Speaking To Students (1)
Below is the translation into English of Hampartzoum speaking to students at Ramona Elementary, describing his harrowing tale of survival from the Armenian Genocide in 1915.
April 22, 1994-Part 1
I was afraid to go outside as I might be arrested. I started writing a letter in Turkish. In those days there were many Armenians who didn’t speak Turkish. They had relatives in America and they wanted to send them letters. We had to write letters in Turkish so I decided to improve my writing skills. Armenians used to send letters to America to their friends, relatives and children. We had a post office where all the letters sent from America were kept. Every week people from different villages who were waiting for a response would gather in this post office. I would read the names and give the letters to the addresses. They would go home, write a response and come to the post office to send their letters back to America.
There was a Turkish man who used to threaten me that if I didn’t find his wife he would tell the police officers about me so I was afraid to be seen in public. When I was 20 I was still afraid to go outside. I was thinking to myself ‘’what should I do?’’. I heard that Kurdish people helped Armenians move to Syria, Armenia or Iran for 10 gold coins. One day I met a nice Kurdish man. I asked him how much it would cost to take me to Armenia and he said, ‘’10 gold coins’’. I agreed. I joined his group of people who were moving to Armenia as I was afraid that the police officer I have just been talking about would arrest me though a year had already passed since the day the Turkish man demanded that I found his wife. How do I know where your wife is? Yes, she is in the orphanage but who will let me in? I couldn’t just meet her and ask her to go and see her husband. On the other hand, I was very afraid of the police officer as he knew me and he could easily recognize me in public. He would kill me right away. That’s why I decided to escape. I had a friend who I trusted a lot. I gave her 8 gold coins and asked her to shelter my little brother Kerob so that I could escape and come back for him later. This woman had three daughters. The name of the eldest daughter was Aghavni. The woman said she didn’t care about the money and instead she just wanted me to promise to take care of her daughter and never forget about her. I made a promise to her. All night I was lying in bed with my little brother and couldn’t stop crying. The last time I cried so loudly was last month when I fell on the ground, injured my leg and was taken to hospital.
So next day we set out on our journey. After walking for a day (8 hours) we reached a village and decided to take a rest there. There were about 50 Kurdish families living in that village. The Government provided them with food, seeds, sheep, cows. Then we moved forward and reached another village. There was a spring there so I decided to wash my hands. Suddenly I noticed a young man standing next to me near the spring. He looked at me and asked, ’’Are you Armenian?’’. His question was asked in Armenian so I was quite surprised—no one spoke Armenian in those days. He added, ‘’We are Rev. Yeghoyan’s (from Kharpert) brother’s sons— Avedis and Nazaret’’. We moved to another village where we planned to stay and take a rest at night. We all sat under a big tree the red berry of which was called ‘’perinj’’. The Kurdish men were talking to each other in their language and we couldn’t understand a word. We noticed 10-12 girls standing in front of us. We felt these girls wanted to escape. Suddenly one of these Kurdish men asked me how much money I had given to their leader. ‘’10 gold coins’’,-I said. He announced that I was lying and I had given him only 5 gold coins. All these Kurdish men started staring at me. I knew they were planning to kill us…I could see that in their eyes…They started talking to each other and discussing whether to kill us now or later…They decided to make use of us before they would kill us…There were donkeys loaded with packages. These Kurds thought it would be better if we helped them take down these packages and stay awake at night not to let anyone from the adjacent villages steal their belongings. Others insisted on killing us right away. As I said there were 10-12 girls there. Suddenly we heard them shouting. ‘’This girl is for Hassan, that girl is for Hussein’’, – we heard the voices of the Kurds. Hassan and Hussein are Kurdish names. All these men were Kurds. They were taking the girls with them and leaving. We stayed there.
Next day Avedis, who was the most mature man among us, announced that the Kurds were going to kill us that day so we would better escape as soon as possible. And so we did that. The first day everything was alright as we were not hungry but the things got worse in the next two days as we started getting hungry. There were plenty of fish in the river but catching them was quite difficult. We would catch fish and eat them uncooked. We would also explore the surroundings and eat grass. We were very tired and we didn’t know where exactly we were. We could see Mount Ararat. We made a fire to prepare food. The smoke was rising. At night the fire was illuminating the surroundings so we were afraid to get noticed.
We continued our journey but we could hardly walk. One of our friends was feeling unwell. We started asking each other, ‘’Where are we? We’ve been walking for so long—are we in Iran, Armenia or Russia?’’ By the way we were walking along the road instead of mountains and canyons. Suddenly a Kurdish horseman approached us. We were 20-22 years old (I was 20 but some of my friends were older). This horseman was looking for Armenians who were on the border trying to escape the Turks. He was searching for people who would work for him for free. He said he had a garden and he would like us to work there. He made a living by cutting the grass and selling it to others. He promised to take care of us in exchange. We accepted this Kurdish man’s offer and went to his place with him. There were about 10-15 other people working in his garden. Our clothes were torn so he gave us new ones. Then he guided us to a place where people took a bath and did their laundry. He treated us to a good dinner so that we had energy for cutting the grass.
A day passed. At night we decided to escape. We asked the Kurdish men working with us in the garden where we were. They told us we were on the border—we were surrounded by Iran, Armenia (the Aras River) and Turkey. On the one side there were Turkish soldiers and on the other one there were Armenian soldiers. On the border of Iran there were soldiers as well. Their job was to make sure that no one entered their territory. We analyzed the situation for some time and decided to move to Iran as moving to Armenia was too risky. One of our friends didn’t like this plan. He said it would be better if we stayed there for some more time so that we could eat again and have energy to walk. I thought for a while and decided to go it alone. The cousins, Avedis and Nazaret, were trying to convince me not to do such a thing but that was my final decision.
I started walking. The grass was very high and the sound of the grass was terrifying. When I was walking with my friends it was not that scary but now that I was alone things were different. I was exhausted so I lay down to sleep and take a rest despite the fact that I had walked less than 30 minutes. Suddenly I felt someone touching me with a stick. I woke up and saw a Kurdish man. He said, ’’ Don’t be afraid, I’m not going to harm you’’. He offered me to work with him and make money. He asked me where I came from and I told him my story. He also asked if I had learnt any craft in the past. My uncles were shoemakers so I told him I could make shoes. He said, ‘’Oh, my father brought shoe materials from Armenia’’. When he showed me the materials I said, ‘’This is great but I also need tools to make shoes’’. He said he knew someone in Iran who was making shoes so he offered to visit him and bring the tools here. We both liked this idea.
Next day this Kurdish man and I reached the border. It took us half an hour to get there. There were soldiers everywhere. He told these soldiers that I was a shoemaker and needed to buy tools from Kiliseken, Iran to start working. Kiliseken is the name of the city we were going to. He promised the soldiers to give them, their mothers and sisters a new pair of shoes if they let us enter the country. The soldiers accepted his offer and we continued walking. We stopped at a spring and started eating bread and drinking water. Saying that he needed a rest this Kurdish man fell asleep with his head placed on his weapon. God knows, I looked at the sky and thought, ‘’This is not the sky of the Turks’’. Then I looked at the ground and thought, ’’This is not the land of the Turks’’. Soon this man woke up and we continued walking. We met Iranian Armenians who were shoeing horses and making vodka. We asked them if they could make tools for us and they said ‘’yes’’. However, they told us that the master was not there at the moment—he was in the cemetery. Once there were many Armenians living in this territory. They built a church there and named it ‘’Kiliseken’’. ‘’The master is there’’-they said, -go and ask him how much he wants for his work’’. We found the master and asked him how much it would cost to make tools for us. ‘’10 toman’’, -he said. Toman is the official currency of Iran. The Kurdish man said ‘I don’t have that much money with me right now. This is what I have.’’. I took the Kurdish man aside and said, ‘Give him the money you have with you now. I will make shoes and will pay off the debt later’’. Then I asked him to leave me and the master alone and go to the nearest small café (they were selling tea there). I promised to convince the master to make tools at a cheaper price. ‘’I will join you later’’, – I said. He went away and I stayed alone with the master. As I said there was a cemetery there and the people used sticks to write the names of the dead people on the land. The master was with a little girl, his grandchild. Without saying anything he started writing something on the land with the stick. Then he looked at me and said, ’’Let’s go’’. I had heard the phrase ‘’let’s go’’ before but he said that phrase in the dialect of Iranian-Armenians so at first I didn’t quite understand him. We went to an underground house. The master knocked on the door and his wife opened it. He pointed to me and said ‘’I’ve brought your son’’. I was 20 then. His wife was a Turkish-Armenian woman whose son had been killed. She looked at me and said that she was going to treat me like her son although I didn’t quite look like him. We went downstairs. They started asking me questions—who are you? where are you from? I told them my story. The master asked his wife to bring food both for me and for him. His wife argued that he had already had dinner but the master demanded that she brought him food anyway. His wife brought a dish called ‘’Kofta’’. It was delicious. It’s meat and soup with rice. She also brought some bread but she forgot about spoons and forks. The husband took some bread, cut the meat with it, soaked it in the soup and put it into his mouse. Finally, the master asked his wife to bring spoons and forks as well. She did. I asked the master if he could help me to survive. He pointed to the weapons hanging on the wall and said, ’’Look at these weapons. We will use the last bullets to kill ourselves but we won’t let you get into trouble. Don’t worry—there is nothing to be afraid of’’. I was very happy as I finally found a safe place. After a while the Kurdish man came. He knocked on the door and asked, ’Master, what happened to my friend?’’. The master looked at him and said, ’Go away, he is not Turkish—he is Armenian, leave our house now!’’. The Kurd left in fear. Then my new friends asked me if I spoke Turkish. I had once told them that I could write and speak Turkish quite well. The people who brought products from Iran to Turkey or vice versa had to pay taxes. So they wanted someone to be responsible for these taxes. I wrote my name and some other information on the paper in Turkish and my new friend said, ‘’You know Turkish better than me’’. So they gave me this job. The remuneration was in the form of food and not money. My job was to stop the people who were crossing the border, open their packages and inform them how much money they needed to pay as a tax. I worked in this position for more than 2 months.
One day I was told that a friend of mine wanted to see me. Do you remember the two young men I was friends with—Avedis and Nazaret? They stayed with the Kurds and I escaped. So I was told that my brother was waiting for me. My brother was in Kharpert—how could he manage to come here? Is it a miracle or what? I went to that place with the hope to meet my brother and I saw the young man who once hadn’t come with me because of being wounded. That young man’s name was Avedis. We hugged and kissed each other. He told me that after my escape they were taken to prison to be killed later. They stayed in prison for a week. One day when the prison warden fell asleep they managed to escape.
April 22, 1994 – Part 2
Our Fatherland, free, independent,
That has for centuries lived,
Is now summoning its sons
To the free, independent Armenia.
Here is a flag for you, my brother,
That I have sewn with my own hands,
Over the sleepless nights,
And rinsed it with my tears.
At this young age we promise to always keep our blood clean, to love our nation and parents.
Don’t be like an adze—always pulling towards yourself but be like a saw—pulling towards yourself and then towards us (literal translation).
(Applause then Q/A session in the classroom)
Student-When did you first meet your brother Kaspar after you parted?
Hampardzoum-We said goodbye to each other in 1916 and we met in 1923.
Student-But where did you meet each other?
Hampardzoum-Here in America. I met Kaspar in 1923. We came here from Mexico as refugees. That photo was taken in 1923. One of the photos was taken in 1923 the other one in 1983.
Student-How many years have you been living here in America?
Hampardzoum-We came here in 1935, June 13th. It’s been already 59 years since we moved here.
Teacher-Who wants to ask another question?
Student-Is Kaspar dead now?
Student-Was Kaspar an actor?
Student (looking at the photo)-Is this person your brother?
Teacher-Who wants to ask another question? Kevork!
Student-How many children were there in your family?
Hampardzoum-6 brothers and 3 sisters
Students (surprised)-9 children!
Student-Are you the only one who is alive?
Hampardzoum-nodding his head
Student (to Mrs. Chitjian)-When did you marry your husband?
Hampardzoum-In 1929. One day you will get married too. So keep in mind that it’s very important to always stay together no matter what. Don’t be like the people in America—they get married and divorced in the same day.
Student-How many years have you experienced the Genocide?
Hampardzoum-How old was I? I was 14.
Students-No. How many years have you experienced the massacres?
Hampardzoum-Six years. From 1915 to 1921.
Student-How old is Mrs. Chitjian?
Seems to be Mrs. Chitjian-25 (laughing)
Voices-Bravo. Well said.
Student-Have you ever seen your brothers or sisters after the massacres?
Hampardzoum-Oh yeah. We were 5 brothers. Our sixth youngest brother was thrown into the water when he was 6. I had three sisters. Two of them died and my third sister, the eldest one, survived the massacre but she died of hunger later.
Student-When your brother was thrown into the water, was he dead or alive at that moment?
Hampardzoum-Let me tell you something. As Armenians were known as hard-working people, the Turks would give them Turkish names (Turkification of Armenians was their main goal) and they would make Armenians work for them with other Turks and Kurds. The ones who couldn’t work and were just disturbing them were killed with a knife and were thrown into the water. The same happened to my brother.
Student-This question is for Mrs. Chitjian. Where did you meet your husband and how old were you when you two got married?
Hampardzoum to Mrs. Chitjian-What did she ask?
Mrs. Chitjian to Hampardzoum-How old were we when we got married?
Hampardzoum-She was 24, I was 29.
Student-And where did you meet each other?
Student-How did you meet?
Hampardzoum-How did we meet? I will tell you now. When I came to Mexico I was not allowed to enter America so I went there as a refugee. I stayed in America for a year. I needed a document proving that I was a legal entrant but I was a refugee so, obviously I didn’t have such a document. I was very scared because if they found out that I had entered the country illegally they would send me back to where I had come from, Turkey. That’s why I went back to Mexico. I was with my little brother Kerob. There were not many Armenians in Mexico but there was one Armenian who recommended a good tailor to us. I visited him to order some clothes. This is where I met her (pointing to Mrs. Chitjian). I asked, ”Who is this girl?”. There was a cafe there where Mexican and Armenian men were playing games such as dominoes. I was quite surprised to see a girl among all these men. I was like ”What is this girl doing here?”. Anyway, the next minute I just forgot about her.
Four years passed. I was friends with an Armenian man who used to help other Armenians living here. One day he asked me, ’’Why don’t you get married?’’ I told him that I wanted to make some money before getting married. In 1929 when I earned 15.000 pesos I decided to apply for a passport and leave for France to find an Armenian wife for me there. He said,’’ No need to go to France—there is a great Armenian family here with 3 beautiful girls. If you agree, I can arrange your marriage with one of these girls.’’ I told him that it would be quite difficult to do that as I was in a conflict with these girls’ father. This man was old and wise so he gave me the following advice, ’’Just go there, say hello and see what happens. I went to see these girls’ father and said. ’’Hello.’’ He replied angrily, ‘’Get out of my sight right now!’’. I went back to my nice Armenian friend and told him what had happened. He asked,’’ What do you do for a living?’’. I was selling ice-cream at that time and making 100-200 pesos daily. That was a great job so the man said,’’ Don’t worry. I will arrange everything; I promise’’.
This nice friend of mine came to Mexico, married a Mexican woman and had 2 daughters and one son. One of his daughters married the General of Mexico. He said that he and the General of Mexico (his son-in-law) and his father (who was a very nice 82-year-old man) decided to lay the table and invite my potential wife’s father to have a meal with us. The girls’ father came, sat at the table and started complimenting the dishes we had prepared for him, ’’Everything is very delicious!’’. Suddenly the Armenian nice man pointed to me and said, ‘’By the way, his father is Armenian’’. My future father-in-law looked at me. He immediately recognized me and asked,‘’ Whose father is Armenian—this young man’s? The next minute he took off his hat and put it on the table in anger. ‘’You brought me here with deception!’’-he shouted and got up to leave. However, the General came up to him trying to assure him that I was a very nice young man and had a great job. My future father-in-law mellowed a little. At the end of the week I made an ice-cream cake and sent it to my wife’s family with the hope that they would change their mind. They did and we got married. My Armenian friend was our Godfather.
Hampardzoum to one of the students-Come here, sit next to me.
Hampardzoum-I will be honest with you. I’ve been living in America for 59 years and in Mexico for 10 years. I have been in many places—Iran, Baghdad, Mosul, Beirut, Germany, Spain, France, Cuba changing passports and moving to America. There are both good and bad people in every nation including Armenians. However, there is no nation that is in as good relations with Armenians as Mexican people. When we came to Mexico we didn’t speak the local language. We couldn’t understand anyone and all we could hear was ‘’b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b’’. Little girls would approach me and make me smile like you shouting ‘’Senior, senior!’’. Also, they made only spicy dishes and I didn’t like that. At first I was selling water (soda) in the street. I didn’t make any money but then I earned 1000-1500…no, 3000 pesos and started my ice-cream business. I had to pay 3000 pesos to the land owner to have the right to sell ice-cream in that territory. My brother would take the package with 2000 pesos and I would take the one with 1000 pesos to make the payment. One day we decided to have a rest, so we lay on the grass and placed the money next to us. Soon we got up but forgot about the money and left it there. There was a Mexican young man who was also lying on the grass (behind us). His name was Philippeaux, He was only 18 and he earned 50 cents per day (20 cents in America). When me and my brother were already knocking on the door of the land owner we noticed Philippeaux standing behind us. We asked him what he was doing there and he replied, ‘’Senior, I brought the money you had left on the grass so that no one could steal it’’. A 18-year-old young man who earned only 50 cents per day could easily take my 3000 pesos and escape but he didn’t do that. Do I love Mexican people? Oh, yes, I do!
Students-Are all Mexican people nice? Are there bad Mexican people as well?
Voice (seems to be the teacher)-No, there are both good and bad Mexicans.