Unique Passages of Gegham Snapyan's Family Story: “Varduk” Novella
Cover photo: Armenian family from Ordu / Project Save
Dedicated to the blessed memory of my godfather, Topchyan Harutyun Nshan (Red Artin / Kırmızı Artin), who had been taking revenge on Turkish murderers for 11 years, a small part of whose memories I used in this story.
The older generation of the village, our grandfathers, did not like to talk about Genocide. If they talked among themselves about it and we were coming close to them, they immediately used to change the subject or switch to an unfamiliar Turkish language, which was a second language for our Hamshen grandfathers.
My peers, who had grandparents, were very fluent in Turkish, but I had no such opportunity. My grandfather Yervand Kerselyan in 1914 married with my beloved grandmother, from the village of Bars of the Shamkhor district, not far from Gandzak; she used to speak Turkish rarely, except for our Megrel and Greek neighbors. My other grandparents had died long before I was born.
I was in the fourth grade when, quite by chance, I found a small photo attached to a cardboard box. There was a man leaning on a long rifle, with a stern look, in a sheepskin cap, with mustaches twisted up, two belts tied crosswide, legs from shin to knee were wrapped in white cloth: it was surprisingly similar to the only photograph of Grandfather Avetis on the maternal side (when Grandfather Yervand died, he married my grandmother and became my mother’s father). The photo was signed “Hajduk H. Minasyan, Bucharest”.
When I asked whose picture it was, my grandmother hurriedly hid it in her bosom and asked not to tell anyone about it and forget about its existence. After some time, I decided to find out about that family secret and went to my grandmother with a request to tell about the photo. My grandmother advised me to ask the godfather, since the person on the photo and my godfather fought in the Haiduk detachment for a long time (armed rebels who fought against the Ottoman national oppression).
I found out from my godfather that the person on the photo was Avetis’s brother, Hovhannes Minasyan – famous leader of the Hamshen group, Zil Ohannes.
At that time, my Godfather already joined the ranks of the Communist Party and he was a very active person. The godfather didn’t like my question. He advised me to forget about that photo and not to deepen in everything connecting with that, as “the party forbids talking about such things that could provoke nationalist sentiments”. I only found out that the man was my grandfather’s – Hovhannes Minasyan’s brother, that he was a brave man and “caused great trouble to the Turks.”
Growing up, I found out that the Soviet government, to put it mildly, didn’t welcome all references to Genocide. However, one way or another, we guessed that a terrible massacre took place, which resulted in the emigration of our grandfathers from their native lands. Otherwise, why aunt Anna (Onna, my mother’s sister ) went to look for her son Artin lost in Turkey, found him in a Turkish family and brought him to Abkhazia. By that time he didn’t remember a single Armenian word. Why do old people sigh when, in clear weather, they gaze into the blue sea distance, try to guess and hope to see their native coast beyond the ridge of clouds on the horizon line. And, finally, why my friend’s grandfather, feeling approach of death, ordered to put his coffin in the courtyard facing south-west, where on cloudless days he “used to distinguish the countours of the mountain towering over the city of Ordu”.
Despite my curiosity, I tried not to bother with questions by the time I found Tserum Torgomyan’s book. It was a collection of stories about Genocide, with all the details about atrocities and murders. Of course, there were also other publications about the Genocide, however, they didn’t reach our village. I grew bolder and with a book in my hands went to see my godfather, and he told me everything.
The story of my godfather, Red Artin (Kırmızı Artin), interested me more than any other literary work. Gradually, the godfather told me the whole story, the chronicle of his and friends’ struggle, starting from the village of Chavushlar, where he had been born, until the death of all family members, participation in the Haiduk movement, their fierce but fair battles, surrender of weapons after “clemency” and migration.
Unfortunately, over time, many pages of my memory faded and now I remember only those events and those people that are impossible to forget. However, several years ago, one of our relatives – a watchmaker and a theatre performer Hambartsum Snapyan (Snapoglu) – showed up from distant Argentina. Moreover, the recent communication with Hamshen Armenians from France prompted me to make a decision and write down everything I could remember from my godfather’s stories and also the history of Hamshen resistance at its different stages.
So, long before the Genocide, two armed Turkish detachments entered the village of Chavushlar and committed pogroms and robbery, which resulted in death of my godfather’s whole family, including his parents, wife and two children. The reason was that, the derebey (the head of the close villages), who was a frequent guest in my godfather’s parents’ house, in his opinion, was accepted not very well. Besides, that time he was accompanied by a group of German troops.
After many years, the son of the brother Sedrak, living in Greece, and the daughter of the sister Mariam, living in France were found from this already scattered family. Since that, the godfather left the hoe, took up the arm mosin and joined the haiduks. After the “amnesty” declared by the Turkish authorities, the godfather and his friends migrated to Abkhazia. As a joke, he used to say that his whole life, starting from 1923 – was a gift from God.
In 1965, when it was officially allowed in Armenia to commemorate 24th April, the people in our village became freer speaking about Genocide. Much later, once a year, members of the haiduk movement gathered in one of the haiduk’s home, drank “Isabella” wine at laid tables and remembered their lives, full of hardship and heroism. I am sorry, that I have never asked permission to attend such a meeting, and none of the participants thought of documenting or recording everything seen and heard, as all this could become one of the heroic pages of Armenian people.
In Abkhazia my godfather soon met my godmother Heriknaz, who also had lost her family. They created a new family and lived together to a ripe old age in love and harmony, without violating the old Hamshen custom — they never addressed each other by name, but only with the words “to” and “ka”. The godfather died almost at the age of 100.
I am well aware that the story presented to the reader is not a scientific study or a work of art. My purpose is to tell the reader something about the Armenian question. In addition, almost all the persons and events are documented.
Arakel received the nickname Chaprast (crooked) Vashtontsots (from the Vardanyan family) while studying at Ordu gymnasium due to his bowed legs. All men of that family, descendants of great grandfather Nerses, had the same nickname. The women, meanwhile, were called, for example, Chaprastsots Tsaghik, Chaprastsots Hamest, etc. This not only did not offend the dignity of the Vardanyans, but, on the contrary, they were proud of being representatives of the old family.
Grandfather's house was located near Ordu, in the village of Chavushlar and there was a stone church and elementary school. While studying at the gymnasium, Chaprast showed a fairly high academic performance, especially liked the lessons of Literature, History and French.
During the lesson of the Turkish language, the sky suddenly became overcast, a strong wind blew and it started raining. The girls, who had classes on the third floor under the roof, ran to the second floor, where the boys studied and started praying and baptizing in fear. The most fearful of them screamed out loud during the rumble of thunder, more from childish playfulness than from fear. The Turkish teacher opened the door, saw the girls baptizing, started to swear and curse the Armenian faith.
Boys who had not yet grown to be called men, but weren’t already children, could not stand such words about their faith, and one of them responded to the scolding of the teacher. The latter didn’t figure out who dared to answer him and caught the first one and knocked him to the floor with a strong blow to the face. Arakel, who, in addition to his abilities, was also physically strong, saw the bloody face of a friend knocked down, rushed at the teacher and, grasping him by the throat, began to choke him with two hands. He did not hear the screams of the girls and the cries of the boys, and he would certainly have strangled that animal, who was called a “teacher” if two of his classmates had not dragged him away, had not thrown him to the floor, saving the Turk from the fingers stuck in the throat.
Arakel was hidden in a village of Stantsots, which was half an hour away from Chavushlar and was brought to the family of the well-known layer from Constantinople, Khachik Snapyan. Somehow, through hard and long negotiations, the incident was smoothed over. Of course, it became possible only thanks to the bribe. Khachik effendi was aware of everything that had happened and without hesitation took the boy under his protection, appreciating his ambition, patriotism and friendliness. Having worked in Khachik’s house for two years, he obtained three main things: earned a particular sum of money, blisters on his hands and fell in love with Rop (Hripsime), Khachik’s daughter. Hripsime was only a year younger than Arakel and was captivated by his brutal and courageous appearance. The young man, resembling Torq Angegh, had infinitely kind and tender heart.
With his own hands, he made a kemani (musical instrument) from the trunk of a dried apple tree and played it for other marabi in the evenings. Although they were tried, they liked sitting there, listening to gentle notes of the kemani and singing Hamshen songs. Sometimes a marabi-greek took an instrument from his hands and played it like a bouzouka. Sometimes a Georgian used it as a chonguri. At first, this young man used to sing national songs (meni), but when he felt in love with Hripsime, he began to compose his own new songs. All the family members attended these “parties” and from time to time they were dancing “Sra dance”, “Taq tandzara” or the well-known “Trtran”. Very often they danced the Greek “Sirtaki” and the Georgian “Lequri”. Khachik, who spent only two summer months in his house, also liked to participate in “the evenings of dance and songs”. Sometimes, he played kemani or sang an interesting and witty song meni.
Soon, Arakel sent matchmakers to Khachik’s house, and since the families of Vardanyans and Snapyans were equal, they didn’t complicate the matter. In addition, to the question whether Hripsime agreed to marry Arakel, she said: "Besides Arakel, I don’t need anyone. I want neither guys from Polis with their sleek hairstyles, neither sons of rich merchants from Trabzon or Ordu. I am ready to follow Arakel round the world".
On the wedding day, in its midst, one of the court officials appeared in Ordu and informed that teacher Ali, who could no longer work because of Arakel, died of suffocation, and his brothers decided to take revenge on Khachik’s future son-in-law. The negotiators also informed that the brothers Ali were ready to return the money (bribe). This was a very serious statement, but contained encouraging prerequisites. First, there isn’t a Turk that has ever returned the bribe. Secondly, if such a statement is made, it can pursue two goals: either they really want to take revenge on Chaprast for the death of their brother, or they want to increase the size of the bribe three to four times. Experienced Khachik effendi was inclined to the second version.
He knew perfectly well that after three years no doctor could prove what caused the swelling of Ali’s throat – ligament damage or smoking of tobacco.
The situation was carefully analyzed, and they decided not to celebrate the wedding. Everything ended with a small feast, in which after long persuasion, Ali’s relatives also took part. The fun ended in the early morning. If at first it was decided that Chaprast would temporarily live in Stanptots village, that option was excluded now. The move to Polis wasn’t also approved, as firstly Chaprast didn’t like the city, secondly, it was dangerous both for newlyweds and Khachik. There was only one option that was approved by everybody. While the fun was going on, marabi and Chaprast’s six-seven friends worked hard to prepare everything for the morning. The sun didn’t rise yet when the caravan had already set off towards the village of Toleit, which was located on the road to Sebastia and was known by its healing springs, crystal clear air and rich aroma of coniferous forests.
A large delegation of elders and influential people of the village with expensive gifts and an impressive amount of money was sent to Ali’s house. On behalf of Chaprast’s father, Khachik effendi wrote a letter, inspired by the pearls of Eastern diplomacy, from which the relatives understood only that the Vardanyan family “asks for forgiveness from the family of well-known doctor Ali”. The incident was done for the second time. The next evening, the caravan reached the village of Toleit, which literally was immersed in beech and hornbeam forests covering the slopes of the mountains. The choice of the village was due to the fact that Khachik's brother-in-law lived here. Priest Manvel married them in a wooden church mixing the literary language with Hamshen dialect and Grabar. The honeymoon passed happy and carefree. Less than two months later, the same Turk that notified Ali of his death and the accusation of Chaprast came to the village of Chavushlar , the Vardanyans' house and announced that Vardanyan Arakel had been reported missing. Nothing could help to solve that sad issue.
“We have repeatedly stated that we have no complaints, but the law of our country requires, this issue must be dealt with in court,” the negotiators argued.
Since Khachik was in Polis, the Turks announced that they would not accept any offerings because they owe much to Khachik effendi. Immediately, the news was reported to the matchmakers and then to Toleit. Riding the horse, Khachik’s brother-in-law arrived an hour later in the house of his old friend – Islamized Greek Demetre Aslanidi, or as everyone called him, Aslan-oğlu. He was the representative of the derebey of the village of Chomash. Realizing the degree of danger conceived, he still could not refuse the old friend. Everything necessary was separated from the dowry, and everything was taken to the south-east of Chomash. Aslan-oğlu himself didn’t go for safety reasons. There were only twenty houses in Chomash, and they were located away from the busy road, so seemed that the village had no connection with the outside world.
In fact, the vegetables and fruits, grown in that village and the products were known to everybody from Sebastia to Ordu and Trabzon. The boys, who came from Chavushlar, Snaptsots and Chomash, built a temporary wooden house for several days and then, a stone house. Of course, a stone house is a privilege of Muslims, but bribes made officials turn a blind eye to this. During the winter, they cleared the area around the house for two arable lands. An official paper was received from Polis (by the assistance of Khachik effendi) confirming the right to build a new stone house and cultivate the land: this is the summer residence of the lawyer Khachik Effendi Snapyan.
Their love was abiding, while the soil – fertile. Sweet Hripsime turned into a beautiful hardworking hostess. Her mother did not believe her eyes when she saw the cleanliness and accuracy of the rooms and a huge flower garden in front of the house. From time to time she was becoming sad, because her dream to continue the education in Europe did not come true, but there were so many worries that there was no time for gloomy thoughts. The father often sent them books in French and Armenian, they read them in the long winter evenings in order to somehow make up for their isolation from the civilized world. Omar, who was “impressed” by the paper from Istanbul, once or twice a year was coming to this paradise. At the icy spring, which beat just above the Chaprast’s house, they organized a picnic; always very pleased with the share of the state tax, which he took to his home on several mules, he swore eternal friendship.
Chaprast’s farm became an example for many villagers: he was the first to sow corn in straight rows, which facilitated the hilling and harvesting. From a spring above the Chaprast’s corn field, they brought water to the house using wooden troughs. The women of the village highly appreciated the taste of this spring water, they came to fetch water, and in fact went to talk to Rop , to gossip, to exchange the latest news. The family grew, four sons and two daughters were born and grew up. Separated from the world, the family lived its unique measured life. Songs and laughter did not stop: children grew up surrounded by care and love.
On long winter evenings Arakel used to read tales, poetry and epic poems for the family. When he was in mood, he took kemani from the wall and started playing and singing songs, which he had composed when he was young. Hripsime tried to teach French the children, however they didn’t take her lessons seriously, hence she asked her parents to hire a teacher in Polis, who could teach the children several months.
However, not everything was so smooth and happy in the happy nest. Two terrible mayhem, like a devastating hurricane, swept over their heads. There were no human victims in the Snapyan and Vashtots families, but other innocent families suffered – whole families, whole villages. As a result of these pogroms, many emigrated to the north-eastern shores of the Black Sea or to Europe. The atrocities of the Turks left unpunished.
Due to the lack of organized and unifying structural units, the resistance of the Armenians turned out to be weak and spontaneous. Armenian villages were located far from each other and there were Turkish settlements between them. They are surrounded by Muslims from all sides who now rob your house, and tomorrow will swear eternal friendship and devotion. And Hamshen Armenians, mostly rural residents, heal their wounds and restart peaceful work. To avoid another misfortune, they chose another way, emigration, and even that was a considerable misfortune. Of the one hundred young people who left for work, 10-15 returned, not missing an opportunity to leave again.
The fertile lands of the homeland, spring water, light wind, bringing the smell of flowering meadows to the lower reaches of the river Meleth, cannot measure up to any safe European life. Everyone understood that the danger to permanently lose their land of paradise was stalking them. The Turkish government, on the one hand, granted unlimited rights to the Turks, on the other, deprived all Christians of the right to self-defense. Those who had weapons in their houses, were shot or raised on the gallows in the center of the village or along the road. On the road leading to the upper reaches of the picturesque valley of the Melet River from Sebastia and from Ordu, all the arbs and wagons were carefully checked at the Turkish checkpoints.
All people who visited the Armenian villages were subjected to a search in order to prevent any active actions by Armenians or Greeks. However, weapons from different channels continued to penetrate the villages. The Greeks and Georgians from neighbor villages sold weapons to the Armenians, who had transported them from Polis, Bulgaria or Greek ports. Arakel kept his weapons in a cache, and its entrance was securely disguised. In addition, the supporting pillars were strengthened in such a way that if you turned out one of them, the roof would fall on the heads of those who came with a search.
Translated from Armenian. "Dzayn Hamshenakan", august-september-october 2004.