Reminiscences of an Armenian from Middle East on repatriation to Soviet Armenia
Eghishe Mishikyan participated in the repatriation wave of Middle East Armenian communities to Soviet Armenia in the 1940's. His family miraculously managed to avoid the Armenian massacres in Ottoman Empire in the beginning of XX century. In his autobiography he tells how his family found shelter in the Holy Land, in Palestine, and why they emigrated from the Middle East to the USSR.
In memory of Eghishe Mishikyan: beloved father, brother, grandfather and great-grandfather.
Eghishe's family, escaping from the Armenian genocide, made an extremely dangerous trip in Turkey, somehow reached the Mediterranean seashore where a Christian Arab for some hidden gold coins took him and his family to the port of Beirut. Beirut was to become their final asylum, however the coincidence brings the family to the Promised Land: Palestine where they eventually settle down:
I spent my childhood and adolescence in Palestine, in the port of Jaffa. My family was well provided for, I received good education, took part in the activities of the Armenian community, it was a carefree and happy time of my life.
But the year 1947 came. Riots in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. The wave of repatriation overwhelmed hearts of people. The word «repatriation» went the round of; homesickness put its roots down in every Armenian family. The communist public awareness campaign outspread appeals, something like, Armenians come back to your homeland Armenia, and you ought to hear what legends were outspread for the sake of worthwhile goals… «Come over! Armenia is a paradise, chickens lay eggs right in the streets, under the walls, and there is no one to collect them... Come over! The houses are uninhabited! The lands are being cultivated, but there is nobody to get the crops in!.. Register and become a party member, otherwise it will be late!...».
My grandfather Grigor and father Martiros were from the Ramkavar party, i.e. members of labor party; my aunt Veron and her husband Manvel were avid Dashnaks (Armenian Revolutionary Party- ed. note) and I was brought up in keeping their spirit. My aunt's husband and his fellow party members - dashnaks stated that it was an agitation – deceit that after the war famine prevailed in the Soviet Union, they told my grandfather and father to regain consciousness and derogate from the idea of immigration. My aunt and Manvel even hid me from my parents. But all was in vain: my grandfather and father were impregnable.
One October morning Jaffa was in turmoil: everyone, from baby to adult were hurrying to the port, where the big Soviet ship «Pobeda» anchored. All the Armenians gathered there, there was nowhere to step. The sailors hurled into the sea the so-called bags of flour and sugar and the agitators explained to the people: there were so much of these goods in Armenia, that they had lost their value.
WE WERE DECEIVED...
People started to sell everything they had: houses, shops, furniture… We were assured that in Armenia we would be compensated for the damages fully. Also we thought that there was no need to take with us many belongings, only the most demanded documents and living essentials. We were given seven days to pack. It was October 23rd, 1947 and the ship was to heave the anchors on the 30th. The latecomers would be deprived of the opportunity to reach «heavenly» Armenia.
The situation in Jaffa became very tense: people were selling their property at an undreamed-of low price. The time had come for touching farewell parties. Joy and sadness, tears and laugh were mixed together. Fathers and daughters, relatives and friends parted ways. The farewell was so heartbreaking that it seemed as if we were being taken to the slaughterhouse. My aunt Veron hang on the truck body and was screaming uncontrollably: «Do not take away my Eghishe! »…but it was in vain…The vehicle moved off and everything got lost in the cloud of dust…
AND THAT IS ALL...
There was barely room to move in the port; everyone was climbing aboard. All we had with us; only one big parcel and a box, left from the grandmother's dowry, which is still in our house. We climbed aboard and the water parted us from the shore. Suddenly the horn of the ship blew. There was a feeling, as if it was the end of the world. Shaking hands, hats, tossed up, people standing on the shore, bending the knees people hanging from the ship rails, sending the last goodbye kisses. Gradually everything resolved in fog, only the boundless waters of Mediterranean Sea could be seen. After three hours the ship anchored in Haifa. We were told that there was quarantine and we need to wait a week under the tents. Imagine yourself, a new city, a camp surrounded by steel wire. This was our first disappointment. So, what urged us to make that step?!.. Three days we ate the food we had with us. And what kind of quarantine it was, nobody knew, no medical checkups were done.
We were not allowed to leave the camp area, and it was also useless to look to be helped from outside. The hunger and thirst wasted us, it seemed as if we were in a camp with penitentiary regime. On the third day they started to lash out food: water and watery soup. But it was not a soup at all…boiled water with pieces of red potatoes and some peas. On the fifth day they dismantled the tents and we were chased to the ship like a herd. It was night. At dawn we found ourselves at the port of Beirut. As it turned out they were supposed to take another large group of immigrants from there. They waited in the port three days, but there was not enough room for everyone, they took only half the people and promised to send a ship for the rest of them. One cabin of the ship was provided to two families, there was no more room there. Just imagine: some people were inside the ship, some outside on the deck in the open air in October. They slept there on the deck.
The ship sailed calmly along the waves; sometimes the silence was shattered by the sound of the horn dissolving in the endless nighttime area. In the morning we were notified that we were sailing through the Bosporus strait. It was dusky. One could barely see the lights of the sailing boats and minarets.
We entered the Sea of Marmara and in an hour we were already close to the Dardanelles strait. The air was saturated with clatter and chatter of the Turks walking here and there on the coast, noises of the cars and conversations of venders. When we entered the Black sea, the dawn already broke. Our huge ship was rocking endlessly and whirling along back and forth, many people not used to these conditions were suffering from nausea, headaches, dizziness, in panic they were running here and there, asking for help. But who would help them? There was a complete indifference all around. Three days we were having the same food, the same bread and a cup of tea with a piece of sugar. Imprecations and complaints were pouring from lips of people. But who to complain to, if there is no one to hear you?
On the seventh day the ship anchored in the port of Batumi. They allowed one member from each family to go to the port. I was 17-18 years old. I went down! Everyone around spoke Russian; an incomprehensible language for us. There was a rich market on the shore. People started to exchange what they had for food products. They did not think of anything else other than stock up with food. I gave my glasses, pen and watch. The Russians seemed to be thrilled with my belongings and in my family's joy I returned to the ship with a big pack of products. Two more days passed. The same uncertainty. On the third day they announced to be ready to leave the ship. Everyone collected what was left from their belongings; finally we were stepping on the land! We were taken to the freight train, the soldiers accommodated aboard the trains with 2-3 families. Then the horn of the train blew, the doors clattered shut. We moved off. Everyone was silent.
We were facing again the same indeterminate state, the same complaints and moans … It was November, the blistering wind blew through the holes of train, we gathered up and clang together, covered ourselves with what we had. It was already dark when they announced that we are approaching to the Ararat valley. Two or three hours later the train found its shelter in an unknown to us station. It was dusky, frosty, the cold penetrated to the bones.
Finally the doors of the train were opened and it was announced that in the morning they would allocate us in the nearby villages. Hungry and stiff frozen we were slowly leaving the trains. My father and hairdresser Yervand walked around the train and suddenly found out that one of them was loaded with beets. They quickly found firewood, made a fire and threw the beets into the fire. The passengers of the other trains followed our lead. Hence, baked and half-baked beets satiated people that day. We waited two days at the Ararat station, nobody came, no one was concerned for us, and we were unwanted here, just like homeless people. On the third day some upper-level people showed up, they used the term «comrade» when talking to each other. Like sheep we were observing with helpless eyes what decision they will make. After couple hours of discussions we were divided into groups. There were drivers, barbers, jewelers, shoemakers, bakers and kindergarteners among us. The sun rays faded away in the horizon when a fleet of cars and wagons reached us.
Five exhausting hours passed before we finally made it to the village. Several women from the village met us. Their looks shocked us; their attire was like rags, some of them had on bast shoes, others wore shabby shoes. Our group consisted of thirteen families. We were all placed in mud huts. The floor of the «house» was covered with broken and worn out planks, there was only one kerosene light burning inside. Old and young, everyone shrunk with cold. The wind blew noisily through the window cracks. We were waiting for the dawn impatiently.
Finally the dawn broke. One after another we went out to the street to have a look and understand where we were. And what we saw… Dusty, bumpy roads, miserable mud huts, poverty. We were standing struck numb and confused.
After a while they lodged our family together with hairdresser Yervand's family in the shed of a Turkish woman in the centre of the village. At the end of the day we were provided with a brick-bread made in the tandoor and two slices of sugar. We prepared a fireplace in the yard, boiled water in a small pot, drank it imagining that we had tea. The eyes of my grandmother seemed to go blind because of the thoughts and emotional experience she had. Children had diarrhea, we could not sleep on uneven ground floor, lice tortured our bodies, we itched, and our hands and feet were covered with blood stains… In the morning they came and announced that we must go to the cotton plantations, collect cotton for which we got brick-bread and two slices of sugar.
Two weeks passed like this. Then when they learnt that my father was a driver, they took him to the town of Vedi, which is not far away from here and presented my father to the comrade Mamedov, head of the executive committee. Later my father became the personal driver of the head of the committee. Slowly, more or less the better days came for our family… We were provided with coupons for receiving goods. Each one was allowed to have daily 200 grams of bread, one chicken egg, and 2 slices of sugar and so on. The bread was grey and wet and tasted like clay, and the sugar was damp and dark.
One more month passed. We all lived in the cowshed. In December it was rumored that Azerbaijani Turks were returning back to Azerbaijan from Armenia. Within a week the village emptied. Across our cowshed lived the head of collective farm Bilyal. He sold his house to my grandfather for one caret. It was the most favorable house in the village, surrounded by brick fence, with a vineyard and many fruitful trees. My father continued to work as a driver and thus more or less kept the family. There was a seven-year school in the village where Turkic and Armenian children studied. The Turkic pupils were noticeably prevailing. The principal was an Azerbaijani and the deputy principal was Armenian.
Thus gradually overcoming difficulties and deprivations my family and I found our place and our occupations. I am 90 years old already. I have a big family, we all live in the same Ararat valley, in the village of Goravan, that by a twist of fate became our own home.
Eghishe Mishikyan is my great-grandfather. He lived a difficult, but an interesting and eventful life. He worked as an English teacher and for many years, up to his decline of life was teaching the pupils. He wrote down stories and recollections on piece of papers that he kept in his house. In the twilight of his life the members of the family decided to write up an autobiographical novel from these papers and it had become a true family relic. I wonder where would be my family, if not the emigration to the USSR... Yes, my grandfather and his family endured many hardships, but nevertheless owing to these hardships many generations were born and raised on the Armenian land and now make big strong-knit families united by the values of the head of our clan Eghishe Mishikyan.
On each feast he raised his glass and said: «Do not split, do not lose touch with each other after my death. Remember blood is not water!» Grandfather we remember everything. Rest in peace.