I am one of 14 grandchildren. As the firstborn male, I was named after my grandfather Stepan. The story goes that he wanted me named Gaizag. My mother thought they would shorten it to “Guy.” My father offered a solution and suggested they name me after his father. End of discussion. Growing up on their beloved chicken egg farm in Franklin, MA (down the street from Camp Haiastan), we actually knew very little about their early lives. Of course, we knew they were born in Western Armenia and came here because of the “Turkish problem,” but we were shielded from the details as kids…unlike how many other Armenian baby boomers were raised. We would hear words describing people as “Sepastiatzi” or “Adanatzi.”
From the age of six until my teens when my grandfather passed, I would spend summer weeks on the farm working in the barns, grading the eggs and, most importantly, being in the midst of the survivor generation. I was fortunate to have many cousins all along Chestnut Street; others would visit frequently. The farm was family headquarters. My grandmother was a strong Armenian woman with confidence in her opinions. I can still see the joy on her face as she greeted lunch guests under the huge “toot” (mulberry) tree. Her three sisters lived within earshot on the same street. Her brother was just a few miles away. When I went to bed, she would always be sewing in her chair. Regardless of how early I rose, she was already in the kitchen. When I would ask her when she slept, Grandma responded with a twinkle in her eye saying, “Don’t worry tzakoog, right after you.” My grandfather was adored by all his grandchildren. We would line up by his recliner for the honor of blowing out the match that lit his cigar. On special occasions, he would put the cigar band on our finger as a ring. We rose early to the smell of coffee, shared breakfast together and engaged in the work of the farm business. I studied his every move. We didn’t think much of how they ended up in the United States or what they did in their youth. All we knew was that they were a large and loving presence in our lives, and we loved every minute of it. We experienced the importance of grandparents and learned about their remarkable early life only years later.
During one of my “exploring moments” in a small building at the farm, I noticed an oval picture of a few military men armed in battle with their leader pointing in a certain direction. The picture intrigued me at a very young age. A handsome dark-haired man with a prominent mustache seemed to be identifying the enemy. Who was this man? It seemed to have been taken many years ago but was unlike the pictures in their living room of my father and uncles in their WWII uniforms. It must have been from an earlier war. One day, I asked one of my uncles who ran the farm while attending college in the evenings who that soldier was. My uncle pulled me aside, looked directly into my eyes and said, “That is your grandfather. It was taken when he was an Armenian Legionnaire during WWI. That picture was probably taken in 1918.” I was about 10 years old at the time, but it became one of those defining moments in my life. The word “gamavor” took on an entirely new meaning including the lifelong friendship he shared with comrades who sought to defend Armenians rights. That moment transitioned from initial curiosity to eventual inspiration as the story of their early lives unfolded. There was another picture in their living room that captured my attention. It was their wedding picture. They were young enough that I could see the likeness of my father and uncles in this picture. He was in uniform. Again, many questions dominated my thoughts. Where were they? When was this taken? What was the story behind this picture?
The intersection of the lives of Stepan Piligian and Turfanda Yergatian was a love story set against the tragedy of post-war Cilicia. My cousin Greg and I would imagine what a great movie it would have made with romance and tragedy set against the backdrop of war and oppression. It was difficult to transform my reality of two elderly grandparents to decades back to their early days, but as I matured and studied their lives more extensively, it was fascinating how the pieces came together.
Grandma Turfanda was born in Adana, Cilicia in 1900. She was one of eight children of Mariam and Garabed Yergatian; she had five sisters and two brothers. They lived in an urban area in the Armenian section of the city. After the 1908 revolution in the Ottoman Empire and the dark clouds preceding the Adana massacres in 1909, young Turfanda and some of her siblings were sent to be with relatives in Egypt to escape the unrest. They stayed almost three years before returning in 1912. Miraculously, her family was able to avoid the massacres and deportations in the Adana region during the early days of the Genocide. It is believed that the cover of a large city with an international presence may have provided them some protection. The days after the war ended with the Ottoman Turks’ defeat were spent rebuilding and recovering. Armenian survivors from Cilicia were encouraged to return and rebuild their lives. So it was for the Yergatian clan in late 1918.
Stepan Piligian was born in the village of Koch Hisar, Sepastia in 1895 to Boghos and Margaret Piligian. He was one of five children; he had two brothers and two sisters. The family lived on a farm of crops and livestock as they had for generations. In 1913, 18 year old Stepan was sent by his father to the United States to avoid military induction into the Ottoman army, which had begun in several regions. He arrived on the steamer Roma and settled in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, where he began foundry work. He lived in rooming houses inhabited by other unmarried Armenian men, many of whom were fellow natives of Sepastia. Young Stepan fully intended to return to his native Sepastia as soon as the current crisis passed. Shortly after his arrival, war broke out in Europe and the Ottoman Empire joined the Axis alliance. He was trapped in the United States like so many others, unable to travel. Matters worsened when news began to circulate that the Turks were forcing Armenian men into service. Deportations were occurring, and wholesale massacres were happening. In 1916, along with thousands of other Armenian men from the US and Europe, he joined the “Armenian Legion” or what became known to Armenians as the “gamavors” (volunteers). They trained in Cyprus and landed in 1918 in Port Said, Egypt under French command. Over the course of the next several months, he was a part of the units that distinguished themselves and the Armenian nation in the campaigns that liberated Jerusalem, Beirut and Aleppo, eventually establishing post-war command in Adana. They were motivated by their desire to help their countrymen, find their families and the promise of a free Armenian Cilicia. Now 23 years old, Stepan spent the next two years performing his military responsibilities. The political landscape deteriorated slowly as the Turkish nationalists advanced on Cilicia, massacres took place and eventually the French withdrew in late 1920. During his time of service in Adana, my grandfather found his brother who had survived in the mountains for years. He also recovered his two sisters from orphanages.
It was during this two-year window that he met his future wife. The handsome corporal began courting an 18 year old beautiful Turfanda. My great grandfather Garabed was initially opposed to the union because the “gamavor” was not Adanatzi. Eventually, the integrity of Grandpa’s character won over her family, and they were married in 1920. The picture that I viewed so many times continued to reveal pieces of the puzzle. My grandfather, his new bride and the family members from both sides were given safe passages from Adana to Marseilles via Beirut because of his military affiliation with the French army. As the massacres were increasing and the infrastructure collapsing, the newly-created family left the homeland. Two of my grandmother’s five sisters decided to stay and make a life in Beirut, where they married and built their legacy. The rest made their way to Marseilles and eventually Massachusetts. My grandfather showed remarkable leadership and determination by arranging for the safe passage of the entire family. One of his sisters married one of the men in his command on rather short notice. They lived a happy life together for over 50 years. The youngest sister came to the US as their “daughter” (she was only 12 years old). It was like discovering another life as I connected this revelation to the older grandparents I admired. My grandparents had experienced an entire life of challenges before they were in their mid-twenties. My dear grandmother was a three-time survivor of Turkish oppression: 1909 Adana, the Genocide and the Cilician massacres. Yet she, like so many of her generation, went on to live a life of happiness, love and sacrifice.
These stories need to be told to succeeding generations.
My grandparents eventually moved from Indian Orchard to the farm in Franklin in 1947 when Grandpa tired of life in a foundry and longed for a return to his agrarian roots. They are both buried in Franklin where they built a life and gifted us the joy that shaped our lives. They never saw their parents again. I often think of my grandfather who left his parents and Sepastia in 1913, returning to fight for the Allies but never to see his home or parents. A few years ago, my “khenamee” (my daughter-in-law’s grandmother) went on a trip to Western Armenia. She asked me what she could bring back for me. I asked her for a small amount of soil from Sepastia. This lovely woman succeeded. A year or so later, my uncle was here from California for a family wedding. We went together to the cemetery with my cousin and mixed the soil at their gravesite. In a small way, I considered this closing the loop – completing the cycle of a return he was not able to make. Now that I am a grandfather, I pray that I can provide my grandchildren with just a small amount of the inspiration that my grandparents gave to me. These stories need to be told to succeeding generations. We add to the shallowness of our roots by losing them. We often say when loved ones pass away that they live on in our hearts and memories. This is true, but only if we devote our time to remembering and sharing. Discovering what your family experienced within our national history is a responsibility to future generations. Two pictures that intrigued me in my youth enabled a lifetime of inspiration when the story was revealed. Each of us has this special opportunity to add to our inheritance. Look at those pictures in your families and discover the inspiring stories behind the photos