Magnificent Vision

The great bass horn of the steamship thundered over the din of the busy port city of Smyrna (lzmir, Turkey). A slight young woman, back straight, eyes tearing, was waving down to her family on the quay. It had been a long and difficult journey to reach this place and time.

Tokvor Topalian was the trainmaster of all Smyrna. He was a respected, powerful and wealthy man since Smyrna was the largest port city in the country, and nothing moved in or out of the port without his signature.

The third of Topalian’s five children was, as they say, the apple of his eye. Little Dicranouhi preferred to “read” and play with the books in her father’s library rather than with dolls like the other little girls. This disturbed her mother, for it was accepted that while a father’s place was to train the sons to be men, a mother’s role was to prepare the daughters to be homemakers and mothers themselves.

Members of the Topalian family, circa 1914-1915, including Dicranouhi’s father Tokvor, her mother and her three sisters. Her mother and the youngest sister pictured on the left, along with her brother (not pictured) were the only Genocide survivors who made it to the US.

The most education for girls in turn-of-the-century Smyrna was six to eight years. This was enough to keep the accounts of the household and supervise the servants. By the time Dicranouhi completed six years of elementary school, she was not only above and beyond all of the boys, she was at the top of the class. Topalian looked down at his daughter on that day asking, “What now, Dicky?”

“I would like to go to the French school, the Gymnasium,” she replied.

Four years later, upon returning home after graduation from this institution with honors, she presented the diploma to her stern, but proud, father.

“What now, Dicky?” he asked.

“I would like to go to the American University in Smyrna,” she responded.

“Daughter, your mother is going to be angry with us,” said her father.

Four years later, Dicranouhi, now a young woman, stood once again before the great oaken desk in her father’s library. They had just returned from the graduation ceremony where Dicky had delivered the valedictorian address.

“What now, Dicky?” came the familiar query.

“I would like to help people,” she told her father. “I would be a doctor.”

The portly patriarch stroked his Vandyke and rose behind the desk gazing at his dark-eyed daughter replying, “Well then, I suppose I will have to deal with your mother, won’t I?”

Topalian expended a great deal of his influence and power, not to mention some of his wealth, and the time arrived when he was standing in his carriage waving his gold-headed walking stick at his third child, sailing to a foreign land. Tears stole from his eyes into his trimmed beard as he thought of the cold, damp climate of England. The board of directors of the medical school of Manchester University had granted admission, contingent on performance.

Dicranouhi Topalian, Manchester University Medical School, circa 1915-1917

One day, at the very end of the second year of medical school, the housemistress at the residence handed Dicranouhi a letter from home. It was written by a longtime assistant to her father. Some two hours later when a classmate shook her and asked the reason for her sobbing, the house was filled with the wail of mourning. 

The Turks had gone on the rampage of ethnic cleansing. The Christian Armenians were put to the sword – the first genocide of the 20th century. All of her family was gone, dead. Her father was killed fighting at the front gate so that his family could flee from the rear. They were caught, beaten, raped, stabbed and shot. In that moment, the wealthy young woman became a penniless orphan.

Some weeks later, when the heat of the soul-shattering news cooled to the ashes of reality, Dicranouhi took stock of her prospects. Pressed by the demands of her limited assets, months later the arrangements were made. The authorities of the medical school, based on the training she had completed, granted her a license as a registered nurse. Some personal effects, such as jewelry, books and a microscope, were sold, and a second-class steam ticket to New York was purchased.

Dicranouhi pictured with her fellow nursing students (second from the right), circa early 1920s

When the ship dropped anchor in New York’s harbor, the young woman was ferried to Fort Clinton (Castle Clinton) at the base of Manhattan. It was the Battery for the first- and second-class passengers; Ellis Island for the lower classes, steerage.

It was good luck, or Providence, when a kindly old immigration officer, after hearing her tragic tale told her, “Lass, you get yourself up to the northern end of this island. On 187th Street around the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue, you will find an Armenian church. Those that you find there will help you.”

Many hours later, she found herself standing before an Armenian church. After leaving her baggage in the vestibule, she staggered up the aisle and, exhausted, collapsed into a pew. The sight of the familiar Eastern Orthodox altar and the comforting scent of incense swept over her like a soft blanket. Shortly after the beginning of a prayer of gratitude, she was draped over the back of the pew in front, sound asleep.

A gentle hand on her shoulder roused her. Seated at her side was a priest. No. Upon closer inspection of his hooded robe, there sat the bishop! Dicranouhi clutched his hand, kissed the ring and apologized for disturbing the holy man.

He listened to her story, and having learned her name, with a twinkle in his eye said, “If you can stand, take my arm and come with me.” They left the church, walked to the comer and crossed the broad expanse of St. Nicholas Avenue. A few feet to the south, he led her into a small shop. The tinkle of the little bell at the top of the door brought a man from the back room. For a moment, the two were frozen in silence, and then they flew into each other’s arms. It was her brother Michael. The happy noise brought yet another miracle from the back room: her mother and baby sister. Michael had been able to reach the waterfront with them and bribe his way onto a ship about to leave for New York. In the midst of the reunion, the hooded cleric boomed, “I expect to see you all in church, often, to thank God. He has surely smiled upon you this day.”

Within days of her taking up residence near her newly-found family, she was working as a nurse at the Jewish Memorial Hospital only two subway stops to the north. Making a new life settled down to working long hours, family, the church and the social life that came with it.

Dicranouhi, circa mid-1920s

Several years later, while sitting on the grass in Van Cortlandt Park watching a group of young men from the church playing soccer, one of them caught her eye. He was not the fastest nor the biggest nor the best. He was, however, the most persistent. Every time he was knocked down, he sprang up and charged his opponent once again. Over the following months, she learned that his drive to reach a goal was not limited to the soccer field; this man never quit. With this trait he pursued her, until she caught him.

I am the product of their union. It is my very good fortune that when each of them fled the Genocide, they both chose America as their new home and to wed. I can picture, even today, my mother striding forth in the traditional uniform of the registered nurse: the white dress, hose and shoes, the white cap – hers with the two black stripes of a supervisor – and, of course, the navy blue cape with the red piping. A magnificent vision that would have made her father proud.

George and Dicranouhi Kutnerian on their honeymoon in Atlantic City, NJ, 1933
Raffi G. Kutnerian

Raffi G. Kutnerian

Raffi G. Kutnerian was born (1936) and raised in NYC where he attended the city's public schools and NYS Community College. Kutnerian joined the Army National Guard at age 17 ½ with the written permission of his parents. He was awarded a four-year scholarship to Columbia University School of Painting and Sculpture, from which he graduated in 1959. Kutnerian married his childhood sweetheart Louise Spodick at age 21; they were married for 62 years until her passing on September 17, 2020. After a career as a photo engraver, Kutnerian entered the court reporting business and retired after 25 years. He still resides in the home he shared with Louise in the Village of Rye Brook for the last 53 years and is learning to “play solo after playing duet for a lifetime.”
Raffi G. Kutnerian

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  1. This well written story of unimaginable death and unbelievable escapes of life to a freedom provides the opportunity to write my own family history. many shnor galems

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