Aurora’s Voice

Within the wide array of podcasts, books, Hollywood movies, Academy Award film nominees and humanitarian initiatives, there are very few accounts of Armenians publicly recognized across the board. Aurora Mardiganian’s harrowing story is one of the few.  

Storytelling of her traumatic life has existed for over a century, beginning in 1918 with the publication of the book Ravished Armenia: The Story of Aurora Mardiganian, The Christian Girl Who Survived the Great Massacres. Just over 100 years later, Aurora’s Sunrise, an animated film about her life, premiered in 2022 and was Armenia’s entry to the Academy Awards for 2023. Also in 2023, Uncovering Roots launched a three-part podcast series titled, The Lost Voice – Aurora Mardiganian

Aurora Mardiganian

Born Arshaluys (Aurora) Mardiganian in 1901 to a prosperous Armenian family in Chmshgatsak in the Ottoman Empire, she miraculously survived the 1915 Armenian Genocide but witnessed the tragic deaths of her family members. Like many Armenians of the time, she endured a harrowing march of thousands of miles, subjected to unspeakable cruelties by Turkish gendarmes.

Sold into slavery for a mere 85 cents to a tribal leader’s harem, Mardiganian escaped multiple abductions. Finding refuge in an American mission home in Diyarbakir, her courage was kept alive with caring visits from Armenian General Andranik. He referred to her as his “little girl” and restored her spirit by allowing her to care for other girls liberated from harems. Strengthened, she was aided by General Andranik in reaching New York City with the support of the Near East Foundation, holding onto hope of finding her brother who reportedly escaped to America.

As a parting gesture, General Andranik gave her a ring that had belonged to his father and grandfather. He implored her, “When you reach that beloved land, tell its people that Armenia is prostrate, torn and bleeding, but it will rise again – if America will only help us – send food for the starving and money to take them back home when the war concludes.”

Mardiganian answered the call. Boarding the ship without a place to call home, she carried her strong Christian faith that God would guide her in fulfilling the mission she had pledged to her hero, General Antranik. Broken, traumatized and fearful, Mardiganian was hopeful that she was sailing toward a safer life. 

But that hope didn’t last long.  She could never have imagined the horror that awaited her. 

Cover of 1918 book “Ravished Armenia” showing Aurora Mardiganian (Wikimedia Commons)

Once in America, Mardiganian shared her story with newspapers with the hope of finding her brother and fulfilling General Antranik’s mission. Her story caught the attention of screenwriter Harvey Gates and his wife, who did not have her best interests in mind. Gates convinced her to write Ravished Armenia, with promises that he and his wife would care for her. Unfortunately, without comprehending the contracts she signed naming them as legal guardians, Mardiganian unknowingly became the star of the 1919 silent film Auction of Souls, a cinematic portrayal of her traumatic experiences. Soon, she found herself reliving the most agonizing events of her life on a Hollywood film set. By all accounts, the movie was a blockbuster and broke box office records. Through high-society charity screenings nationally and internationally, the movie raised $30 million to rescue 60,000 Armenian orphans through Near East Relief. 

Forced to address audiences after each film premiere, Mardiganian’s traumatic past caught up with her, and she collapsed during a 1920 screening in Buffalo. This incident marked her final public appearance. With Mardiganian absent from the stage, both Hollywood and the world gradually lost interest, and her story faded into obscurity. Unfortunately, the book and film also vanished, with no known complete print of the movie.

In her later life, Mardiganian married and had a son, but the relationship was estranged after her husband’s death. She never located her brother and lived out the rest of her life haunted by memories, paranoia and in fear of danger lurking at her door and windows.

In light of the recent resurgence of remembering Mardiganian, I implore you to witness the astonishing story in mediums that are accessible and appealing to a broad range of listeners, viewers and readers.  

Listen, watch, read:

  • The Lost Voice – Aurora Mardiginian; “Uncovering Roots” Podcast
    “Uncovering Roots” is characterized as an exploration into lesser-known narratives that deserve to be heard. For podcaster Max Saakyan, the story holds personal significance, living in the United Kingdom as an Armenian, a region where awareness of the Armenian Genocide is limited. Saakyan engages listeners with his compelling voice, incorporating oral testimonies and interviews with people who knew Mardiganian. The podcast is accessible on all major podcasting platforms.
  • Aurora’s Sunrise  
    Armenian director Inna Sahakyan blends storybook adult animation, video testimony and rediscovered footage from Mardiganian’s lost silent epic and revives her forgotten story. The footage is brilliantly edited together with animation made using paper cutouts and characters who act out Mardiganian’s story. 
  • “Ravished Armenia The story of Aurora Mardiganian, the Christian girl who lived through the great massacres” by Aurora Mardiganian
    A grueling first-hand account from Mardiganian of her life before the United States. It is painful to read, but critically important to understand the depth of the horrors she experienced.  
Advertisement for the American drama film “Auction of Souls” (1919) with Aurora Mardiganian at the Royal Theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on page 51 of the August 2, 1919 Exhibitors Herald (Wikimedia Commons)

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the Republic of Armenia chose to make Mardiganian the face of the “Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity,” an esteemed humanitarian initiative founded by visionary philanthropists Vartan Gregorian, Noubar Afeyan and Ruben Vardanyan, who have been joined by thousands of supporters and partners. Thousands of Armenian families like mine owe gratitude to Mardiganian for her efforts in raising funds for Near East Relief, which played a crucial role in rescuing orphans and reuniting them with their families, including my grandfather. 

While Mardiganian was once a Hollywood star, the screenplay of her full life does not have a storybook ending. I can only hope that when Mardiganian passed away in solitude in 1994, she wore General Antranik’s ring, a symbol of the promises kept from a bygone era.

Let’s continue to honor her legacy of resilience and deep commitment to God and to her Armenian people.

Victoria Atamian Waterman

Victoria Atamian Waterman

Victoria Atamian Waterman is a writer born in Rhode Island. Growing up in an immigrant, bilingual, multi-generational home with survivors of the Armenian Genocide has shaped the storyteller she has become. She is a trustee of Soorp Asdvadzadzin Armenian Apostolic Church and chair of the Armenian Heritage Monument in Whitinsville, MA. She is the author of "Who She Left Behind."
Victoria Atamian Waterman

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