Special for the Armenian Weekly
For the first six years of my life, my parents, brother and I lived in my maternal grandparents’ house in Syracuse, N.Y. The six of us were crammed into a small early 20th-century frame house, with a front porch and tiny back study that served as my bedroom; an enticingly flat roof outside its window overlooked our grape arbor, fruit trees, and strawberry patch where my grandmother caught the thieving bunny she spanked and sent on its way. Our home welcomed many a visiting dignitary. As a small child I sat on the lap of family friend, Hamo Paraghamian, a huge man with a heart to match. My small hands carried a bowl of yogurt and garlic for General Dro sitting in the blue chair in the corner of our living room, who thanked me by intoning in his gruff voice, “This is food for the gods.”
Aaron Sachaklian (in Armenian, Aharon), my grandfather, spent most of his days in the red leather chair near the wooden radio he listened to every day, silently smoking his Camels with shaking fingers, perhaps from undiagnosed Parkinson’s that would, years later, steal my mother’s smile and cause her shuffling gait. But when I was three, four, five, this quiet man who wore a three-piece suit nearly every day of his life, who had private sessions with visiting community leaders and battle heroes, bounced me on his foreleg, carried me through the doorways on his shoulders like a queen, and took me outside at dusk to survey the peach, pear, and apple trees beyond our back door. When my grandmother Eliza and I made our weekly trip to Abajian Cleaners three blocks down on South Avenue, I was the one to carry his wool coat, hugging it to my chest, saying, “I love my medz-hairig [grandfather]. I wish he would live forever.”
My grandfather lived to 84, the last few years in mental and visual darkness, his eyesight failing, his prodigious brain’s neurons deadened from a series of strokes. Thinking me his wife as a young woman, he called me Eliza, took my hand in his, stroked it, and held it to his cheek. No one in our family knew until close to 25 years after his death that my grandfather was the bursar and logistical leader of the covert operation—known as “Operation Nemesis”—to assassinate the Ottoman-Turkish architects of the Armenian Genocide.
My four grandparents were survivors of the Armenian massacres that occurred before the genocide of 1915. My maternal grandmother, Eliza, survived both the Hamidian massacres of 1894-96 and the Adana Massacres of 1909, the first because they hid on the roof, and the second because they were able to fight back when the Turks held the town under siege, holding them off long enough for foreign consuls to intervene. The city of Dortyol was saved, but her brother, Mihran, one of the leaders of the resistance—who snuck past Turkish guns to break up the dam the Turks had built in the creek that supplied the town’s water—was imprisoned. When asked why he resisted, he said, “Even a dumb animal will try to protect itself.” As my grandmother wrote in her memoirs, “They silenced him with their beatings.” My grandmother said her mother washed Mihran’s bloody underwear sent home by his jailers with her tears. When my grandmother exhorted me to eat every last pea on my plate, saying, “Remember the starving Armenians,” it had more than rhetorical power. I was raised on my grandmother’s stories of resistance, but my grandfather never spoke of those days, and I, unconsciously respecting his silence, never asked.
In 1990, my family found a large collection of letters in my grandfather’s upstairs study, the room I slept in as a child, the one that overlooked the grape arbor that Aaron had built. The letters were written by Armen Garo, Shahan Natalie, Soghomon Tehlirian, Hamo Paraghamian, Vahan Zakariants, and others involved in Operation Nemesis.
In 1990, my family found a large collection of letters in my grandfather’s upstairs study, the room I slept in as a child, the one that overlooked the grape arbor that Aaron had built. The letters were written by Armen Garo, Shahan Natalie, Soghomon Tehlirian, Hamo Paraghamian, Vahan Zakariants, and others involved in Operation Nemesis. After the war, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) created lists of perpetrators that they gave to the Allies. When the tribunals and courts martial failed to secure justice for the Armenians, they decided to use those lists themselves. At the 1919 World Congress of the ARF, a secret resolution called “Haduk Kordz” (Special Mission) was adopted to seek justice; each regional central committee would be accountable to the congress for its own actions. That allowed the Central Committee of America to assume responsibility for this operation, which they did. These men must have seen Aaron’s study as the safest place for the letters, and indeed he never spoke of them or what they contained to anyone in his family, including his wife.
My mother, knowing immediately what she had discovered in her father’s files, took the letters to her house, boxed, catalogued, and summarized them (for which I am thankful to this day), and placed them on the cement floor in her basement where they were inundated by two floods. Her mother’s memoirs were safely stored in her second-floor study, but these letters, perhaps seen as too radioactive to be allowed upstairs, sat in the damp basement, their contents neatly labeled, waiting for the next flood to wipe out the faint ink. She told me of them with an ounce of pride and three ounces of wonder, but she had no idea what to do with them. Her father was the community’s patriarch, the one called on to calm the hotheads and quiet the querulous.
I realized that these letters, along with her Armenian book collection and artifacts, such as her grandmother’s handwork and the bloody sash taken off Mihran’s dead body after the Turks killed him in 1921, would be left for me to deal with. By the time I pulled the letters out of the basement, some were still damp, others dry but with running ink, and others, thankfully, unscathed. With shaking hands I opened up alternately damp or crackling pages one by one, laid them on the kitchen table, and let the sunlight they had not seen in close to 88 years dry them out.
To give some idea of the secrecy involved, one of the letters is in code; it reads like gibberish, but when a cut-out template is placed on top of the letter, the actual message can be read, one most likely written by Soghomon Tehlirian, using one of his aliases.
My cousin Arsine Oshagan offered her translation talent, and we heard the voices of these extraordinary men that demonstrated poignantly and powerfully the danger, difficulty, and significance of this work. To give some idea of the secrecy involved, one of the letters is in code; it reads like gibberish, but when a cut-out template is placed on top of the letter, the actual message can be read, one most likely written by Soghomon Tehlirian, using one of his aliases. Between 1920 and 1922, at least eight perpetrators were killed, including Talaat Pasha, the “number one nation murderer” as Shahan Natalie called him.
The three leaders of Operation Nemesis were Armen Garo, the soul of Nemesis, and Armenian ambassador to the United States; Shahan Natalie, the heart, and coordinator of operations, whose intensity and fervor are imprinted onto every page he wrote; and Aaron Sachaklian, the head, and finance officer and logistician, who figured out how to fund and organize this massive effort and keep the pieces from coming unglued. The three described their project as “a sacred work of justice.” In my grandfather’s file I found the list of 100 perpetrators on the ARF “hit” list that was written in Natalie’s handwriting, as well as close to 65 photographs of Ottoman-Turkish leaders, including at least 13 from the list of 100. These photographs were sent on to the assassins in the field to ensure that the right target was hit. The prime directive for Operation Nemesis was injure no innocent people, and this was followed, even if it meant aborting an attempt.
I could understand my mother’s reticence regarding what to do with these Nemesis materials: We are not prepared for such revelations. But I was also fascinated by exactly that point: How did it happen that my quiet, careful, controlled, and gentle grandfather was a leader of a plot to assassinate anyone, even these mass murderers?
I could understand my mother’s reticence regarding what to do with these Nemesis materials: We are not prepared for such revelations. But I was also fascinated by exactly that point: How did it happen that my quiet, careful, controlled, and gentle grandfather was a leader of a plot to assassinate anyone, even these mass murderers? When I misbehaved, the worst he ever did was to squeeze my arm. How could his family, his wife, daughters, and son know nothing? As small children they played under the dining room table where these men met and planned. But of course silence was crucial. In 1921, immediately after Tehlirian killed Talaat, the police began looking for Tehlirian’s colleagues, anyone who might have provided assistance. They could not imagine that this sickly young man who barely spoke a word of German could really be in Berlin to study the German language. But no accomplices were found and the defense attorney was able to sustain the fiction that this was not a premeditated murder; the Germans did not work very hard to topple this concept.
Victor Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, argued that free will appears to enable those who have suffered trauma feel less like victims. The Armenian Genocide was, of course, designed to destroy the Armenians’ personal agency, and the fall of the independent Republic of Armenia removed their political agency. However, the men of Nemesis created a narrative of resistance and justice that provided a measure of pride to the Armenians in the dark days of 1921. After the trial, Vahan Zakariants, who testified at the trial and was the operative Vaza who ascertained that Talaat was indeed living at 4 Hardenbergstrasse, wrote a letter published in Sacred Justice describing the day Tehlirian was acquitted; it showed Tehlirian’s nearly rock-star status at that time:
The whole courtroom had become silent. … Several hundred eyes were directed to the foreman of the jury, and to the written paper in his hand. … [The foreman] very deﬁnitive and loud intones, “Nein” [No]. Immediately the courtroom explodes in applause, and silence. I translate that; Soghomon quietly asks, “What are they saying and what does that mean?” “That means, you are free,” I answer. … Everyone exploded; Armenian, German, woman, and girl like a torrent are running toward the cage where Soghomon is and crying, joyous, hugging each other. … Some people are kissing his hand, some his forehead, former landlady is crying; you’d think that she was his mother…”
The trial transcripts were printed and sold many a copy during a time when immigrants had little money to spare.
When I was a small child, our social life was organized around Armenian events. Elderly ladies, dressed in black, who did not dance or laugh, whose signature action was to wring their hands as they echoed the “vakh vakh” that so defined them, were part of our landscape. As a child, I was both drawn to these women and shrank from them. I knew they lived in an inner world that I did not want to know. As children, we absorbed the meaning of the words “vakh vakh” without being told the phrase means “what a shame, what a pity.” But I did not know then that vakh in Armenian means “fear.” We children feared these women because we knew instinctively that we could become them. The effects of genocide do not disappear by an act of will. While research has shown that three-quarters of Armenian survivors interviewed asserted that they did not talk to anyone about their experiences of the genocide for fear of persecution and to protect their children, helplessness and silence can exacerbate the effects of trauma, which children can sense. In addition, epigenetics—genetic changes in response to life events—as well as experiences may affect our behavior, and perhaps that of our children. Perpetrators as well as victims may be affected by these problematic epigenetic changes. We are left with the unsettling premise that not only the sins of the fathers—but their responses from being sinned against—may be visited upon their children. If so, this means that the genocide is still happening—to both perpetrators and their victims.
On Jan. 13, I attended a lecture in Cambridge, Mass., given by the noted Turkish scholar Taner Akcam, who talked about documenting the effort in Aleppo immediately after the genocide to rescue Armenian women and children, a project he is translating into Turkish. After the lecture, he was asked why he does this difficult work. He talked of his family’s dedication to supporting human rights in Turkey and the prison terms that generated. He spoke of his brother’s jailors sending home his bloody underwear to his mother. Turk or Armenian, bloody underwear is the same. Let us hope in this year of the Centennial that the door to truth and freedom begins to open—for both Armenians and Turks. In the meantime, we can thank the men of Nemesis that the architects of the Armenian Genocide did not die in their down beds of old age.
Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy is the author of Sacred Justice: The Voices and Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis, which will be released on Feb. 28.