WATERTOWN, Mass.—The Union of Marash Armenians-Watertown Chapter continued its beloved tradition on Sunday, commemorating the 99th anniversary of the defense of Marash, arguably one of the more heroic chapters of Armenian history.
Following the Armenian Genocide of 1915, many surviving Armenians returned to their ancestral hometown of Marash in historic Cilicia to pick up the pieces. During this time, the Armenians of Marash were under the protection of French legionnaires. In January of 1920, Turkish forces unexpectedly invaded the region in a hard-fought battle that lasted three weeks. The city was soon lit up in flames, as the newly-rebuilt homes and churches were torched. Tragically, the villagers were burned to death inside.
Brave Marashtsis [locals of Marash] took up arms to protect the churches that were sheltering men, women and children, but on the fateful night of February 10, the French retreated, turning Marash over to the Turks. “It was 1915 all over again,” recalled keynote speaker Reverend Father Antranig Baljian of St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church. “Unspeakable massacres took place,” while 800 others, Reverend Baljian explained, decided to follow the French cavalry. But many succumbed to the freezing cold and did not survive the impossible 75-mile journey on foot to safety. Only a small group made it, said Reverend Baljian, who linked the fortitude of the Marashtsis to the miraculous recovery of the Zeytun Gospels, as described in Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh’s latest book The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript From Genocide to Justice.
Reverend Baljian’s historical examination served as a reminder of why this group comes together every year for this memorial tribute almost a century later. “Our gathering here is a sign that we are still honoring and respecting our martyrs,” said chapter member and recording secretary Maral Der Torossian in Armenian during her welcome address to the 100 guests inside the church hall of St. Stephen’s in Watertown.
Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian attends this event almost every year, not only because he’s a proud descendant of Marashtsis, but because he says it’s hard to reject Nevart Kouyoumjian, dedicated chair of the Watertown organization for the past 16 years. Koutoujian spoke about the resolve of the Armenian spirit as he recalled how his grandparents fled Marash, carefully treading past the lifeless bodies of their friends and neighbors along the way. “Our history is so important to hold onto,” said Koutoujian. “We suffered a terrible genocide. And we’re still here. We survived.”
In memory of those who perished, guests were served a traditional hokejash—keshkeg with squash stew, barley pilaf, kheyma and tomato salad.
The program featured performances by local talent. Sirena Seferian and Anita Tomasian each shared classical piano renditions. Ten year-old Lara Chekijian and 11 year-old Saro Iskenderian impressed the audience with their powerful Armenian recitations from Derenik Demirchyan’s Vardanank and Andranik Tzarukian’s Letter to Yerevan, respectively. Vocalist Hovhannes Khacheryan also took the stage for “Tun Im Hayreni.” Later on, he invited the audience to sing along to “Cilicia” and “Getashen.”
Proceeds from this event and others hosted by the Union of Marash Armenians-Watertown Chapter always go back to the Armenian community. In the past, the organization has supported St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School, Armenian Radio Hour and even young people who have wanted to attend Camp Haiastan in Franklin, Mass., but their families could not afford it. “Wherever there’s a need, we give,” explained Kouyoumjian. She and her younger sister Mary Arabian have been active members and leaders of the local Marash community since they immigrated to the US in 1976.
They, along with other members of the Union of Marash, are proud of the Marashtsi traditions they have built up and kept. “Now we pass the torch to the young generation to continue our bright future,” concluded Der Torossian.
Editor’s Note: The author of this piece has close ties to the Union of Marash Armenians and has volunteered at this event in years past.