Kashkar, a symbolic Armenian stone
Maro Ibishian is the granddaughter to a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Gariwo Founder and Honorary Consul of Armenia to Italy Pietro Kuciukian collected the story of her Grandmother.I heard of Henry Morgenthau many years ago, following a conversation with Sona Ibishian, a fellow member of the Armenian community of Milan. Mrs. Ibishian told me about US Ambassador to Constantinople recalling how he rescued thousands Armenian families after the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Sona Ibishian is the daughter to Arussiak Demirgian Nersessian, a centenary survivor to the massacres of the beginning of the Twentieth century in the Ottoman Empire. The Demirgians belong to a well-off family from Afion Karahissar, in historical Armenia. The head of the family, Sarkis Demirgian, was the director of three subsidiaries belonging to Ipranossian, a well-known entrepreneur in the Ottoman Empire, who imported equipment and machineries from Europe and America. When the order of deportation came, in 1915, the family headed to the railway station taking everything they could transport: gold, jewels, money, carpets. At the station they found a Turkish friend, Hekmet Bey, who had brought them a tent as a gift: “We don’t know where you will go, maybe you will need it”, and he gave them the address of another Turk from Konia, Shukri Bey. Once they got to Konya, they rented a house and remained there for some months. Through the window grids they saw the caravans of the Armenian deportees, their fellow nationals. In front of their house there was a building that hosted the Catholic Armenian nuns of the Congregation of Imaculate Conception who had been deported from Angora (currently Ankara). The Catholics of the Ottoman Empire were under the protection of France and until France entered the war against Turkey they were safe. But when the war broke out, the deportations and massacres hit also the Catholic Armenians. Mrs. Nersessian looked at the nuns from the house in front. They ate only apricots, which the peasants brought them everyday. They died one after the other of dissenteria. With the help of another Turk, lawyer Masu Bey, director of the subsidiary of Konya owned by Ipranossian, the Demirgians managed to contact the agent of the organization which on Arussiak Demirgian’s memory was called “Morgenthau Foundation” and was nothing else but the “American Near East Relief Society”. They gave the agent everything they had, gold, money and jewels, getting in change a “cheque” for a bank in Beirut, cut by 10%. All the family managed to flee to Lebanon. Sarkis Demirgian changed the cheque into cash. Soon afterwards arrived the carpets sent by Masu Bey. The family moved to Ethiopia, then to Italy, where they now reside.Valentina De Fazio interviewed Maro Ibishian in the premises of Gariwo. Would you like to tell us about your family and your life as the descendant of a family persecuted during the Armenian Genocide? My real name is Mary, but I believe Maro is a truly Armenian name, so I was always called Maro. I was born in Africa because my father had escaped the massacres going to Africa. Then we immediately arrived in Milan, so I can say I am Italian, as I went to school and university in Italy. I have both Italian and Armenian friends. I have also been to Beirut because my motherly grandmother’s family had escaped to Beirut. As a consequence my sister and I have also been to Beirut, in a period also some months a year. We have had a very eventful life until my parents decided to settle in Milan and then we were always in Milan. I married to an Italian, thus I also have a son who is half Armenian and half Italian. I have had quite a normal life. I was born in Africa, but I lived there only for one year and only because that was my father’s destination to flee from genocide. Would you define yourself as an Armenian and how would you explain this identity? My identity as an Armenian was shaped by the presence of this grandma of mine, who was a genocide survivor. After my Dad’s death she came to our home and my sister and I have lived with her. Living together with somebody who had personally witnessed to genocide had a particular meaning. Not that she spoke about genocide that often. Generally we were busy with school and had anyway other things to think of. But we knew shwe had escaped, and what she had seen. She saw all the massacres because she reached the age of 105. We grew up listening to this. While we spoke Italian with my mother, my grandma did not speak a single word of Italian. So with our grandma we were compelled to speak Armenian. Also, in Milan there is an Armenian Church in Jommelli street and also an Armenian House. And my mother used to take us there at least once a week. Something of this has remained. Your parents have survived genocide. Could you describe their suffering and how they survived? My grandmother saw the whole massacres. She told us that the Turks rescued our family. I do not know precisely how or rather, I know they had to leave everything behind in change of a cheque which they changed when they got to Lebanon. The money made it possible for them to restart life. This regarding my maternal family. My paternal family however was exterminated. Then my father had to flee, he always said he had to do so with his clothes on. He escaped to Africa and unfortunately he caught malaria while working in the plantations and he died very early. There are the consequences of genocide. It is not that you survive and everything goes smoothly. You have to bear all consequences. These guys who had escaped very often died young like my Dad. On my mother’s side they were more lucky because they could flee. The Armenians from Turkey got along well with the Turks, and had Turkish friends like I have my Italian friends. These Turkish friends helped them, also with the assistance of US Ambassador Morgenthau, who helped the Armenians a lot.. First with the cheque and then providing them with carpets and their other goods after they had settled in Lebanon. So their Turkish friends helped them before, during and after genocide.. Of course, we should not tar the whole nation with the same brush because they were rescued. But even though they were lucky, they witnessed to everything all the same and it is not that everybody was so lucky. I had an aunt in Istanbul who did not even talk about genocide because she said: “It is so awful that I don’t want to talk about it anymore”. I learnt things from my grandmother and some uncles who were genocide survivors, too. They told us what happened, but they did not bother us… but we knew that was awful You often bear witness to genocide at schools with some representatives of Gariwo. Why does this matter for you? I go to schools with Professor Samuelli. It is a way to pass on this knowledge to students. It is important a sit is the first genocide of the twentieth century, and it is terrible but not very well-known. Most school books do not mention it. I think my testimony can help young people learn that it happened many times, also in Cambodia, Serbia and other countries and it can happen again although we all hope it will not.. What do you think of the choice made by the founders of Gariwo, the forest of the Righteous, to bring about the figures of those who did not want to stay on the side of the executioners, but chose the side of those who rescued the other people or born witness to the events of 1915? I don’t bear any particular grudge but I think of genocide. I believe the holy mass in Sant’Ambrogio on 24 April will be very important. I am going to take my son to it and also to lay the flowers on our kachkar which is the symbolic stone of the Armenians. I try to pass on to my son the memory of his family about the events that occurred in 1915, hoping he will tell it to his children Do you hope something will change in the Turkish society and the Turkish goverment will recognize the genocide? You said it. The problem is the government. I have been to Turkey with my husband many times. I was in Istanbul only one week ago. Therefore I have Turkish friends, I met many normal people who in general, with few exception, but let’s say in most cases know and admit that there was a genocide against the Armenians. This is the key point. I hope this problem can be fixed, but how can we solve the dispute if on the other side there is the denial of the genocide?
Pietro Kuciukian and Valentina De Fazio; translated by Carolina Figini