A Dance Ticket for a Genocide Survivor

HAVERHILL, Mass.—There were no tickets to be had—not a single one—for a unity dance that drew 400 patrons Oct. 19 in Haverhill.

Nellie Nazarian, 101, the lone genocide survivor in Merrimack Valley, is presented a bouquet of flowers from John Arzigian, chairman of Armenian Friends of America, while her great-grandson, Neko Kady, 8, looks on during a unity dance Oct. 19 in Haverhill.
Nellie Nazarian, 101, the lone genocide survivor in Merrimack Valley, is presented a bouquet of flowers from John Arzigian, chairman of Armenian Friends of America, while her great-grandson, Neko Kady, 8, looks on during a unity dance Oct. 19 in Haverhill.

Unless, of course, your name was Nellie Nazarian and you were the very last genocide survivor in Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire.

Age held its privileges in this case. Nellie will turn 102 in December, and more than anything else wanted to attend the shindig in her home city and be escorted by three generations of her family.

Of the 400 people who were already committed, every one of them would have been willing to give up their ticket so Nellie could attend. It never got that far.

“Her granddaughter called and said Nellie wanted to attend the dance,” said John Arzigian, chairman of the newly formed Armenian Friends of America, which sponsored the inaugural event.

“She wanted four tickets to get her there so her loved ones could join her,” added Arzigian. “The dance had been sold out for weeks and we were running at capacity. Well, how can you turn away a genocide survivor?”

So the Arzigian team went to work, making a number of calls to check on cancellations and no-shows. Mission accomplished!

“I went through three complete charges of my cell phone before the task was completed,” Arzigian added. “Nellie was the queen of the ball.”

The genocide survivor arrived in her wheelchair, dressed to the 9’s, with her family trailing behind. Applause rang out. Genocide survivors don’t usually show up at kef-time celebrations. They’re rarely seen anymore at commemorations and observances.

But Nellie enjoys a good dance. Always has. Always will. If it has anything to do with music, she’ll mellow in her seat.

“I asked her if she wanted to come to the Armenian dance and hear the music,” said her granddaughter, Deborah Nazarian-Kady, a regional manager for Nazarian Jewelers, a company Nellie and her husband Stephen started and refined two generations ago.

Stephen, too, was a genocide survivor and passed away in 1965, leaving Nellie widowed for the past 48 years.

“She sings at night,” added her granddaughter. “Her life is filled with songs she heard from her childhood. Whenever there are dancers at an observance, she lights up like a Christmas tree. She wanted to look pretty for her Armenian family and friends.”

The last time Nellie attended an Armenian dance, it was at a wedding and she rejoiced when her grandchildren and great-grandchildren took to the dance floor, willing to teach them the steps during her better days.

“She offered to teach me how to dance,” said Lawrence Kady, Deborah’s husband. They were joined by 8-year-old Neko Kady, a great-grandson, who helped with the bouquet presentation.

Despite her liability, Nellie gets around. Last April, she attended the Merrimack Valley commemoration and was named an honorary member of the Genocide Memorial Committee of Greater Lowell. She was all set to be counted among her peers at the Statehouse last April were it not cancelled by the terrorist manhunt.

“Her presence at occasions like these really highlights the moment,” said Richard Juknavorian, commander of the Lowell Armenian-American Veterans. “It brings a lot of enthusiasm to the crowd. People who stay home and don’t get involved in community affairs can learn a lesson or two from Nellie.”

Nellie escaped the massacre in her native village of Chimisgazag by taking refuge in the mountains with her family before immigrating to America in the early 1920’s. At a time when decent jobs were at a premium, she became an entrepreneur.

The jewelry business became a staple in downtown Lawrence before branching out to adjacent communities. Together with her husband, they built a profitable venture through diligent work and sacrifice.

She’s hardly alone with 4 children, 16 grandchildren, and 34 great-grandchildren by her side. If anything has impressed the woman, it’s seeing the youth grow involved in keeping their heritage intact, especially her very own.

“God was with my family,” she tells us. “We faced all those dangers. I consider myself very fortunate to have lived a good life and raised an excellent family. My heritage has always been important to me.”

As the music played on, so did Nellie Nazarian, swaying to the rhythm of her own beat. On one or two occasions, her lips were moving.

The event, three years in the making, was organized by a committee comprised of various churches benefiting St. Gregory of North Andover, the Armenian Apostolic Church of Hye Point, Sts. Vartanantz Church, and Ararat Congregational Church.

Plans are already underway to make this an annual affair.


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.

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