The following vignette (or more prosaically, extract) from the history of one Armenian family casts some light on the disturbed and dangerous situation for Armenians in the Ottoman or former Ottoman provinces in the Caucasus area during the period of WW1 and which extended into the immediate aftermath of that war. It also shows how there were acts of humanity even under those conditions. Finally, it illustrates how it was by sheer chance, in many cases, that some Armenians managed to escape from death and worse, traveling ultimately to faraway places (in this case, England), and becoming part of the diaspora of Armenians who are to be found pretty well all over the world.
This particular history is set against the background that during 1915 -1923, 500,000 Armenian children were burned, poisoned, strangled, raped, mutilated, sold as slaves. Those who survived were left orphaned and were forced to renounce their Christian faith. This, in turn, is part of the broader history of suffering by Armenians, in particular, the genocide in 1915.
Those children who did escape were in many cases fortunate enough to be helped by charities such as the Lord Mayor’s (of London, England) Fund which was set up in 1915.
The following piece of family’s history was told to me recently by Yuri Amirbekian, who was born in 1946 in the city of Kirovakan (Gharaklisa, currently Vanadzor), in what is now the independent Republic of Armenia. It concerns his deceased uncle Andranik Amirbekian, brother of his (Yuri’s) father Alyosha, and goes back to 1919 when the family used to live in Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) at that time. Yuri heard the history from his father and five aunts.
In 1919, the two brothers, Andranik (then aged 13, born 1906), and Alyosha (then aged 11), had been very naughty one day and decided to spend the night at the railway station. So they went to the railway station and stayed there all night.
Next morning, the two boys were hungry and Andranik sent Alyosha to sneak home and bring back some food. But Alyosha was caught there by their grandmother. She kept him at home in the hope that Andranik would come back. However Andranik just stayed waiting at the station and by the time the boy’s father realised where to look for him, Andranik was no longer there. He had disappeared without a trace, and the family never found any clue to the mystery until very many years later.
Eventually, in 1963, after 44 years, out of the blue and to their total surprise, a letter from Andranik arrived after the family had moved from Kirovakan to Yerevan.
Back in 1919, what had happened, leading to the mystery of Andranik’s disappearance, was this:- An English officer, who was going to catch a train at that station that same morning, found him there and out of motives of honest benevolence, knowing the dangerous situation and thinking that the boy was an orphan took Andranik with him on the officer’s journey back to England.
So the officer and Andranik traveled by train from Julfa to Turkey, and then by ship to England. Here, Andranik worked as a stable boy for the officer.
Some years later, the officer enlisted to go and fight in Africa, where unfortunately he was killed, leaving the boy destitute.
The next information known about him is that in the 1930s he worked in coal mines near Birmingham. One must suppose that, till then, he did whatever odd jobs he could get; it was a bad period to be looking for work, the British economy being shattered from WW1 and he being disadvantaged in such conditions by being an immigrant; however, he was evidently not one to shirk hard work, and he survived.
In 1936, Andranik was involved in a motorcycle accident, which left him with a big scar on his face. He was treated in hospital, which was not free in those days but one may suppose that there was some charity even then. While in the hospital, he was looked after by an English nurse named Dori (perhaps short for Doris or Doreen) Ashton, whom he married later on. Perhaps that was when he took the names of George Ashton. They had no children.
Then in 1963 Andranik wrote a letter mentioned above, from which the family in Armenia learned that he was alive, and his whereabouts. Of course, he did not know that the family had moved to Yerevan, nor even their old address in Kirovakan (Gharaklisa). He was only able to put on the envelope the barest facts namely the family name and his father’s first name and the name of the town where he thought the family was likely to be.
By amazing chance, an employee at the post office where the letter came happened to know the family and that they had moved too Yerevan, and passed on the letter to them. So, that was the beginning of a family reunion after all those years and the start of more correspondence between Andranik and other family members, all of whom were still alive, in Yerevan.
In the Autumn of 1965, Andranik arrived in Armenia to attend the wedding of his younger brother Alyosha’s daughter, so after 46 years of separation, the members of the family were reunited.
They had much to discuss, and re-lived the emotional traumas of the whole period going back to the genocide of 1915 besides WW1 and its aftermath and WW2. But at least they were all alive and the occasion was a happy one.
There was to have been another family reunion. It was agreed between the two brothers (Andranik and Alyosha) that Andranik would travel to Armenia again, with his wife Dori, in 1970, for the wedding of Alyosha’s son Yuri (who told me this amazing piece of family history), sadly though before that could happen Andranik passed away, in January 1970.