The Armenian Weekly April Magazine
The looks on their faces are haunting. A sense of fear and uncertainty, doom even, is evident. Fifty-one men, all Armenian, standing in front of what appears to be a prison, in the Turkish city of Gesaria (modern Kayseri). In the two windows behind them, other men are dimly seen. Only the Turkish gendarme at the end of the third row appears in any way at ease.
As I was to learn, the photograph is a remarkable one. Taken as the Armenian Genocide of 1915 was about to begin, it is likely the only one like it to have survived those massacres. It shows a large group of Armenian men who were martyred, and identifies them. Being named, their lives—as well as their deaths—can be traced.
My assignment to authenticate the photograph seemed a simple one when I took it on in 2005. Find out why the photograph had been taken and by whom. Who were these men and why did they look so fearful? Where was the photograph first published, and why had it remained so little known with its value unrecognized for so many years? And beyond the photograph’s history, what had become of these men and their families?
Nearly a decade later, some of the questions about the photograph remain unanswered, as facts that I unearthed often gave rise to more difficult questions. But from my pursuit of its origins, I came to value the photograph’s significance in the field of genocide research and learn the secrets it reveals about how thousands of Armenians were led to their deaths in that Turkish sancak (district), and how what took place in Gesaria was a microcosm of the genocide itself.
The more I dug, the more compelling the photograph became not just in historic terms but in human ones, as well. The faces of the men, all leaders in Gesaria’s Armenian community, placed a personal emphasis on what took place in eastern Turkey so many years ago. The toll could be assessed not solely by numbers but in actual lives lost.
Consider Vahan Kurkjian (no relation; middle row, sixth from the right), the dean and teacher at a college, regarded as the most educated of the Armenian residents, was sentenced to be hanged by a military tribunal for being a member of the Dashnak Party. Shortly before he was brought to the gallows in August 1915, Kurkjian presented his most prized possession, a fountain pen, to his wife with the instruction that she give it to the son among their three—Edward, Walter, and Harry—who turned out to be most like him. With their mother, the three boys made it to America and all led successful lives, including Walter, a successful banker and mayor of Merchantville, N.J. The pen remains a family heirloom.1
Or Karnig Jurjurian (top row, third from the left). Known as an ardent nationalist, Jurjurian’s two brothers and brother-in-law were also killed during the summer of 1915. Fearing the worst, he had sent his only son, Artin Jurjurian, to America before the killings began. Artin went to work for Boston’s then-public transit system, the Boston Elevated Railway, where he came in contact with Louis Brandeis, a Massachusetts lawyer who represented the railway workers. Brandeis, who would become a renowned member of the U.S. Supreme Court, assisted Artin Jurjurian in filling out the immigration papers to allow his mother—Karnig Jurjurian’s widow—into the United States following Karnig’s death in Gesaria.2
Or Mardiros Lousararian, 55, the only banker in Gesaria’s Armenian community, who was appointed to its city council in 1908, after loaning 500 lira to Turkey’s central Treasury. (He is shown in the second row of the photograph). But that didn’t save him from being arrested, brought before a military tribunal in late May 1915, and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. But within weeks of the sentence, Lousararian was taken from the central Gesaria prison, placed on a caravan with other Armenian men, and never heard from again. Lousararian’s life, however, would not be forgotten, as his grandson wrote glowingly about his work in biographical articles about Lousararian and his family.3
I had been shown the photograph originally by Elaine Patapanian of Belmont, Mass., the granddaughter of one of the men in the front row of the photograph. She pressed me to determine the circumstances in which it had been taken, and asked if it were true (as one pamphlet which had reprinted the photograph stated) that all of the men had been killed an hour later.4 (It was not.)
Questions like hers spurred me to keep digging to learn the photograph’s origins. From my own personal experience, I knew that the lives of these men needed to be remembered, as did the survival of their families. Like Armenians everywhere whose families had lost loved ones in the massacres, my grandfather had been killed in the genocide, yet my father, a three-year-old in 1915, had survived to come to America to thrive.5
So even when the expected breakthrough did not quickly take place, I kept working to tell this story, knowing that if I didn’t no one would, and soon the story of the photograph, as well as the lives of the men shown in it, would be 100 years in the forgetting.
The difficulty in piecing together a coherent account of the circumstances of the photograph being taken, as well as what had happened in a single city in Turkey nearly a century before, is a familiar one for genocide researchers.
The Turkish government long denied Armenian or independent researchers open access to its archives on the decision-making by its Ottoman rulers during the genocide, and documents relating to Armenian life in that period. The government has relented a bit in recent years, but still access is limited and incomplete. Professional scholarship on the genocide did not begin in earnest until after 1965, a half century after the horrific events took place, which meant that two generations of survivors died, and with them, their first-hand accounts.
Despite those obstacles, an archival record has begun to be built, much from the testimony of eyewitnesses, including American diplomats and missionaries. Yet, that effort has been limited by modest funding—no government agency outside of tiny Armenia has ever put money into researching what led to the genocide or how it was carried out—and a lack of coordination among those few who work in the field. The ongoing and well-funded Turkish state-sponsored denial of the genocide has forced scholars to expend precious time and resources responding and re-responding to the distortion of the historical record. As a result, a chapter in worldhistory equal to the Nazi Holocaust in its horror and devastation has been reduced to a political battle.
The lack of visual evidence—no films and few photographs—has served to dim the brutality of the events of 1915 from history’s collective consciousness. Without the visual testament, Hitler was able to allay the concerns of his Nazi generations that his campaign against the Poles, and then the Jews in Eastern Europe, would bring worldwide condemnation.
“Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?” he stated less than 25 years after the genocide, a quote that is etched on a fourth-floor wall of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. as a permanent reminder.6
Samantha Power, whose book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 2003, agreed that the case for acknowledging the Armenian Genocide is weakened by the few photographs and no visual evidence.
“You can never argue against the Holocaust because of the images that emerged from it. The proof of what happened and the suffering was overwhelming,” Power said in an interview in 2006, before she became a national security adviser to President Obama. “Images are what people remember. They cannot be argued away.”7
It was inside a Turkish military newspaper that I found the most convincing evidence of the photograph’s importance, proof that the men had been executed. Written in Ottoman Turkish, an issue of the military newspaper Kayseri, published in early June 1915, contained the verdicts imposed on 46 Armenian businessmen and community leaders who had been tried by the military tribunal in the days before.8
Most of those shown in the photograph were listed in the Kayseri newspaper as having been tried and sentenced by the military tribunal—31 of the 46 to be precise. (While 51 Armenian men are shown in the photograph, only the names of 46 are provided in whole or in part by first or last name, and in a few cases with a profession.)
The verdicts published in the Kayseri military newspaper also show how weak the evidence against them was. It was stated at their trials that the men had signed a secret pledge to wage armed battle for independence for the Armenians, who had lived for centuries in Asia Minor as an ethnic minority in central and eastern Turkey. They were convicted of either possession of a weapon and/or membership in one of two Armenian political parties, the Dashnaks or the Hunchaks.
But the evidence to support those allegations was unconvincing, especially to justify the death sentences that were to follow. While weapons were found in many of their homes, Armenians had been given the right to bear arms in 1908, when the current regime had come to power. As for membership in revolutionary organizations, it is true that members of both the Hunchak and Dashnak parties had advocated for an independent Armenia, but neither party had taken steps towards mounting an armed assault. The defendants were denied their efforts to offer individual defenses against the charges at their hearings; they were tried in groups of four and five, and the sessions were finished in a matter of hours.9
Even being acquitted by the military tribunal, as 2 of the 46 originally tried were, did not bring freedom. One was placed in an ox-drawn cart within days of his acquittal and taken with 24 other Armenian men to a remote location several miles outside of Gesaria. There they were attacked and killed by a group of murderous chetes (brigands) who had just been released from prison for that purpose.10 The other, Krikor Gerekmezian, was never heard from again after his acquittal was posted in the Kayseri newspaper.
According to the memoirs of three eyewitnesses, the hangings began on June 15, 1915, within hours of the verdicts’ being made known. Eleven men, including seven shown in the photograph (Hagop Merdinian, Avedis Zambakjian, Minas Minasian, Garabed Jamjian, Hagop Khayerlian, Karnig Kouyoumjian and Hovanes Nevshehirlian), were awakened at the prison in the center of Gesaria before dawn, ordered to put on long white shrouds, and taken by oxen cart to a square known as Komorluku (the Coal Pits) where gallows had been erected. 11
Most limped or had to be carried up the gallows steps; the Turkish police had tortured them before their trials in hopes of discovering where caches of weapons might be found, or documents proving membership in one of the Armenian political parties. The preferred form of torture—bastinado, or falake in Turkish—consisted of repeatedly beating the soles of the prisoners’ feet with wooden rods.
In a final insult, the Turkish executioners denied the request of the priests who had accompanied the men to the gallows to allow them to be given an Armenian funeral. Instead, their bodies were thrown into a mass grave and buried.
Kevork Vishabian, a strong advocate for Armenian independence, was one of the first to be hanged. But before the noose was placed around his neck, he shouted out to the members of the military tribunal who had sentenced him to reconsider their actions: “Esteemed judges, remain true to your calling, follow the path of justice and stop persecuting the Armenians.” Vishabian, whose family ran a tin-making business, was 31 at the time. His pregnant wife was among those who witnessed his hanging. She screamed at the executioners that if her child was a boy he would avenge his father’s killing.
But there was no stopping the killing campaign now. On the same day, 400 miles to the west, in Turkey’s capital of Constantinople, 20 Hunchak Party activists—among the 200 leaders of the Armenian community who had been arrested two months before—were hanged in one of the city’s public squares.
The date of the arrests, April 24, 1915, has come to be known asthe beginning of the Armenian Genocide. The killings would last for more than a year, well into 1916. In the end, hundreds of thousands were killed, many in such brutal fashion as being hurled off bridges or being burned to death when the churches or homes they had sought refuge in were set ablaze. Those who survived were robbed of their property and belongings, and deported under the worst possible circumstances from central and eastern region of Turkey, where their roots dated back to the Bronze Age.
It would become characterized as the first modern genocide. Although it was well documented while the killings were taking place, the horrors of the Armenian Genocide would dim over time. No lessons would be learned from it or ways to prevent it, and many such massacres would follow, in Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Serbia, Darfur, and Rwanda.
For the Armenians, near-extermination in their ancestral homeland has been followed by an additional injustice: a vociferous, well-funded campaign by the Turkish government to deny that genocide took place. “Yes, hundreds of thousands of Armenians died” is the common refrain from the Turkish government, “but deaths are inevitable during wartime, and there had never been an intentional initiative to rid the Armenians and their culture from Turkey.”
The International Association of Genocide Scholars adopted a resolution in 1997 affirming that what took place in Ottoman Turkey against the Armenians in 1915 meets the United Nations’ legal definition of genocide. If further evidence is needed, Raphael Lemkin, whose work in the 1930’s and 1940’s established the framework for “genocide” and its legal aspects, said the experience of the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey motivated his work from the outset.
But those acknowledgments have not convinced U.S. officials to take similar actions. Fearing it would upset the present Turkish government, a national security ally of the United States, Congress has consistently refused to adopt a resolution acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. And no recent U.S. president, including President Obama, who campaigned he would do otherwise if elected, has used the word genocide in the statements issued every April 24th to express sadness about what befell the Armenian people in Ottoman Turkey.
But research in the Ottoman archives by, among others, Turkish scholar and Clark University Professor Taner Akcam, following a historian’s professional path, is showing how intentional the campaign by the Ottoman rulers to attack the Armenians was. Akcam has located still-unpublished encrypted communiqués that the Ottoman regime in Constantinople sent to their functionaries in outlying districts. These detail an organized campaign first to inflame Muslim sentiments against the Armenians and then to strike at them.
One of the secret telegrams that Akcam found was sent by Talat Pasha, Turkey’s Minister of the Interior and chief architect of the genocide, to functionaries in Gesaria and other provinces in mid-February 1915, a few weeks before the first roundups of Armenian notables. Complaining that “Armenian bandits” had been carrying out assaults on Turkish citizens and soldiers in several places and that “copious bombs” had been found in Armenian homes in Gesaria, Talat warned that “our enemies are preparing an attempt to revolt in our country.” 12
Another secret telegram rebuts the denial by the modern Turkish government and its spokesmen of any evidence of state responsibility for the mass killing of Armenians. Sent by the Turkish Directorate of General Security to officials in the nearby vilayet of Diyarbakir, the telegram shows the central government was aware that the prisoners were being dispatched from the prison in Gesaria and sent via caravans to their death.
Written on June 22, 1915, the day they were taken from the prison, the communiqué states that about 25 “Armenian revolutionaries” who had been sentenced by the military tribunal in Gesaria were being sent to Diyarbakir, more than 300 miles to the east. They were never heard from again. On their arrival, the instruction called for the “performing and communication of what is necessary.”13
The language in such official communiqués from Constantinople to the functionaries in the provinces is most often elliptical, but the uniformity with which they were carried out with extreme measures has convinced Akcam and other scholars that the Ottoman rulers had devised a secret code for communicating their commands.
Over the next several months, from June through October, a total of 13 caravans filled with Armenian men were dispatched from the prison in Gesaria. Each was larger in number than the one before, and by the time they ended in October, the caravans contained more than 600 men each, and the Gesaria prison was emptied of Armenians.14
Although few Armenian prisoners who were taken away from the prison were ever heard from again, and the same ox carts and prison guards would return from one trip only to be used in the next, the prisoners held out hope that they were not being taken to their death. Had not their guards said that they were just being taken to another province where they would be incarcerated until the end of the war, they reasoned.
That sense of guarded hope was evident in a letter that Varteres Armenyan, a successful copper merchant, with a wife and three children, wrote to his family from Talas, a few miles north of Gesaria. Taken captive in May, Armenyan was one of the two Armenians found innocent of all charges by the Ottoman Turkish military tribunal. But that did not spare him, as he was kept in prison following the decision of the military tribunal, and within days was placed in a caravan that headed east from Gesaria. Written in Armenian, the one-page letter somehow reached Armenyan’s family and has been preserved by Elaine Patapanian, his granddaughter, who had introduced me to the photograph in question.
In his letter, dated July 5 (or July 18 by the western calendar), Armenyan wrote that while his caravan had safely arrived in Talas he feared they would be taken further east to the region of Sivas, where there were rumors about Armenian killing fields.
“After that it’s not known where we will go,” wrote Armenyan, who would never be heard from again. “Being in prison doesn’t allow one to write every day. All of you must pray to God to save us from this trial. My loving best to all… I kiss my children’s eyes.”15
Located in a valley of Mount Argaeus in central Turkey, the city of Gesaria has always been vulnerable to locusts. Fittingly, such a plague hit in the late winter and early spring of 1915, and the Turkish authorities ordered all elderly Armenians and boys under the age of 14 into the fields outside of the city to attack the waves of insects. For days on end, the Armenians were not allowed to return to their homes until each had collected enough insects that their sacks weighed like they had a brick inside them.16
The other Armenian men, those above the age of 14, were allowed to remain in the city and continue their normal lives—as normal as could be with a sense of doom, worse even than waves of locusts, approaching.
World War I had spread through Europe and already Turkey was getting the worst of it. On its west, an armada of British and French warships had begun shelling the Dardanelles Straits on November 3, 1914, and there was fierce fighting in Gallipoli.
On Turkey’s eastern border, the Russians had delivered a near-lethal blow to the Turkish military, at Sarikamish, in early January 1915, killing or wounding a huge proportion of the 118,000 Turkish troops dispatched in the dead of winter to confront the czar’s army. War Minister Enver Pasha, one of the leaders of the Young Turk regime, had given his personal blessing to the attack on the Russian forces. Humiliated by the loss, he now made his way back to Constantinople, making a late-night stop in Gesaria to meet with provincial officials.
The director of the choir of one of the three churches in the Armenian section of Gesaria, hearing of Enver’s presence in the city, appeared at the government building in hopes of arranging a recital for the war minister. The director, like others in Gesaria, was unaware of what had befallen the Ottoman military in Sarikamish, or how the Turkish government intended to respond. There would be no listening to an Armenian choir for Enver that night.17
Before the killings began, a 1914 census showed that more than 52,000 Armenians were registered as living in the Gesaria sancak (district), about 18,000 of them living in the city itself, mostly in two-story residences built of stone, many of which still stand. In slightly more than a year’s time, thousands of the men would be killed, either hanged in the city’s central square or taken to remote areas and murdered. The rest of the Armenian population, women and children, would be ordered into caravans and banished from the city and province, never to return again.
The forced removal of the Armenians was so effective that a census ordered by Talat in 1917 found that only 6,700 of the 52,000 remained in the sancak. While 1.5 million Armenians were officially recorded as living in Ottoman Turkey before World War I, Talat’s census in 1917 found that 1.2 million had been killed or forcibly removed from their homeland.18
Today, the once-active Armenian community in Gesaria has been reduced to a handful, mostly elderly people who are afraid still to acknowledge their heritage. The only Armenian landmark is the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, which has no resident priest or regular services. However, to prevent the confiscation of the church as abandoned property, Armenian priests travel there from Istanbul to conduct services several times a year.
What happened to the Armenians in Gesaria during the genocide mirrored what took place in other Turkish provinces, but was worsened by two aggravating circumstances. First, far more high-level functionaries of the Young Turk Party were put in place in Gesaria in the months before the onset of the genocide than in other regions of the country. Their purpose, according to Raymond Kevorkian, author of The Armenian Genocide: The Complete History, was to “fabricate a damning case incriminating the Armenians” in a conspiracy against the Turkish people. Second was the leading role played by Salih Zeki in carrying out the massacres in Gesaria, once he ascended to a key position in the district of Gesaria in late February or early March 1915.19
Zeki’s actions proved to be so ruthlessly effective in pushing forward the aims of the Ottoman rulers in Gesaria that in a little more than a year’s time, he was promoted to take over as mutasarif (governor) of Der Zor, the region of the Ottoman Empire (in modern-day Syria) where hundreds of thousands of forcibly deported Armenians were sent. In Zeki’s hands, Der Zor was turned into the worst killing fields of the genocide.
Zeki took over as the kaymakam (regional executive) of Gesaria—from an official who was generally regarded as being benevolent towards the Armenians—following an explosion in the town of Evereg, 15 miles from Gesaria. A 30-year old Armenian man, Kevork Defjian, had returned from the United States to Evereg intent on avenging the killings that he had witnessed 20 years before of his uncle and nephew. But the bomb that he was making exploded in his hands, killing him and shattering the silence of the Armenian neighborhood in Evereg. The date was, by the western calendar, Feb. 24, 1915.20
Vahakn Dadrian, a leader in the field of Armenian Genocide research, calls the explosion at Evereg a “triggering event” for the massacres in Gesaria. It provided authorities a spark to ignite fears among the Turkish population that drastic steps needed to be taken against their Armenian neighbors. In the same fashion, Dadrian notes, Hitler and his propaganda chief Josef Goebbels incited Germans in 1938 to believe that all Jews should be held responsible for the killing of a German diplomat by a Jewish youth in Paris in 1938.
But word of the explosion did not reach Turkish authorities for several days, until one Turkish worker who lived in the neighborhood let it be known to officialswhat had happened. Outraged that it had gone unreported for days, the Ottoman rulers quickly promoted Zeki to kaymakam, and he moved almost immediately against the Armenians. Among his first actions was to summon a large group of Armenian leaders to the central points in Evereg and Gesaria. In no uncertain words, he informed them that the central government in Constantinople had ordered a crackdown: all guns and munitions in the hands of Armenians were to be confiscated, and membership in all Armenian political parties was outlawed.
I believe it was at this time that the photograph that has long captured my attention was taken. Zeki would have wanted to prove to his superiors in Constantinople (as quickly as possible following his promotion to kaymakam) that he had rounded up the key members of the Armenian community. The prison setting appears similar to the Kale, the military fortress that still dominates the center of Gesaria, and none of the men show signs of injury (many, as previously stated, would soon suffer from beatings by the police in an effort to coerce confessions).
Those torture sessions began sometime in March and took place at the police station a few blocks away from the fortress. In the days leading up to the first interrogations, the streets throughout the Armenian sector grew tense. Haig Ghazerian, who recounted his memories of the genocide in 1931, in a series of articles in the Beirut Armenian newspaper Lipanan, recalled meeting Kevork Vishabian, the leader of the local chapter of the Dashnak chapter, on the streets of Kayseri shortly before Vishabian was arrested.21
“Haig, it’s our time,” Vishabian said as the two men walked to Vishabian’s house. There, they lit the stove in the middle of the living room and, over cigars, they burned “every piece of documents we both had,” Ghazerian recalled.
Within two months, Vishabian would be among the first of about 50 men who were tortured, brought before a military tribunal, and convicted. He was also among the first sentenced to be hanged in Gesaria’s public square.
But those hanged were not all from the Armenian political elite of Gesaria. Garabed Jamjian was also among them. He had been taken into custody on the flimsiest of evidence, a false accusation by a fellow Armenian that Jamjian had carried a secret note from Etchmiadzin, the seat of Armenia’s high prelate, urging a public rebellion.
No such note was ever found on him, but in raiding his house the Turks did find an antique rifle and prosecuted him for it. At his trial, Jamjian asserted that the rifle had been given to him as a gift by Ottoman leaders for his public service. But no matter, the tribunal ruled that the gun could have been used against Turkish citizens, so he was guilty of possessing it.
The hangings in the square would continue for the next 12 months. In all, according to Raymond Kevorkian’s The Armenian Genocide: A Complete History, the court martial tribunal condemned 1,095 Armenian men by late September 1915; 857 of them were executed.
The last Armenians removed from the city were those who had been put to work to kill the locusts that had beset the farmland. As the workers returned to the central city every night, Ghazerian recalled, they would shield their eyes as they walked past the gallows, which were left standing whether being used or not.
“The sad news was taken everywhere,” wrote Ghazerian in 1931. “We were all in mourning. No one had the courage to go out and look at one another. Life had stopped in the Armenian neighborhoods.”
The forced deportation of the general population of Gesaria, as well as other Anatolian cities and villages, began several months later, in mid-August 1915. (In other areas, the general deportations had begun as early as May.) Depending on the length of their route, between 30 and 50 percent of those deported from eastern and central Turkey died along the trek to Aleppo, Syria—victims of starvation or cholera, or killed by roving bands.22
And for the fortunate ones from Gesaria who made it to Aleppo, a new horror awaited them, perpetrated by Salih Zeki. Instead of allowing the Armenian survivors into the city where relief workers were waiting for them, the caravans were shepherded to refugee camps set up in the deserts of Der Zor. Anyone seeking to help the Armenians was prohibited from entering the area, and when a new wave of cholera descended on the camp, the dead went unburied.
An indictment of the Young Turk leadership in 1919 determined that 192,750 people had been murdered in Der Zor in 1916 alone, according to Kevorkian’s The Armenian Genocide: A Complete History. In 2010, more than nine decades later, a news crew from “60 Minutes” visited Der Zor with author Peter Balakian and uncovered human bones in the empty fields. Yet, despite Zeki’s murderous ways, the end of World War I did not bring him justice or the revenge that he feared. Although a post-war commission in Turkey charged Zeki with torture, bribery, and rape, he fled the country before he could be arrested and tried. He lived out the rest of his life in safety in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Although it was taken in 1915, this photograph, which has tested my investigative reporting skills for much of the past decade, was not published, as far as I could determine, until 1965. Then, without any explanation as to its history, the photograph appeared in an anthology compiled on the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in a chapter that described how the massacres had unfolded in Gesaria.
From the outset, I felt that whatever importance the photograph would have to the history of the Armenian Genocide depended on my authenticating the photograph itself, uncovering its origins. Why it had gone undiscovered for half a century was a key question that needed to be addressed.
Krikor Elmayan, the grandson of Vahan Elmayan, who wrote that chapter, allowed me access to his late grandfather’s archives at their home in Beirut; Armenian scholar Ara Sanjian visited the Elmayan home on my behalf and found the copy of the military newspaper, Kayseri, which contained, in Ottoman Turkish, the verdict of the military tribunal condemning so many of those in the photograph to death. (Having grown up in Gesaria, Vahan Elmayan witnessed the massacres as a teenager and was the first to write about what took place in a series of articles in Yeritasard Hayastan, a weekly Armenian newspaper published in Chicago, in 1920. He dedicated the articles to his father, who was among those martyred.)
In addition, we found a copy of the photograph that Elmayan had used in the 1965 anthology, titled Hushamadean Medz Yegherni (Memorial Book of the Great Crime), 1915-1965.23 Krikor had no idea how his grandfather had come upon the photograph, nor did Zaven Messerlian, principal of the Armenian Evangelical College in Beirut and an Armenian historian who had helped in preparing the 1,100-page book for publication.
Messerlian recalled seeking photographs for the editor of the book, Kersam Aharonian, by placing ads in newspapers that circulated in the Armenian community in Lebanon as well as worldwide. But he had no recollection of ever receiving the photograph that was published on page 352 in the anthology. “Vahan [Elmayan] had to have gotten it on his own,” Messerlian told me.
As it turned out, my best clue on the photograph’s origins—as well as on how Elmayan had gotten ahold of it—came from the keepsakes of a neighbor in Watertown, Mass. Alice Nakashian, learning of my research project, shared with me two copies of the photograph that were among the papers of her father, Haratoun (Harry) Nakashian, who had been born in Gesaria and died in Boston in 1972. Under one of the photographs, her father had printed the names and whereabouts of eight of those men. But with the second photograph, the names of 41 had been added in Armenian, and scotch-taped to the bottom of the photograph itself.
Alice Nakashian recalls her father taking her to the downtown Boston office of the Armenian newspaper Hairenik and having several hundred copies of the second photograph printed, which he then mailed to Armenian publications around the world. John Garabedian, a friend of Harry Nakashian’s, confirmed that he often made copies of the Kayseri photograph at Garabedian’s pharmacy in the 1950’s and 1960’s to send out to other Armenians.
Was it possible that despite my far-flung search for the photograph, which had led me to search the catalogues of more than a dozen libraries and archives throughout the world, my best clue to its origins would come from a woman who lived less than a mile from my late parents’ home in Watertown?
But a close inspection of the photograph found in Elmayan’s files and published in the 1965 anthology leaves little doubt that it had come from Nakashian. Not only is the image the same, but the Armenian lettering containing the names is exactly the same, as is the title: “The Last Group of Gesaria’s Notable Intellectuals and Merchants Before They Were Hanged and Axed.” Also, Elmayan’s copy shows signs of the same tear and markings of the scotch tape that Nakashian had used.
So how would Nakashian have obtained the photograph? According to his daughter, Nakashian was an avid collector of photographs. Born in Gesaria in 1895, he spent his early years in Cairo where he worked as an accountant for a cigarette company and then for Eastman Kodak, where he gained a lifelong love for photographs. Returning to Turkey in 1919, he worked for several years as a translator for the Allies and while there began collecting photographs, especially those that related to the genocide.
“He was forever copying photographs that he believed had historical importance to the genocide and sending them to Armenian writers, publications, and organizations,” Alice Nakashian said, “to anyone who might be interested.” For example, Nakashian provided several historical photographs that appear in Abraham Hartunian’s memoir, Neither To Laugh Nor To Weep,and is so credited.24
But one piece of the puzzle I am more certain of is who took the photograph: an Armenian man named Gulbenk Cicekyan. A native of Gesaria, Cicekyan operated a photography studio with his father-in-law, who had taught him the craft because he feared Cicekyan’s prior job as a bill collector was too dangerous. One Armenian memoir described Cicekyan being instructed by Turkish police to close down his shop and follow them to the prison in the center of Gesaria, where the gallows for hanging the first Armenians sentenced by military tribunal had been erected.25
Cicekyan survived the massacres and made his way to Beirut, where he raised his family and opened a photographic studio under the name of Gulbenk Trading Co. He changed his name to Gulbenk Gulbenk and became well known as the chief photographer for a Lebanese prime minister. Before he died in the early 1970’s, Gulbenk told his grandson, Arthur, how he had been summoned by Turkish authorities to take photographs of the hangings in Gesaria’s center in 1915.
“He told me he wasn’t even able to lock the door of his shop, that the gendarme told him not to worry, that he would not be coming back there, and I don’t think he ever did,” Arthur Gulbenk said, recalling his grandfather’s account.
But why would Salih Zeki or any other Ottoman leader have asked that such a photograph be taken if there was the likelihood that those shown would soon be executed? Tessa Hofmann (Savidis), a German historian and an authority on Genocide photographs,said that while she is unaware of the purpose of the Gesaria photograph, she believes it may have been part of the initiative by Ottoman authorities to stir Muslim sentiment against the Armenians.
“Whether it was possession of weapons or plotting against the government, it was necessary for the public to believe that the Armenians were conspiring against them, and that it was the leadership, and not just the average worker,” Hofmann said.26
The only photograph like it that she has seen was taken at about the same time—in late March 1915—and shows a group of Armenian freedom fighters who had been taken captive by the Turkish military in the mountainous village of Zeitoun. Others have speculated that the photograph was ordered by Zeki after taking over as regional executive to show his Ottoman superiors that he had the leaders of the Armenian community under control.
As for why the Gesaria photograph had remained hidden for so long, Hofmann cited the historic refusal of the Turkish government to open its archives to historians or researchers. While the Turkish government has relented in recent years, opening portions of its Ottoman-era archives in Istanbul (with hundreds of thousands of documents reflecting the decision-making of the Ottoman rulers), historian Taner Akcam fears that the files have already been well scrubbed, and many damning records removed. There has been no independent corroboration of the essential records, nothing to compare with the Nuremberg Trials in which the U.S. and its allies conducted an in-depth investigation of Nazi atrocities during World War II.
Some Ottoman records were uncovered by the post-war tribunals that the Turks empaneled in several cities immediately after the war to investigate how the massacres of the Armenians had taken place and who was responsible. But the American government and the other allies provided no support for the tribunals, and chose not to protest when they were disbanded in the early 1920’s with modern Turkey’s rise towards national independence.
The Armenian Genocide shredded the tenuous tissue that bonds one person to another, families together. With so many villages destroyed and people killed, who your neighbor was or who may have been related to you by blood or marriage has been lost for most Armenians alive today. Certainly lost is the feeling of attachment to the land. Because of Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the genocide or apologize for what took place, many of the 10 million Armenians in the worldwide diaspora are reluctant to go back and visit the villages of their ancestors.
Only recently did Janet Achoukian Andreopoulos, a 44-year old amateur genealogist whose ancestral roots are in Evereg, take it upon herself to stitch together a family tree for those whose roots are in that village. Andreopoulos uses genealogy websites as well as available birth, death, and marriage certificates, U.S. immigration and census records, old newspaper articles, and even ship manifests to make her family links.
But there are few documents of Armenian life remaining in Turkey that Andreopoulos or other genealogists can use. (A recent exception are baptismal records uncovered from St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Gesaria for several years before the genocide. Discovered and translated by historian George Aghjayan, the records have begun to be published in the Armenian Weekly.) Whatever was recorded of the births, deaths, marriages, or residences of the Armenian people in the central and eastern portions of Turkey has long been lost, despite the fact that the Armenians, heirs to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, lived in this region, approximately the size of New England, for millenia.
Lacking those traditional genealogical documents, three men have begun to track, through DNA research, family connections among Armenians. Referring to the genocide, Peter Hrechdakian, one of the project’s three administrators, said, “What tragically often gets forgotten is that this single event, which took place in such a brief period of time, for the most part eradicated a people and their culture from the land” they had long occupied.”27
Viewed in those terms, the loss seems breathtaking in scope, and is part of what maintained my interest in researching the origins of the photograph during much of the last decade. The more time I spent, my interest shifted from how the horror of the genocide had unfolded in Gesaria to the men shown in the photograph. What had life been like for them and other Armenians there who went through those trying times, and what sustained them in their efforts to survive?
The more people I spoke with the more important my task became of trying to connect those poor souls shown in the photograph with the kin who had somehow survived them, to give both the victims as well as their descendants proof that their families, their people, had not ended with these horrific deaths.
Dr. Garabed Aivazian, a 94-year old psychiatrist from Memphis, Tenn., was among the more than two dozen possible kin of those shown in the photograph. Having never seen the photograph before, he was uncertain if the “Hagop Avsharian” shown in the second row was, in fact, his father. Although the names were similar and there appeared to be a resemblance, he had never seen his father wearing a fez, as all the men shown in the photograph were.
But his father’s story was similar to the others shown in the photograph. Hagop had been working as a medical assistant for the American missionary in nearby Talas when he was kidnapped by the Turkish military and taken away. “It would be good to know that he was considered important enough to be shown with these others, the leaders of the Armenian community,” Aivazian said. “For me it would be good to know that he did not die alone, that there were others, friends even, who were with him.”28 Aivazian’s thoughts on whether the man shown in the photograph is his father exemplified the condition that the Genocide has left so many Armenians in nearly a century later—robbed of specific family ties, but hopeful that there was some relief, some meaning to the suffering.
For much of the past decade, I have focused my skills as an investigative reporter primarily on two projects—investigating the art theft from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a still-unsolved crime that is said to be the biggest art heist in world history; and authenticating the grainy photograph that accompanies this article. I cannot tell you which of the projects has been more difficult or important for me, but I do know which has been more rewarding.
Both projects involved images that touched me personally. I was born and raised in Boston, and my high school was located across the street from the Gardner Museum. Two of my cousins, both concert pianists, played often at the museum’s classical performances during the 1940’s and 1950’s. My father was himself an artist, and he spoke in awe of the Old Masters. Yes, he told me before he died in 2004, you have had a great career and won exceptional awards as a journalist, but to assist in gaining the return of those Rembrandts and the Vermeer to the museum would be a crowning public achievement.
Yet, my father was also a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, and while he rarely spoke about it or its effects on him, I know his entire life was defined by the loss of his father at the age of three. So, even though I was not introduced to the photograph until several months after his death, his presence was with me during the entire time that I spent on the project.
At the outset my hope was that my research would underscore the horror of the Armenian Genocide, its sheer illegality and depravity. Although that was certainly found, my focus began to shift as I spoke to more and more relatives of those shown in the photograph. Many had no idea that their grandfathers or great-grandfathers were in the photograph until my phone call or e-mail inquiring about their family history. And through those conversations, I came to realize that the ultimate achievement of research into the Armenian Genocide was not just to gain recognition from the world community, but also to fill in the gaps of our personal histories and try to sew back the fabric of the Armenian communities that the Ottoman authorities sought to shred nearly 100 years ago.
Beyond the strangers, there were dozens who assisted me in my research into, as well as my understanding of, the genocide, most notably: Marc Mamigonian, director of academic affairs at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research; Vahakn Dadrian, director of genocide research at the Zoryan Institute; Taner Akcam, Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Professorship in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University; Khatchig Mouradian, editor of the Armenian Weekly; Dr. Ara Sanjian, director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan at Dearborn; Dr. Abraham D. Krikorian, Professor Emeritus, SUNY, Stony Brook; Very Rev. Fr. Raphael Andonian, Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Church in Belmont, Mass.; Ruth Thomasian, director, Project SAVE, Armenian Photograph Archives, Inc.; Aram Arkun, scholar and translator; and Arpie Davis, whose Armenian translation skills are matched only by her wit and loveliness.
1 Interview with Sandra Kurkian (cq) Selverian, granddaughter of Vahan Kurkjian
2 Interview with Harry Jurjurian, grandson of Karnig Jurjurian
3 Aras Publications, Istanbul
4 The Armenian Massacre by James Nazer. T&T Publishing, 1970
5 “Roots of Sorrow,” the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, April 1993
6 Although historians have hotly contested what Hitler stated to his generals, there is no doubt that both he and his Nazi regime were aware of the Armenian Genocide and its relatively innocuous effect on Turkey after World War I. Stanford University historian Norman Naimark.
7 Samantha Power interview
8 Kayseri newspaper, June 15, 1915. Translation by Aram Arkun.
9 The Agency of ‘Triggering Mechanisms’ as a Factor in the Organization of the Genocide Against the Armenians of Kayseri District. By Vahakn N. Dadrian of the Zoryan Institute
10 Kayseri newspaper
11 Vahan Elmayan, series of articles published in Yeridasart Hayastan, an Armenian newspaper published in Chicago, 1920 and 1921; Haig Ghazarian, series of articles published in Lipanan, Armenian newspaper, 1931. Translations by Arpie Davis. “Massacre Fugitive,” by Daniel (Tata) Tombakian, 69 pages. Unpublished manuscript.
12 “As Armenian bandits appearing in Bitlis, the assaults which take place in Aleppo and Dörtyol again by Armenians against soldiers, and copious bombs which appear in Kayseri together with Greek, French, and Armenian ciphered correspondence documents indicate that our enemies are preparing an attempt at revolution in our country, to be ready for any possibility, through procedure that will be applied in all the zones where such an event is occurring, special and general communications of the Office of the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Army to the armies about Armenian individuals under arms have been conducted. It is strongly advised to take extraordinary care in the full application of the necessary steps through discussion with the military authorities without losing time on issues connected with the civil administration.”
On 15 February 330 
13 “The decree about twenty five people from the Armenian revolutionaries who were condemned by the Kayseri Court Martial to the penalties of eternal and temporary [for a fixed period of time] confinement in a fortress and penal servitude receiving exalted [i.e., imperial] confirmation, the sending of the twenty five people being seen as suitable has been communicated to the Interior Ministry. On their arrival the performing and communication of what is necessary.”
1915 June 9/22
Cipher Office of the Interior Ministry 54/97 Document No. 1
Turkish Transcription: 19,00
14 Arshag A. Alboyajian, Badmoutiun Hai Gesario [History of Kayseri’s Armenians], vol. 2 (Cairo: Papazian Printing House, 1937), 1442-43, translated by Arpie Davis.
15 Elaine Patapanian family papers
16 Vahan Elmayan, Yeridasart Hayastan, Sept. 16, 1920
17 Vahan Elmayan, Yeridisart Hayastan, Sept. 12, 1920
18 Talat Pasha’s Black Book documents his campaign of race extermination, 1915-17, by Ara Sarafian, Armenian Reporter, March 2013.
19 Interview with Raymond Kevorkian
20 The Agency of ‘Triggering Mechanisms’ as a Factor in the Organization of the Genocide Against the Armenians of Kayseri District, Vahakn N. Dadrian, Zoryan Institute, 2006.
21 Black Days: The Massacres of Gesaria, Pages from My Diary, Haig Ghazerian. Lipanan newspaper. May, June 1931.
22 The Armenian Genocide: A Complete History, Raymond Kevorkian. I.B. Tauris.
23 Houshamadian Medz Yegernee 1915–1965 [Compendium on the Great Calamity], ed. Kersam Aharonian (Beirut: Zartonk Publications, 1965), p. 352
24 Neither to Laugh nor to Weep: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, Abraham H. Hartunian. Beacon Press, Boston. 1968.
25 Years of Dreams and Torments, Housaper Printers, Cairo, 1961, p. 188
26 Tessa Hofmann interview
27 Peter Hrechdakian, Armenian DNA Project interview
28 Dr. Garabed Aivazian interview