Maral Ovanessoff, who talked to us about the Benlian family, shared the story of her grandparents with us too, which you can read below.
Movses Kirajibashian, later Vartsbedian (translated from Turkish to Armenian) and Adriné Kantardjian
Movses and Adriné are my mother’s maternal grandparents
Hripsimé Jilboghossian and Hagop Kirajibashian lived in Tekirdagh (formerly Rodosto) in Thrace, the Ottoman region west of Istanbul. They had 4 sons, Movses being the eldest. The younger brothers Sarkis, Hrant and Vahan moved to Alexandria before WWI broke out and sought out their Uncle Ardash Jilboghossian who was already established there.
Movses worked with the Bulgarian Army in the run-up to the first Balkan War (1912). His fluency in Greek was useful to the Bulgarians in their advance through what was then mostly Greek-populated country. He accompanied a squadron ahead of the advance units and was helping them find the Greek priest in each village, who identified where Greeks lived. They then painted large white crosses at the top of every Greek street so that the Bulgarian infantry advancing over the following days would not attack these locations.
In 1915, Movses was one of the thousands of Armenian men rounded up by Turkish soldiers, ostensibly as conscripts to the army, in the Labour Battalions. The unarmed conscripts were crowded into cattle trucks at Haidapashar station in Istanbul. After a few days of travel, under sordid conditions, they realised that their true fate was death as victims of brutality rather than as soldiers. Those who dared, jumped off the train, and escaped. Thus Movses braved the uncertainties of being a fugitive in Cilicia, a territory in which he was a stranger.
He soon came across a construction site managed by the German military, and found that one of the clerks was from his hometown. The clerk kindly made the effort to introduce Movses to the German chief responsible for the construction site, Dr. Gerlach. Movses was taken on because he was an accomplished ironsmith, so his job was to weld broken drill-bits. He was soon promoted to be one of 2 supervisors, the other one being a German. He was paid at the German rate and supplemented his income by selling agricultural tools which he made from scrap metal while on night duty.
The site was part of the German military endeavour to build a railway to Baghdad (from Berlin, passing through Istanbul) involving, in this Cilician section, tunnelling through mountainous regions. Movses worked on the construction site for about three years before the war ended and he was able to return home to Tekirdagh, where his mother, Hripsimé, remained alone. Officially, the Ottoman/Young Turk government stated that Armenians who were dependents of army conscripts or civil servants were exempt from the so-called deportations or “temporary evacuation”. While this rule was blatantly ignored in the provinces east of Istanbul, it was observed in Thrace (to the west), but in a haphazard fashion. Consequently, as the mother of a conscript, Hripsimé was safe from deportation, while some of her relatives fell victim to it.
After the war, Movses started a wholesale grocery business with a Turkish partner.
Adriné was 10 years old during the deportations of 1915 and although many of her relatives did not survive this episode, her own immediate family had a lucky escape. Her family also lived in Tekirdagh and her father worked as a customs official at the port. He (or possibly one of his forefathers?) was named after his responsibility, which was to weigh out the cargo. [Kantardjian – kantar = weight]. As a civil servant in Thrace, he and his family were exempt from the deportations and were fortunate in that the rule was enforced in their case.
Towards the end of the war, in 1918, a new governor was instated in Tekirdagh who, feeling as though he had made no personal gain from the expulsion of the Armenians, decided to rectify this anomaly. He notified all the Armenian families under his jurisdiction (of which there remained only about 100) that they must prepare to leave their homes on the following morning. Adriné remembers her parents packing a small bag of belongings for their journey, though they had no idea where they were going. They were led to the port and onto a boat like a large dinghy, ‘mavouna’. A mouvana has no sails, so the only way for it to move is using oars or else by tying it in tow to a ship. There were around 150 bewildered people squashed into the mavouna. It was towed into the middle of the Sea of Marmara and the tow rope was cut, leaving them stranded. No reason was given for their evacuation. Tekirdagh is a coastal town built on a hill, so Adriné remembers looking back at their home, which was visible. They saw people being resettled into their home as they were being towed away. Without oars, they drifted along the coastline, keeping their distance so as not to attract attention. This method of sending civilians out to die on barges in the sea, had been successful in the Black Sea during the deportation of Armenians in 1915.
Every so often, Adriné’s barge would try to stop at a fishing village for bread and water, but they did not seem to be welcome anywhere. They continued like this for a few days, until they stopped at a village called Haydar Pasha. As luck would have it, this was just around the time of the Armistice when the Germans and Turks surrendered to the Allies. In a panic, the local Turkish governor arranged for the mouvana to be towed safely back to Tekirdagh.
On returning, Adriné and her neighbours they found that their homes had been taken over by Turkish villagers and so they were forced to find new lodgings. Once again, Adriné and her family were lucky because their grandmother had a large, comfortable house in a nearby neighbourhood where they could stay. Adrig’s grandmother’s neighbourhood had not been targeted for deportation in 1915, nor this time around, so they had somewhere to live, even if it wasn’t their original home. Adriné remembers returning with her brother Srab to her old neighbourhood to play with their old friends. The Turkish man living in their old house would pity them, telling his wife, ‘poor children, we’re living in their house’. Eventually, they did manage to move back into their original home.
Movses married Adriné when she was 17 years old and he was in his mid-30s.
When the tragic massacres and burning of Izmir (Smyrna) took place on 11 September 1922, Adriné was pregnant with her second child, Elise (my maternal grandmother). They still lived in Tekirdagh. Like most of the other Christian minorities living in Turkey at the time, the news of Smyrna petrified Movses and Adriné and they started to make plans to leave Turkey once and for all. They planned to make their way to Alexandria but because of the pandemonium in the ports, with most of the Christian minorities trying to escape, they had to travel to Greece first, where they stayed in a hotel for 6 months. Once they reached Alexandria, they lived there for the rest of their lives.
The migration to Alexandria was undertaken with Adriné’s parents (Mihran and Hripsimé) and her brother (Srab), Movses’ mother (Hripsimé) and Movses’ youngest aunt (Nazig). Nazig had a baby who was the same age as Movses and Adriné’s first child, Herminé. Nazig’s husband, Garbis Keremian, had abandoned her on hearing the news of Smyrna. He had suffered greatly during the 1915 genocide and lost his mind as soon as he heard about the latest events. (He had been among those sent to Mesopotamia on foot in 1915).
In Alexandria, Movses began an ironmongery business which flourished and they lived relatively well.
(Movses had 5 first cousins on his father’s side. One girl, who perished in the deportations to Mesopotamia, and four boys. Of these, Bedros joined General Andranik’s army in 1911, then froze to death in the mountains of Northern Iran when the army was disbanded.)
Dikran Chrakian and Araxi Khungyanossian
Dikran and Araxi are my mother’s paternal grandparents
Dikran moved from Van to Istanbul at the age of 17. He later moved to the United States of America, obtained citizenship, and returned to Istanbul where he met his wife, Araxi. She had moved to Istanbul with her family from Bulgaria. The couple lived in Eskyudar, on the outskirts of Istanbul and did not suffer deportation in 1915. Their son, Hagop (my maternal grandfather) was born in 1916. The family moved to Egypt in 1925, first to Zagazig where there were many Armenians, later settling in Alexandria.
Dikran’s sister (name unknown) remained in Van. Her husband, Mihrdat fought in General Andranik’s army. This is probably why he was later arrested during Stalin’s purges in 1937. His wife and sons (Trdat and Gegham), together with Dikran’s other nephew (Mardiros), ended up in the Republic of Armenia after the evacuation of Van in 1915(?) or 1918(?). Dikran’s sister died of typhus en route to Yerevan. Mardiros was the son of Kevork (Dikran’s brother), a lawyer, who was murdered in Van before 1915. Trdat (son of Mihrdat) was also arrested during Stalin’s purges, and subsequently executed.