soldiers to their home and trying to convince them to desert the German Army. If they agreed, the Aznavours would give them civilian clothes and help them to go underground. Charles Aznavour, 19 at the time, was responsible for the nighttime task of dumping the deserters’ boots and uniforms into the sewers of Paris.

In writing All the Light There Was, I wasn’t interested in outsized heroism; I was interested in small defiant acts that make dignity and integrity possible in the face of a brutal occupation. It was a time when there was very little light, literally because of blackouts and shortages, and figuratively because of the repression and violence that accompanied collaborationist and Nazi rule. The title of the novel comes from a line in Jean Anouilh’s play “The Lark” (“L’Alouette”), in which he dramatizes the trial of Joan of Arc. Before the judges, Joan describes the first two times she heard God’s voice.

“The moon was rising; it shone on the white sheep; and that was all the light there was. And then came the second time; the bells were ringing for the noonday Angelus. The light came again, in bright sunlight, but brighter than the sun, and that time I saw him.”*

The first time, it was just his voice under ordinary moonlight; the second time it was his voice accompanied by a luminous, holy vision. I am drawn to the ordinary light—the moonlight and the small flames that people create for themselves in a dark time. But I am also fascinated by the compromises and lies that are sometimes required of even the most principled people faced with the confrontation between systemic political violence and the desire to survive. These are the themes that I tried to explore in All the Light There Was.

My editor recently pointed out that my three novels—Zabelle, Dreams of Bread and Fire, and All the Light There Was—viewed together are a portrait of Armenians in the diaspora after the genocide. They are the stories of the survivors, their children, and their grandchildren. My fourth novel, for which I made a first research trip to Beirut this past summer, will be about Armenians of Lebanon who immigrate to New York during the Civil War, adding another dimension to my collage portrait of the diaspora. What interests me here is how the Armenians, like birds whose nests are destroyed repeatedly by storm, continue to rebuild their homes and their communities again and again. It’s a sad story, but ultimately, it is about resilience and hope. I feel that my work as a writer is to bear witness to trauma, to celebrate resilience, and to amplify what is humane in the human.

* Jean Anouilh, The Lark, translated by Christopher Fry, Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 3

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Nancy Kricorian is the author of the novels Zabelle, Dreams of Bread and Fire, and All the Light There Was. She is currently working on a novel about Armenians in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.
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@NancyKric

Author of ZABELLE, DREAMS OF BREAD AND FIRE, and ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS. Currently writing a novel about Beirut Armenians during the Civil War.
Zinnias in a sack. The last of the season from our garden. https://t.co/E3B25HK0ug - 4 hours ago

12 Comments

  1. I have been fascinated for years with Missak Manouchian and Shahnour Aznavourian. I am looking forward to reading your books. You are dealing with very touchy subjects sometimes. I am sure you have handled them frankly and with sensitivity.
    Please do come and visit us in Yeghegnadzor.

  2. Eagerly awaiting for this novel while re-reading Dreams of Bread and Fire. It is even better the second time around. Amazed how I’m remembering passages before they even appear with great nostalgia. Can’t wait to read this and your upcoming one on Beirutsi’s!

  3. After reading your other novels, I’ve been looking forward to reading All The Light There Was. Thanks for providing the historical context, and the glimpse of the people and stories you encountered doing your research and the ideas that interested and inspired you. It’s always fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes view of what fed into a novel.

    • Thanks, Wendy. I enjoy the doing the research as much as any other aspect of the writing.

  4. Nancy,
    You are doing an indepth research of recent Armenian history -involvement during WWII in Europe. Very interesting indeed,but some clarifications are important.BTW, I have photos showing my participation at the 40th Anniversary of Missak Manuchian and his group’s being shot by firing squad at mONT VALERIEN, Paaris,France. In fact also photographed with Melinee Manuchian who at Dinner offered to us participatns, at the Intercontinental after visit to Mont Valerien,sat near me and after I delivered a short discourse came and kissed me on the forehead…
    I have other episodes w/ref to the L’AFFICHE ROUGE*have a copy of it too.This was pasted all over central Paris -searching M.Manuchian and his group members..
    What I’d like to comment upon is somethign other than all about M.M.
    You also write about armenian Flag sewed to NAZI Flag in Vienna.Well,dear Nancy, there are much more to that our General Dro also being involved..so I think I should clarify myself.During a HUGE ,global War that it was, many things were possilble…to happend unexpectedly…Some ultra lefts point that out, others to the opposite.
    I am to explain that our OTHER side also had the God given right to think that if the Russian(reaad soviet union,some 200,000 Armenians also within their forces-later being martyred for the Hairenagan Baderazm(fatherland war,,,,,thence Dro and his co thinkers ,calculating(turned out otherwise, but never mind,he and his followers were right in their own right too.Now just Imagine,if the other Allies ,the British,and Americans had not8especially latter) thrown in all force bombarding the German heartland with millions of tons of Boms-also supplying the soviets hundredes of thousands of tons of Food and war equipment vis the Persian Gulf(I also witnessed that, allday long U.S. Studebaker huge truck laden with -just said- hiring 16-18 yrs old Iraniasn to drive them over to julfa-soviet fronties…Russia could have lost the war….thence Dro thought not to leave R.of Armenia (soviet then)AT THE MERCY OF OUR ENENMIES…..
    he would enter and declare the independent NATIONALIST ORIENTED R.OF ARMENIA.No not so much for boasting…but for saving Armenia and remaining armenians(the Young) in Armenia, from Toikish(rfead turkish) wrath…..Armenians forget things very easily…like I just described.In a War anything is probable and possible.One must be prepared for the other outcome too, not to perish TOTALLY!!!
    Ask me write and describe Dro and his 80 Young Ärmenians half german etc., stayed a few dasy at my uncle´s Mansion like Bldgfs in Budapest on their way to the front…..My aunt´s husband when I ws visiting Budapest in 1947 going through Munich -Nuremberg ruins,real ruins on U.S. Military Trains with full of MPs and red cross American gals…eaching Budapest, which also had suffered some Bridges being bombed,he todl me it was true Dro had passsed from her with his Elite Armeno German small above group.So what?.
    Also in Tokyo an ex-imperial army captain sadly told me about Hiroshima…had not that happened he said we might ahve come otu of that war else wise…so take it easy…we armenians have to learn to <MEASURE all ..before siding with one or another.Rather time to learn from great Turkey not to side with any,,JUST PRETNED THAT THEY DO ,THEN AT AÑLST MOMENT TURN TO THE OTHER SIDE,THUS SAVING OWN SKIN….
    We have been to naive dying for others,
    An armenian writer (now hope not dead) in Cote DÁzure wrote book entitled ¨¨Esh Nahatag Hay Zoghovourt) to that effect where he describes(is from Istanbulla) how we ahve been silly and always got martyred for odars…

  5. Good research, Nancy. Would like to read your book when published and I hope you can come to Southern California for a book presentation. Let me know about it. I have been working on an eyewitness account and a memoir of a POW who describes part of the Armenian involvement including being in the entertainment group that went to Paris. Also have you seen “Summer of ’48” by Thomassian?

    • Gregory, Thanks for the comment. Interesting parallels in our work. I have not seen “Summer of ’48” by Thomassian, but I have moved away from Paris in the 40’s (after spending 10 years living there in my imagination) and I’m now focused on Beirut in the mid-seventies….I’ll be coming to Los Angeles in March for the book launch–March 19 at Book Soup and March 20 at Glendale Public Library.

  6. Ապրիս

    L’ARMEE’ DU CRIME ~ ADAJIAN REVIEW

    For Immediate Release Sunday April 3 2011

    Contact: MIKE ADAJIAN ADAJIAN@gmail.com 312 . 493 . 7827

    Copyright (C) Michael Adajian 2011 All Rights Reserved

    FILM REVIEW: L’ARMEE’ DU CRIME

    L’Armee’ Du Crime [Army of Crime] is a 2009 Robert Guediguian film which I received on DVD as a gift from my friend David Hansen, Publisher of The Ant Farm Journal.

    I spent an enjoyable 2 hours watching it while reclining in my warm cozy bed 1 night in March 2011.

    The film follows a group of Parisians as they respond variously to the WW II German occupation of their city.

    It is a story smoothly told, with much careful attention & serious skill applied to plot, script, casting, character, costume, sets, design, camera work, music, subtitles & all the other elements of high class European cinema.

    For all this to everyone involved I say, Mes felicitations !

    But therein lie my reservations about L’Armee’ du Crime.

    I know something of the real life fear, uncertainty, anger, ugliness, randomness, complexity & confusion of a military occupation & of citizens’ resistance to it.

    So I was aware that I was watching an exquisitely produced film rather than being swept up, up & away into the near dream state that obtains when a film disappears & a deeply life-like illusion takes over my consciousness for 2 hours.

    Often I found myself remarking upon the wonderfully designed sets, fashionable costumes, perfect makeup, beautiful visual compositions & soulful acting before me.

    Everything seemed to me very French.

    By that I mean fashionable, perfectly tailored, carefully groomed, deliberate, academic, cultured, self-conscious & rather focused upon appearances, impressions & subtleties.

    That sense of life that shouts THIS IS REAL ! THIS MATTERS ! was nowhere to be found.

    Instead, I found an highly artful exercise in storytelling.

    That is not necessarily a bad thing in itself .

    But artful storytelling may not be the best way to speak of shame, danger, suffering, killing, sacrifice & loss.

    Armenians will note that M. Guediguian has organized his tale around the real life poet & resistance fighter Missak Manouchian who like M. Guediguian & myself & many others is of Armenian descent.

    Simon Abkarian, also Armenian, performs admirably as M. Manoukian.

    Please note that the FTP-MOI saboteurs & gunmen with whom M. Manoukian operated were French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Jewish Hungarian [Hungarian Jewish ?] & Armenian.

    These men & women & many others, most now long dead & gone, were all heroes, including M. Manoukian.

    This is a universal story, not simply an Armenian or French story.

    With these reservations based upon my personal perceptions & preferences I recommend L’Armee’ du Crime to those who enjoy such films.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missak_Manouchian

    http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/army_of_crime/

    F I N

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