The Flip Side of Margaret Ajemian Ahnert

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—By now, you may have read Margaret Ajemian Ahnert’s The Knock at the Door, or may be wondering why it’s still on your “to do” list after five years. The books draws on the interviews she held with her mom, Ester, at a New York City nursing home to document the life of a genocide survivor.

Ahnert with the Dalai Lama at Nova University in 2010
Ahnert with the Dalai Lama at Nova University in 2010

You may know of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor that Ajemian Ahnert received for humanitarian service, or of the scholarship program she established to support female journalists in Armenia.

You may also be aware of her contributions to the art world, both as a teacher and docent, or the TV documentaries she’s produced, or the businesses she operates in the resort and hotel industry.

An altogether different outlook points to a rather diversified outdoor life. She’s landed a 350-pound blue marlin; bagged a 1,000-pound elk; flies planes; and skippers a 75-foot yacht moored in Florida, which has taken her throughout the Caribbean and New England coast.

Oh, and let’s not forget her personal encounter with the Dalai Lama in 2010, when the Buddhist leader piqued the author’s mind about her book and the Armenian Genocide.

On a recent trip to Florida, we lunched at an eclectic deli with our significant others. I was joined by my wife Nancy while she was accompanied by fiancé Ed Odabashian, a successful importer and investor who often accompanies the author on tours and speaking engagements. The two of them ordered white fish, which was enjoyed thoroughly, while Nancy and I settled for salad plates. What started out as a brief encounter turned into an entire afternoon’s gabfest. A Q-and-A session follows.


Q. What’s the latest on your book?

Ahnert with a 350-pound blue marlin she caught after a 2-hour battle in the Bahamas.
Ahnert with a 350-pound blue marlin she caught after a 2-hour battle in the Bahamas.

A. It’s been translated into 10 languages and looking at a 6th printing. What better way is there to observe the 100th anniversary of the genocide by seeing my book made into a film? Yes, there’s been talk about it.

Q. Any outside comments about it from influential people?

A. Robert Morgenthau, the grandson of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr., felt that if this book had been written prior to World War II, a holocaust might have been prevented.

Q. How big into fishing are you?

A. Hauling in a 350-pound blue marlin took 2 hours off the coast of Chub Cay in the Bahamas in what they call “the tongue of the ocean.” It’s got a bit of Ernest Hemingway to it, given the fact that a shark began closing in on my fish, similar to his story, The Old Man and the Sea. Unlike the story, the shark never ate my marlin. I managed to get it aboard in time. It broke water after taking yards of line. If anyone else had touched my pole during the battle, it wouldn’t have been my fish.

Q. You own a boat?

A. I have a 75-foot yacht moored in Florida that has taken me everywhere from the Bahamas to the Berry Islands. I love being in the open sea. It shows how miniscule we really are, compared to the ocean. I also have a captain’s license.

Q. How do you feel about gun control?

A. I’m against owning an assault rifle for personal use. Hunters should be allowed to use rifles for sport and target shooting. I’ve always enjoyed trap and skeet shooting.

Q. Isn’t killing an elk cruel?

A. Not when they’re goring one another and over-populated. A carcass would not have been left in the forest. A taxidermist got a job. So did a tanner who turned the skin into a rug. The butcher also benefitted from it. The meat was taken to a shelter and fed the needy. What part of this is wrong?

Q. And you also pilot aircraft?

A. I learned how to fly a plane when I was doing interviews outside the country for a radio station in New York during the 1970s. I found it more suitable than being in a small plane with non-English-speaking pilots.

Ahnert aboard a horse in Utah during one of her many outdoor gallops.
Ahnert aboard a horse in Utah during one of her many outdoor gallops.

Q. Tell me something about your artwork.

A. My favorite artists happen to be Arshile Gorky and Cezanne. I lean toward water colors and have sold some of my work, while other pieces are enjoyed every day at home. I have a master’s degree in fine arts and literature, taught art appreciation in elementary schools, and lectured as a docent at the Metropolitan and Philadelphia Museums of Art.

Q. You met the Dalai Lama?

A. Yes, it was at Nova Southeastern University [in Florida] on Feb. 23, 2010, and the blessing he gave me altered my life. Sales from my book began to spiral upward, several more translations followed, along with queries from movie producers. It’s my raison d’être.

Q. If you hit the lottery for $1 million, where would the money go?

A. Into my existing scholarship fund for Armenian women studying journalism in Yerevan, with the hope they would use their skills to further education throughout the world. My foundation is the Ester Ajemian Scholarship Fund, which I started several years ago in memory on my mother. With the $1 million, I would expand it to include men.

Q. How do you stay connected to the Armenian community in Florida?

A. The Armenian community is my birthright. I attend St. Mary’s Armenian Church in Hollywood and have spoken coast-to-coast. … Recently, I spoke at St. James Men’s Club in Watertown and the reception there was wonderful. I managed to sell several more books, giving me the pleasure that it’s still in demand. Bob Semonian did a great job in setting it up. [Writer’s note: Ajemian funded her own expenses, which has been her practice all along.]

Q. Have you changed anyone’s life?

A. My granddaughter, Sara Price. She just changed her major from neuro-psychology to journalism at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She told me she wanted to be a writer just like me. I’m deliriously happy over it.

Q. If you could meet any Armenian in history who might that be?

A. Historically, Vartan Mamigonian, for helping to preserve our Christianity against the Persians in 451. More recently, William Saroyan, most definitely, for his contributions to world literature. We would have a lot to talk about.

Q. How do you approach each day?

A. I’m the CEO of my own life. I get on a treadmill, swim in my pool, and eat healthy.

Q. Any further thoughts?

A. I cannot believe that a girl from the Bronx could reach such fame and be recognized by Ellis Island with a Medal of Honor. I dedicate any such honor to my mother Ester. She’s smiling down on me.

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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  1. I admire Margaret Ahnert for her dedication to the Armenian people and cause however her winning the Ellis Island Medal for Honor is a bit ironic. Yes, she has looked out for human rights but has “bagged” an elk, which she feels is not a cruel practice. Elk goring each other is a natural part of their animal society. If she truly wanted to help the needy by feeding them an elk, she would have aimed for the weaker creature but the one she shot was a very large animal, who was probably very healthy, weighing 1000 lbs. Hunters try to fool themselves by saying they are helping the animals by culling the herds. This is not true. They are out for the hunt, the joy of killing another living creature. Hunters target the largest, healthiest animals leaving the herd with the weaker animals. This in turn diminishes the gene pool of the herd and ultimately allows the animals to suffer from more diseases, etc. A true humanitarian understands that all creatures have a place on this planet and killing them for sport shows a cruel, unhuman, primitive side in a person.

  2. This interview helped me to discover Margaret Ajemian Ahnert as an active person, who has many individual interests and her own opinion to everything. I’m glad, that in our nation there are such people, who never forget about their roots and do as much as they can for their motherland.
    “Knock at the door” is one of those books, which I read with huge interest and at the end I just found one more great personality for me-Ester Ajemian. She was very beautiful and really wise woman, who never gave up but struggled to live. Her story is not just her story, it’s our nation’s story. This book is a must read for everyone.I am proud to be your compatriot.

  3. I am proud to be one of the ‘Margaret Ahnert Ajemyan scholarship’ recipients and I am very impressed by everything you do to Armenia and to its young generation.

    This interview helped me to learn many interesting things and can’t say how much I truly admire Margaret Ahnert Ajemyan.

    I must say that I felt very excited while reading the book “The knock at the door” and due to your graphic description I felt all that disaster, once again feeling sorry for the bitter fate fallen to my nation’s lot. I ‘got acquainted’ to a brave Armenian woman who evoked a feeling of pride – I am grateful to your mother!

    Hope that one day I will be such a great writer as you are .

  4. About the Morgenthau statement that if her book had been written earlier the Holocaust may have been prevented:
    Franz Werfel wrote a semi-fiction book about the Armenian genocide and the attempt at resistance by one group of Armenians, THE FORTY DAYS OH MUSA DAGH, in 1933!!! As a Jew he saw what was happening in Europe with the ascent of Hitler and hoped the book would help to convince people that what happened to the Armenians could also happen to the Jews of Europe. There are chapters in the book of an imagined discussion between a German pastor and a Turkish official that are quite chilling. Werfel’s book was soon banned both in Turkey and in Germany and eventually he fled to the United States. Wasn’t Morgenthau’s ambassador grandfather based in Turkey in 1915?

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