Genocide Survivor Ojen Fantazian Maintained Her Vigil

BILLERICA, Mass.—Even in death, Ojen Fantazian left an indelible impression.

Genocide survivor Ojen Fantazian lived for her family.
Genocide survivor Ojen Fantazian lived for her family.

Dignified to the end, the 99-year-old genocide survivor gave her family and friends another reason to celebrate her life, and a monumental one at that.

Dozens gathered at St. Stephen’s Church in Watertown to pay their final respects to a woman who never wavered, not during the turmoil that struck her native village of Chimichgadzag. Not during the loss of her husband Harry at an early age. Not during an occasional health lapse that might have robbed her vitality, but never her spirit.

She regularly attended genocide commemorations, often the only survivor representing her peers; attended church services with family members; continued reading her Armenian journals; and still listened to an opera.

Her death brings the number of remaining survivors in Merrimack Valley and southern New Hampshire to two, Nellie Nazarian and Thomas Magarian, both in their centennial years.

As a member of the Armenian Genocide Commemorative Committee of Merrimack Valley, I looked forward to her annual visits to our observances, much the same way I did my own mom. And for good reason.

Aside from the fact they were both survivors, they also shared a mutual namesake. They were both Ojens. And they would sit next to one another and bring each other comfort with their red carnations in hand and their faces written with emotion.

The similarities were remarkable. Both escaped turmoil in their native villages, my Ojen from Dikranagert, Ojen Fantazian from Chimichgadzag. Both succumbed just short of their 100th year.

As they fled for their lives, they watched loved ones being deported and persecuted. They watched the breath being taken from their homeland.

Through sacrifice and commitment, they maintained their identity and were a voice for fellow immigrants who followed them to this Promised Land. In unity, they portrayed strength.

I watched with pride as the two Ojens took each other’s hand and sang the “Hayr Mer.” They were our rock, our inspiration, our identity.

It made me realize that among the truly precious commodities in life—far deeper than money or all the objects of ambition—is the love we share for those who made our existence possible and the friendships of all those whom we treasure deeply.

The pedestal Ojen Fantazian was put upon one year at the Massachusetts Statehouse could have very well have been the footstool in her kitchen.

My mother was the last of her kind to leave Haverhill. Ojen Fantazian was in a class by herself in Billerica inside a community that once bolstered some 75 survivors in the mid-1960’s.

The thought of Ojen and her timeless pearls of wisdom, her jovial character, which brought a smile to those she embraced and joy to an often dreary world.

In her latter days, she held court at an assisted living facility, noting the time when the genocide struck and people were fleeing the country. “We took a horse and buggy and we were with the animals in the train,” she recalled.

Ojen presented a film that was made of her childhood escape, joined by her son Jim, a local optometrist.

Ojen, along with her mother, grandmother, aunt, uncle, and two cousins, were driven from their village by Ottoman-Turkish scoundrels. As they fled for their lives, they squeezed into small places on undesirable transportation while traveling with soldiers.

Children in the family spent time in the orphanage while their parents tried to earn money in any way possible.

To illustrate the severity of her situation, Ojen told the story of an Armenian general who handed her mother a gun for protection on the road. She always remembered him as her hero.

“It’s a wonder we escaped,” Ojen often said. “A lot of times, we didn’t have food. We would suffer.”

After having her head shaved to ensure she would pass a lice inspection, Ojen and her family boarded a vessel departing for Greece, crossing the Black Sea and eventually landing on Ellis Island in 1920.

Ojen specifically recalled mothers throwing their children into the river, believing that such a burial was a more desirable fate than falling into the hands of the Turks. Her own mother once admitted she had considered doing the same.

“We would have been murdered or taken as slaves by the Turks,” she recounted. “I never knew my father, who had previously come to America when I was a baby. He never made it back to Armenia.”

The American dream quickly turned into reality. The family lived with an uncle in Leominster, Mass., quickly adapting to their new world.

Her mother remarried a fellow Armenian refugee and they moved to Lawrence, then Worcester, where her stepfather bought a convenience store. Ojen worked there as a child.

She spent most of her adult life in Arlington, where she and her husband raised two active children, James and Nancy, Two grandchildren, James Asbedian and Susan Ciaffi, and six great-grandchildren brought her extended happiness over time.

For 10 years, she helped teach English to foreign children in the Arlington School System and once presided over the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). She was a lover of classical music, especially opera, and often attended the Metropolitan Opera Society presentations in Boston.

She enjoyed seeing some of the great artists of her time and instilled a musical interest in her children.

Ojen supported a number of Armenian charities throughout her life, donating what little money she could muster. For years, she sent the Prelacy checks for orphans, always with an encouraging note. Her generosity was straight from the heart.

“My age has nothing to do with it,” she often told others. “So long as I feel healthy and willing, I want to serve my heritage.”

Among the other survivors is a brother, David Davidian.

During one of her tributes, it was mentioned how Ojen loved the stories that were periodically written and told about her, especially those that talked about her teaching days. She treasured that role and the rewards that came from educating students.

May she rest in peace.

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

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