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Another Personal Account

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  • Another Personal Account

    A memory fading, forgotten and forsworn

    By Chrissie Long/Staff Writer
    GateHouse News Service
    Tue Sep 18, 2007, 12:43 PM EDT

    Newton -

    The first thing Peter Bilezikian said as he fell into a padded chair in his Lowell Avenue living room was, “I forgot all about it. I don’t want to even talk about it, and I don’t want to hear about it and I don’t want to see it.”
    The Newton resident has never been open about his childhood in the Armenian Genocide and, for his daughter, Bethel Charkoudian, who sat beside him, stories about the genocide always came in bits and pieces.
    “I’d have to pick and pick and pick,” she said one afternoon as she played through one-minute sound bites of his stories she had recorded over the years. “It was always hard to get him to say anything.”
    Now, more than 90 years later, he is one of the last remaining survivors of the genocide. His memories are slowly slipping away due to Alzheimer’s — and with it fades the collective memory of the massacres, soon to be buried in diaries and history books.
    While Charkoudian is trying to hold onto her father’s memories, there are others who are trying to forget: the perpetrators, the Turkish government, are among them.
    Fearing that it would alienate the Turkish government — which is in sharp denial that the killings were a genocide — the United States has not officially recognized the genocide of the Armenian people.
    For the thousands of the Armenian-Americans who live in the United States, the denial of their past is something they have to live with every day.
    “I feel betrayed by the United States government,” said Charkoudian, a Newton Corner resident who now owns her own business selling out-of-print books. “To say that it didn’t happen is the ultimate betrayal. We have no history. All of our books and all of our people were destroyed.”
    Charkoudian,like many sons and daughters of the genocide, desperately clings to any memories of Armenia, while her parents, and the world around them, are trying to forget.
    The Armenian Genocide was the planned extermination of a race of people between 1915 and 1923. The Turks perceived the non-Muslim Armenian minority as better educated, wealthier people who lived in nicer neighborhoods. Out of jealousy or out of fear, the Young Turks government determined that the Armenian people needed to be destroyed.
    Bilezikian was only 3 years old when the first neighborhoods of his hometown of Marash were emptied. His family’s vast orchards and vineyards were signed over to the Turks — along with anything else of value.
    Men were conscripted into the army — taken away from their families, never to be seen again. They came for Bilezikian’s 9-year-old brother, but his mother told them, “He is just out of diapers, how can you take him into the army?”
    Soldiers would march women and children on death marches through the desert until they died from exhaustion. Women were raped and unborn babies were ripped from their mothers’ wombs.
    Bilezikian’s mother escaped the marches only by going into hiding every time the soldiers came through the neighborhood.
    “My family was very fortunate,” said Charkoudian, Bilezikian’s eldest daughter. “They must have had a guardian angel.”
    Bilezikian remembers the carts that came through the neighborhood to pick up the dead bodies. He remembers the children standing in the streets with bloated stomachs and stick-thin legs. Also etched in his memory are the people who had tongues sliced from their mouths because they were caught speaking Armenian.
    But, he has left those memories in the past. Today, he walks through his house singing in Turkish and joking with his guests.
    Hidden wounds
    While Bilezikian has left his past behind him, he still bears the scars, one of which cuts through his scalp.
    He couldn’t have been more than 7, his daughter said, when he stood before an Armenian woman asking for a piece of bread.
    “You can’t have any,” she said. “This bread is for my children. They are hungry.”
    Just then, a bullet skimmed his scalp and pierced the woman in the forehead.
    Bilezikian gathered up the bread and, when he was finished eating it, he wasn’t hungry for two days, he said.
    “I asked him once, ‘Dad, why didn’t you feel compassion for that woman?’” Charkoudian said. “He responded, ‘If I felt compassion for everyone, I wouldn’t have survived.’”
    Hunger also scarred my father, said Charkoudian. “He says that because he was hungry then, he doesn’t feel hunger anymore.”
    Instead of going to school, Bilezikian would follow his brother to the mountains and shoot at the Turkish boys with old-fashioned slingshots.
    “They would mimic the conflict in the mountains,” Charkoudian said.
    An escape that came too late
    Bilezikian’s father left for the United States in 1914 — just months before the genocide began. Sensing something was going to happen, he wanted to prepare a home in the Boston area to bring his family over.
    Hatred toward the Armenians wasn’t new. Bilezikian’s mother had witnessed the murder of both of her parents in 1895, while hiding in her sister’s closet. Her name, Bethel Charkoudian, matches the name of orphanage in which she grew up.
    When the genocide began, Bilezikian’s father could no longer communicate with his wife or four children. They were left on their own to make it through the five-year extermination.
    Bilezikian’s mother, who was able to escape persecution because she looked like a Turk, worked in a local hospital to feed her children.
    One day, a wounded soldier came into the hospital wearing her mother in-law’s coat. When she asked him, “Where did you get that coat?”
    He responded, “We threw this giavour (infidel) into the oven and kept the coat.”
    Her mother in-law had disappeared on a trip to the bakery.
    Unable to show her emotion, Bilezikian’s mother had to leave the room.
    Bilezikian lost more than his grandmother in the eight-year genocide. His uncle and seven cousins were taken from their home and never returned.
    “I can’t name them all,” he said. “There were so many of them [who died].”
    The genocide ended in 1923 and the remaining Armenians were evacuated.
    Life in the United States
    Bilezikian left with his mother and his siblings and boarded an Italian ship for the United States.
    His family reconnected with his father in New York and they moved to Watertown, where Bilezikian eventually graduated from high school. He was offered a full scholarship to MIT, which he ultimately turned down in order to support his family.
    He founded Newtonville Electrical Company with his brother, Paul, in 1933, servicing customers all over New England and eventually growing to have 14 employees.
    Bilezikian moved to his home on Lowell Avenue in 1934. He married an Armenian-American and together they had three children.
    “He came here because people here knew what he went through,” his daughter told a room full of Armenian-Americans during a recent Human Rights Commission meeting. Due to urgings from her and others, the Human Rights Commission recommended the mayor end the city’s relationship with No Place for Hate, whose parent organization refused to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
    She said later, “Newton parents would tell their children, ‘Finish your meal, there are starving children in Armenia. People here understood where we came from. They were helpful and welcoming’.”
    “They loved us,” Bilezikian added.
    After his daughter had spoken, Bilezikian stood up — out of turn, but with no intention of waiting — and reminded the crowd that while the extermination was perpetrated by the Turkish government, many Turkish people fiercely protected their Armenian neighbors.
    “If it weren’t for the Turkish people, every Armenian would have been killed,” he said. “Turkish people hided a great many people.”
    A lasting memory
    While Bilezikian has made a conscious effort to forget his past, his daughter will not.
    “All of these stories peppered my childhood,” said Charkoudian, who records other Armenians’ oral history. “In fact, my name has allowed me never to forget. Whenever folks meet me, they ask me about my name — unusual, how did you get it? And so the genocide is often the second thing [after my name] that people know about me.”
    The tapes of oral history Charkoudian has recorded over the years are punctuated with her father saying, “Why do you want to talk about it? We don’t like to remember bad things.”
    Or, after a two-minute interview, “Well, you got a lot of information today. We’ll have to shut that off.”
    But Charkoudian has continued her careful prodding, piecing together the snap shots of her past.
    She said, Adolf Hitler once asked, ‘After all, who remembers the Armenians?’
    Chardoukian is determined to remember. She wants her children to remember. But most of all, she wants the world to remember.
    Chrissie Long can be reached at [email protected].
    General Antranik (1865-1927): “I am not a nationalist. I recognize only one nation, the nation of the oppressed.”