Las Vegas: Unhappy remembrance: Survivor recalls horror of Genocide

Las Vegas Sun, NV
April 25 2004

Unhappy remembrance

Survivor recalls horror of Armenian genocide
By Ed Koch
<[email protected]>

Commemoration ceremony
What: Armenian Genocide Commemoration Ceremony, sponsored by the
Armenian-American Cultural Society of Las Vegas.
When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: West Sahara Library, 9600 W. Sahara Ave.
Who: Keynote speaker John Kasbarian, lecturer, activist and former
editor of the Armenian Weekly.

The passing of several decades has not dimmed the memory of the
horror Malvine Papazian Handjian witnessed as a 10-year-old Armenian
refugee on the streets of Izmir, Turkey, during the first genocide of
the 20th century.

Speaking in half-Armenian and half-English, the longtime Las Vegas
resident vividly recalled watching Turkish soldiers during a 1922
raid pull an Armenian priest by his long beard from his burning
church and laugh as they drove nails through the soles of his shoes
and into his feet.

Handjian wept recalling how Turkish soldiers carried off teenage
girls during the chaos to rape and kill them. She still sees the
terror in the eyes of young Armenian men who, to escape Turkish
bayonets, dove into the harbor and swam for foreign-flagged ships
only to be turned away and then drown.

“We must never forget — never forget,” said Handjian, 91. “I saw
these things with my own eyes. And I will never forget.”

Today marks the 89th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian
genocide in Turkey, which lasted eight years. On Sunday the
Armenian-American Cultural Society of Las Vegas will hold a
commemoration ceremony at the West Sahara Library to thank those who
have kept alive the memory of one of the world’s worst atrocities.

On April 24, 1915, the genocide began when about 200 Armenian
intellectual and political leaders were arrested in what is now
Istanbul and publicly executed. What followed was the systematic
slaying of 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children. Many,
including Handjian, were taken on long death marches, where a number
of them succumbed to hunger and thirst.

“Perhaps if we had done more to remember the plight of the Armenians,
we would not have seen repeats of genocide in the 20th century,” said
John Dadaian, coordinator of the Las Vegas ceremony, Handjian’s
son-in-law and local spokesman for the Armenian National Committee of

“Perhaps the Holocaust of World War II could have been prevented, as
well as the killing fields of Cambodia, the tribal slayings in Rwanda
and the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.”

Dadaian said, however, because the United States has long been an
ally of Turkey and benefits from its oil production, many American
leaders have been hesitant to put pressure on Turkey to admit to the
genocide, which it steadfastly denies happened.

“Turkish officials spend million of dollars lobbying Congress,
pushing an agenda of revisionist history that the genocide never
happened,” Dadaian said.

But, he said, many Nevada officials have not bought into the Turks’
denials. One is Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who at Sunday’s ceremony
will be honored as the Armenian National Committee’s Western Region
Man of the Year.

Last year Ensign, along with Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., introduced a
Senate resolution reaffirming there indeed was a genocide of
Armenians. Ensign said the measure “represents a renewal of America’s
commitment to preventing future genocides.”

Also, Gov. Kenny Guinn has issued this year a strongly worded
proclamation confirming Nevada’s position on “the genocide of the
Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.” In that document Guinn calls
Turkey’s actions a “systematic and deliberate massacre of the
Armenian people.”

Some experts believe the Turks’ failure to admit and atone for the
actions of their ancestors has hampered Turkey’s attempts to gain
admission into the European Union despite its growing economy.

Supporters of Turkey’s position say claims that a genocide occurred
are part of efforts to drive a wedge between Muslims, including the
Turkish people, and Christians, including Armenians.

“Armenian-Americans have attempted to extricate and isolate their
history from the complex circumstances in which their ancestors were
embroiled,” reads, the Turkish Embassy’s Web site.
“In so doing, they describe a world populated only by white-hatted
heroes and black-hatted villains. The heroes are always Christian and
the villains are always Muslim.”

The Turkish Web site further claims that the numbers of Armenians
living throughout the Ottoman Empire in 1915 were fewer than 1.5
million, and thus the numbers of the dead have been inflated; that
many Armenian victims were casualties of World War I and disease; and
that the Armenian losses were “few in comparison to the over 2.5
million Muslim dead from the same period.”

But opponents of the use of the term “Armenian genocide” cannot
easily shrug off the accounts shared by the traumatized Armenian
survivors, including Handjian.

In 1917 her father, a dentist, was abducted and put on a train
supposedly bound for battlefields to treat wounded Turkish soldiers.
News later came back to the family he died in a hospital far from a
war zone, she said.

A Turkish dentist who was in partnership with Handjian’s father then
took her family’s home and property, leaving Handjian, her mother,
two sisters and her brother homeless, she said. Hanjian went to live
in a suburb of Izmir with a family friend, Mari Yerganian, who became
her surrogate mother.

In 1922, during a post World War I Greek-Turkish conflict, Yerganian
and Handjian found themselves on the streets of Izmir, then called
Smyrna, in western Turkey, as Armenian-owned homes were burned by the
forces of future President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after they had
routed the Greek army.

Handjian said Yerganian protected her on their long march to
abandoned army barracks, where hundreds of Armenians were starved as
they awaited execution. Once, she said, Yerganian took a gold coin
she had sewn into her dress and gave it to a Turkish soldier who in
turn gave Handjian a sip of water.

“The day before we were to be slaughtered, a miracle happened when
the American Relief Society came and rescued us,” said Handjian,
referring to the BibleLands Missions Aid Society, which today is
known simply as BibleLands. “They got us on a ship to Greece. I could
never thank the Americans enough.”

In Greece, at age 15, Malvine married fellow Armenian genocide
survivor Kourken Handjian. They moved to France in 1929, where
Malvine became a volunteer with the Armenian Blue Cross, helping
other Armenian refugees. They moved to the United States in 1958,
where she became a volunteer with the Armenian Relief Society in Los
Angeles. They moved to Las Vegas in 1990.

The Handjians had three children, eight grandchildren and 13
great-grandchildren. Kourken, a retired candy maker, died in 2002 at
age 95.

The Handjians were the subject of the 2002 documentary film “The
Handjian Story: A Road Less Traveled,” produced and directed by their
granddaughter Denise Gentilini.

At last year’s Moondance International Film Festival in Denver, the
film won best feature documentary. Handjian joined her granddaughter
onstage at the awards ceremony and received a standing ovation.

Handjian said she is proud that her great-grandchildren today show
the film in their classrooms so that new generations from all ethnic
backgrounds will learn the truth about the brutal murders of her
people and perhaps remember.

Dadaian said his ancestors’ plight sends a foreboding message from
which the world can benefit. He recalled a London Times story of Nov.
24, 1945, which reported chilling words from Adolf Hitler that
perhaps best exemplify why the Armenian genocide should never be

“Speaking to his generals before Nazi troops invaded Poland, Hitler
assured them that they need not worry what the world would think of
their actions,” Dadaian said. ” ‘After all,’ said Hitler, ‘Who
remembers the Armenians?’ “