Andranik Amirbekyan

Andranik Amirbekyan (George Ashton)

The story of Andranik Amirbekyan was told by his nephew Yuri Amirbekyan to the CAIA volunteer  Anahid Cahill. Yuri’s father Alyosha,  and Anahid’s uncle, Liparit were classmates and close friends for decades. Anahid has always been amazed at their incredible friendship and has kept in touch with their children. And when she got involved in the UK Armenians & WW1 project, she got in touch with Yuri, who told the incredible story of his uncle Andranik.

This story relates to the displacement of many children during the period that were removed from their homes and forged new identities in the UK.

Andranik and Alyosha (standing) with their 5 sisters Haykanush, Nvard, Araxya, Astgik and Gohar (l-r)

The following vignette (or more prosaically, extract) from the history of one Armenian family casts some light on the disturbed and dangerous situation for Armenians in the Ottoman or former Ottoman provinces in the Caucasus area during the period of WW1 and its immediate aftermath.  It also shows how there were still acts of humanity even under those terrible circumstances.  Finally, it illustrates how it was in many cases by sheer chance that some Armenians managed to escape from death and worse, and ultimately travelled to faraway places (in this case, England), and became part of the Armenian diaspora which now covers pretty well the whole world.

This particular history is set against the background that in the period 1915 -1923, 500,000 Armenian children were burned, poisoned, strangled, raped, mutilated and sold as slaves.  Those who survived were left orphaned and forced to renounce their Christian faith.  This in turn is part of the broader history of suffering by Armenians, and particularly, the genocide in 1915.

Those children who did escape were in many cases fortunate enough to be helped by charities such as the Lord Mayor of London’s Fund which was set up in 1915.

The following piece of family history was told to me by Yuri Amirbekian, who was born in 1946 in the city of Kirovakan (Gharaklisa, currently Vanadzor), in what is now the independent Republic of Armenia.  It concerns his deceased uncle Andranik Amirbekian, the brother of his father Alyosha, and goes back to 1919 when the family lived in Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia).  Yuri heard the history from his father and five aunts.

One day In 1919, the two brothers, Andranik then aged 13, and Alyosha then aged 11, had been very naughty, deciding to spend the night at the railway station.  So they went to the railway station and stayed there all night.

Next morning, the two boys were hungry and Andranik sent Alyosha to sneak home and bring back some food.  But Alyosha was caught there by their grandmother.  She kept him at home in the hope that Andranik would come back; but Andranik just stayed waiting at the station and by the time the boy’s father realised where to look for him, Andranik was no longer there.  He had disappeared without trace, and the family never found any clue to the mystery until very many years later.

Eventually in 1963, after 44 years and after the family had moved from Kirovakan to Yerevan, out of the blue and to their total surprise a letter from Andranik arrived

Back in 1919, what had happened to cause the mystery of Andranik’s disappearance, was that an English officer, taking a train from the station on that morning had found him there and out of sheer altruism,  knowing the dangerous situation and thinking that the boy was an orphan, took Andranik with him on his journey back to England.

The officer and Andranik travelled by train from Julfa to Turkey, and then by ship to England where Andranik worked as a stable boy for the officer.  Some years later, the officer enlisted to go and fight in Africa, where he was killed, leaving Andranik destitute.

The next information we have  is that in the 1930s he worked in coal mines near Birmingham.  One must suppose that before that he did whatever odd jobs he could get;  it was a bad time to be looking for work.  The British economy was shattered after WW1 and he had the added disadvantage of being an immigrant; however, he was evidently not one to shirk hard work, and he survived.

In 1936, Andranik was involved in a motorcycle accident, which left him with a big scar on his face.  He was treated in hospital, (pre NHS and not free at that time, but as a miner he would have received a reasonable wage and one may suppose that there was some charity even then.)  While in the hospital, he was looked after by an English nurse named Dori ALMOST CERTAINLY SPELLED DORRIE (perhaps short for Doris or Doreen) Ashton, whom he subsequently married. That was probably when he changed his name to George Ashton. They had no children.

Then in 1963 Andranik wrote the letter in which the family in Armenia learned that he was alive, and also his whereabouts.  Of course he did not know that the family had moved to Yerevan, nor even their old address in Kirovakan (Gharaklisa).  He was only able to put on the envelope the barest facts: family name, his father’s first name and the name of the town where he thought the family was likely to be.

By an amazing chance, an employee at the post office which received the letter happened to know the family and that they had moved to Yerevan, and forwarded the letter to them. This began the  family reunion after so many years and the start of correspondence between Andranik and other family members still alive and living  in Yerevan.

In the Autumn of 1965, Andranik arrived in Armenia to attend the wedding of his younger brother Alyosha’s daughter, and  after 46 years the members of the family were reunited.

They had much to discuss, reliving  the emotional traumas of the period starting with the genocide of 1915, WW1 and its aftermath and then  WW2.  But at least they were all alive and the occasion was a happy one.

There was to have been another family reunion.  It was agreed between the two brothers (Andranik and Alyosha) that Andranik would travel to Armenia again in 1970 bringing his wife Dorrie with him, for the wedding of Alyosha’s son Yuri (who told me this amazing piece of family history).  But very sadly and  before that could happen,  Andranik passed away, in January 1970.