August 31 marks the 114th birth anniversary of Armenian American writer William Saroyan—the son of Bitlis’ Armenak and Takoohi and a first-generation Fresno Saroyan. But the story of the Fresno Saroyans did not start or end with the most famous Saroyan family member.
William’s mother Takoohi had a first cousin named Mampre Saroyan, a fellow Bitlisian, who in his private memoirs credited the Hairenik newspaper as the source for the improvement of his native Armenian tongue. Mampre and his family escaped the Armenian Genocide a few years after Takoohi and Armenak had already settled in America. But it took several decades for the separated Saroyan families to reunite in Fresno, California.
In a recent interview with the Weekly, Dr. Tony Mampre Saroyan, the great-grandson of Mampre Saroyan, a doctor of psychology and a mental health advocate, shared his great-grandfather’s story of survival and his thoughts about being related to one of the most famous Armenians who ever lived.
While William Saroyan was growing up as a little boy in America, the Armenians who remained in occupied Western Armenia were experiencing the apotheosis of the Armenian Genocide.
“I was the shoemaker for the Kurdish mayor of Khnus,” recalled Mampre Saroyan of his escape in Dr. Richard Hovannisian’s essay “Shades of Altruism in the Armenian Genocide.” “I said, ‘Bey, all the shoemakers from here are being deported.’ He replied that if I would stay he would protect me and my family.”
The Kurdish mayor of Khnus allowed Mampre and his family to hide out from the Ottoman Turks until it was safe for him to escape. Then, they traveled to Istanbul where they were able to take a boat to America.
“They were eventually able to leave once they were told the coast was clear,” recounted Dr. Tony Saroyan. “It was pretty brutal when he had to escape. Hearing women and children crying, seeing dead bodies on the river.”
“There was no Armenian left in the city,” were Mampre’s chilling words in Dr. Hovannisian’s essay.
According to the Armenian Immigrant Project, Mampre’s cousin Aram, most notably known as “Uncle Aram” (the lovable uncle of William Saroyan), sponsored Mampre’s journey to Ellis Island.
But when Mampre and his family landed at Ellis Island in May of 1921, they were turned away for reasons still unclear. They decided to settle in La Merced, Mexico along with 200 other Armenians.
That’s where Dr. Tony Saroyan’s grandfather Dr. Suren Saroyan grew up and adopted much of the culture. “Armenians had to assimilate to Mexican culture because there were no Armenian churches, no Armenian schools,” said Dr. Tony Saroyan.
After graduating from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Dr. Suren Saroyan became the first in the family to move to Fresno, where he did his residency as an anesthesiologist at Fresno Community Hospital. A few years later, around 1952, he was enlisted into the US Navy and became a lieutenant and surgeon during the Korean War. During this time, Mampre and his wife Ardemis followed suit to Fresno, a long-awaited Saroyan family reunion.
Over the years, Dr. Suren Saroyan built a relationship with William Saroyan. When he was in Mexico, the acclaimed author even sent Dr. Suren Saroyan a copy of his book in Spanish.
“The stories [themselves] though,” said Dr. Tony Saroyan with a sigh, “I wish I had more of them.”
Dr. Suren Saroyan was a prominent Armenian in his own right, becoming a founding member of the Holy Martyrs Ferrahian Elementary and High School, the first Armenian day school in America. He was also awarded the Order of the Grand Cross of the Knights of Cilicia by His Holiness Khoren I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia.
Dr. Suren Saroyan and William Saroyan died in the same year—William on May 18, 1981 and Suren on August 28, 1981.
Proof of their relationship is in a signed book gifted to Dr. Suren Saroyan in which William wrote, “All good wishes to the first Saroyan doctor, Suren. With sure faith that his work will be eminent and good.”
It took Dr. Tony Saroyan some time until he realized the rich history that came along with his last name. “It wasn’t a big deal for me initially because I didn’t grow up around Armenians. Once I got a little older, I would read his books for middle school projects, and I felt a sense of connection to that,” he explained. “Having the last name puts positive pressure on me. I don’t want to be just a Saroyan.”