Armand Arabian puts award in focus

Los Angeles Daily News

Armand Arabia puts award in focus
Noted jurist to get Ellis Island medal

By Dennis McCarthy

Thursday, April 22, 2004 – It was their first family portrait together
in America, and they’re posed like the Rockefellers like they’ve got a
million bucks in the bank.

But they have nothing, really just each other. When this picture was
taken in December 1934, the family had been in this country only a few
years, survivors of the Armenian Genocide.

They were living in a tenement on New York City’s Lower East Side not
too far from Ellis Island, where they and tens of thousands of other
immigrant families entered this country, seeking a better life.

At Ellis Island next month, the man shown in an old photo as a baby
sitting on his grandmother’s lap will receive a coveted award the
Ellis Island Medal of Honor given to U.S. citizens who “preserve and
reinforce the value of their heritage, and contribute extraordinary
service to humanity in any field, profession or occupation.”

Former California Supreme Court Justice Armand Arabian of Van Nuys
will have his name added to the Ellis Island honor roll with those of
presidents, political leaders, sports and entertainment legends, and
successful businessmen and artists from every walk of life.

It’s pretty heady company for the first-born son of immigrants who
lived in a New York City tenement. But he won’t be thinking about any
of that when they put the medal around his neck next month.

He’ll be thinking of the faces in this family portrait and those
missing from the picture.

Judge Arabian has a harrowing family history. His grandfather had been
a leader in the village of Chengeller, Turkey, not far from
Constantinople, now Istanbul. One morning in 1915 the village was
attacked by Turkish soldiers, and the nightmare began, he says.

His grandfather was taken to the center of town, placed against a wall
and executed by a firing squad. His crime? He was Armenian.

“My grandmother was driven from her home with nothing but the dress on
her back,” Arabian says. “Along with others, she and two of her sons
were marched for days until they reached the banks of a swift river.

“A mounted gendarme with bandoleers of ammunition crossing his chest
ordered her to swim across the river or be shot on the spot. Some
soldiers were already killing those who couldn’t make it.

“Holding the hands of her two sons, she faced an impossible dilemma:
She could save the life of one son by swimming across the river with
him, but she would have to leave the other son behind.

“She chose the eldest, 11-year-old Ovanes, my father,” Arabian
said. “Helping each other, they swam across. Left on the riverbank was
4-year-old Oskian standing with his arms outstretched, crying for his
mother and brother.

“He never saw them again. Not a day went by in my grandmother’s life
that she didn’t relive the heartbreak and pain from leaving her
4-year-old son standing on that riverbank crying,” Arabian said.

“Years later, her daughter, Araxi, was rescued from an orphanage in

One of her beautiful orphan playmates, Aghavnie, later became my
mother,” he says, for Ovanes married her.

Aunt Araxi stands over her mother’s right shoulder in the
picture. Arabian’s mother stands alongside his father, a tailor. And,
of course, in the middle sits the matriarch of the family his
grandmother, Soultana, who relived that swim across the river every
day of her life until she died in 1982.

It is in their memory, their honor, that he will lower his head and
accept the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, Arabian says. Not for himself
or anything he did but for what they did.

“My father used to say the only country club Armenians belong to is
the one at Ellis Island. It was the only one that accepted them.”

Arabian will visit his ancestors’ graves before he returns home. He
knows it will be an emotional moment as he kneels before their graves
with that medal of honor hanging from his neck.

It says a lot about the greatness and heart of this country that
immigrant families, like his, were invited into the country club at
Ellis Island after fleeing so much heartbreak, poverty, and violence,
Arabian says.

And that, after only a few years in America, they faced the camera
like they were the Rockefellers like they had a million bucks in the

Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

Dennis McCarthy, (818) 713-3749 [email protected]