The Return of ASALA’s Spiritual Father Gourgen Yanikian: ZHAM's Exclusive Interview with Armen Yergat
Cover photo: Gourgen Yanikian, “prison in Chino”, Los Angeles, 1975
Publication of the material is carried out with the permission of Anna Givargizyan, the chief editor of ZHAM magazine.
On April 29, the ASALA leader, the hero of the Armenian national liberation struggle, writer and engineer Gourgen Yanikian's relics were transferred from the United States to Yerevan.
The funeral of the hero's relics took place on Sunday, May 5, in Yerablur military pantheon, where his symbolic gravestone has been existing since 2000.
To find out more details, Anna Givargizyan managed to have an exclusive interview with Armen, Yanikian's loyal friend, Levon Yergat’s son.
Gourgen Yanikian is Armen Yergat’s God-father.
— Your father has been Gourgen Yanikian’s most loyal comrade, hasn’t he?
— Yes, Levon Yergat.
— Was it him, who on December 1976 made the record of Gourgen Yanikian’s behest?
— Yes, you are right.
— I am really happy to meet you, but I would like to speak about the record later. Now let’s talk about Gourgen Yanikian’s relics transfer details.
— Thank you. It is my pleasure to tell you everything I know.
— Armen, as I know, you have been looking for Yanikian’s relics for several years. I have heard that Yanikian had requested to take his cinerary to Armenia. Would you tell us, please, what happened?
— Yes. It was about 15 years ago when I went to cemetery where Gourgen Yanikian had been buried. For a while I was wandering there, then I was told that there was nobody buried there named Gourgen Yanikian. I visited several cemeteries… but nobody knew him. I was surprised… I have been looking for Gourgen Yanikian’s grave since I found out that it didn’t exist anywhere. I couldn’t believe that our hero Gourgen Yanikian didn’t have grave. Years were passing. I looked for some places in California, but in vain. I gave up hope… From my father’s friends I got some information where Gourgen Yanikian’s relics could be.
— How old were you when you started the investigation?
— I was 36 years old.
— How old were you when Yanikian was buried? You were present at it, weren’t you?
— I was very young but I remember that I was there together with my father. The funeral took place in Forest Lawn Memorial park in Los Angeles, in 1984. I was 16 years old. There is a photo, on which my father is standing near the coffin, paying last tribute to Mr. Yanikian. I don’t know where the body is now. As I have mentioned, I thought, it was buried in of the cemeteries of Los Angeles, but I was mistaken. Approximately fifteen years ago I was informed that the body of our hero, Gourgen Yanikian, had disappeared, his grave had disappeared… I was told, however, that his corpse was existing. That made me start my investigation. I am well aware of the job done by my father and Gourgen Yanikian, their collaboration… I took a decision to find out where his corpse was no matter how hard it could be. And here it is, it found me.
— How were you informed about hero’s relics? Do you remember when it was?
— It was two months ago, in March, when an elderly woman contacted me. She didn’t know Armenian: she was speaking only English. When she made sure that I was Levon Yergat’s son, she became very excited. I didn’t understand who she was, but she said: “You should immediately come to me: we should speak about Gourgen Yanikian”. I was deeply impressed and excited. I had been looking for the woman so long, who probably knew something about Yanikian. In of the nursing homes I was told she had died, in another one — that she had moved to another place… As I said, she called me two months ago. You know, she was so old.
— Would you tell us that woman’s name…
— I met her several days ago, and we were thinking about old days… She asked me not to indicate her full name, as she could have problems because of that. She didn’t want to give any interviews and didn’t want to host anybody… She is the wife of Yanikian’s lawyer Harry Umann.
— Is she the woman who several days ago brought relics to Armenia?
— Yes, she came to Armenia. She met with several people in Armenia, but trusted none of them. She got in touch with me as I was Levon Yergat’s son, and Levon Yergat was the leader of the Armenian National Movement in the USA and the organizer of Yanikian’s funeral. That woman remembered me since my childhood. I told her to whom we would rather speak in Armenia. She also insisted that some documents should be handed to the national archive. I promised to help her.
— It turns out that your father knew where Yanikian’s relics were.
— When she found me, said, that she had been looking for me for six months. I went to see her soon and we talked for a long time. I told her that first of all I would like to see the shrine: She brought it. I said I wanted to hold it. I was so excited. I remembered my father working with Yanikian.
— Did you often meet with Yanikian?
— We used to spend time with the Yanikians every Saturday, Friday and Sunday. Yanikian is my God-father. When he released from prison, all the documents were sent to the lawyer. Gourgen Yanikian’s photos and documents, which he was keeping in prison, including the photos from my childhood, the woman was keeping her. There were also letters and photos which had been sent her. She gave me all that. Mr. Yanikian mentioned in his bequest that he wanted his body to be burnt, but he wanted the ash to be buried in Armenia.
— Did you ask the lawyer’s wife why she had decided to take the relics to Armenia then and why she had been keeping silence for such a long time?
— I asked her, why she had waited for so long. The woman was very frightened. She told it just me. She trusts nobody. There were people who wanted to speak to her, but she didn’t dare. She was looking for me and found me in the end. I said: “If you don’t trust anybody, give me the shrine, I will deliver it” and she answered: “No, I will do it by myself”. That’s what happened. The woman told me different stories about Yanikian’s family, their friends and familiars.
— Are you going to visit Armenia?
— I would like to be there. I will be informed tomorrow whether I am allowed or not.
— Will Mrs. Umann give interviews in Yerevan?
— No, no, no. She doesn’t want anybody to know who she is and what she has done…
— As I was informed, a press conference is emerging.
— I know that she will come to that conference, but she won’t take part in it. She will sit there so nobody can interview her. Undoubtedly, the news is already spread. I hope she has good time in Armenia and has no problems.
— Will they bring the shrine to Armenia?
— Yes. When I was keeping it in hand, it was very heavy. Mr. Yanikian was enough tall… The shrine had never been opened before. I have some pictures of it.
— Did you accompany Mrs. Umann to the airport?
— She wanted to go there alone. She said that somebody had offered to accompany her before me. She is such a kind woman. I understand her. There were Armenians who tried to get in touch with her, but they had had no relations with the Yanikians. They were trying to persuade her to sell the shrine, but she remained adamant. She didn’t even mention their names, but I know them, especially one of them, who caused a lot of problems for my father.
— Do you mean the Dashnaktsutyun member of whom Yanikian mentions in the record?
— Yes, one of the Armenian Judas.
— Your father was a member of the party Dashnaktsutyun, wasn’t he?
— Yes, but he was driven from the party as he remained loyal to Yanikian.
— What would you tell us about yourself? Where did you study? What would you tell us about your mother?
— My mother died four years ago. She was born in Voronezh, Russia. Her name is Sona Durlarian, and she is from Tbilisi by origin. My father was from Aintap. He met my mother in Boston and they got married. We moved here when my father was informed that a new Armenian college was to open here.
— Did you move here for that reason?
— Yes. I studied there in parallel with school. Now my father’s grandchild studies at the same college.
— You mean your son, don’t you?
— Yes, my son, Aram-Levon Yergatian.
— How old is he?
— He is fifteen.
— God bless him. Didn’t your father see him?
— Unfortunately, no.
— Where is your wife from? Is she Armenian?
— Yes, she is Armenian. She was born here.
— Does your son speak Armenian?
— Yes, of course. He speaks and writes.
— Undoubtedly, he knows about Yanikian.
— Yes, he is well aware of that story.
— I know, you have a lot of memories about Yanikian and photos of him. I think you should tell our readers about it later.
— Of course. Moreover, I have a very important token. In 1984, the day he was buried, his body was covered by tricolor. That flag was given to me. There is a lettering on it, “Gourgen Yanikian”.
Interviewed by Anna Givarghizyan, Armenia - USA, May 1, 2019.
The photos in the interview have been published for the first time at the ZHAM magazine's website zham.ru, and the active reference is mandatory.
Translated from Armenian by Manan Ajamyan.