By Frederick Melo
When violence destroyed her town and forced young Ankin Hovhannisyan onto a brutal desert road, the child joined thousands of other refugees in crossing the Turkish-Russian border, holding on all the while to the house key she assumed she would someday need to go back home. She would grow up, marry a fellow orphan and die in Soviet Armenia, buried with the key in her arms.
In the spring of 1915, during the fading years of the Ottoman empire and on the eve of World War I, Armenians were lined up by the tens of thousands, forced to leave Turkey and marched hundreds of miles through the unforgiving Syrian desert. Estimates of the dead from the march alone have surpassed 500,000. Overall, the Armenian Genocide killed at least 1.5 million people, or about 75 percent of the entire ethnicity.
“There were concentration camps along the route,” said Artyom Tonoyan, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “A town crier would yell, ‘Armenians, gather your stuff.’ They’d be put on carts, sometimes on trains, but most of the time just walking them under the scorching sun. Many died along the way. Dig two inches into the ground, and you’ll find an Armenian bone.”
The Armenian Genocide is now widely regarded as one of the most systematic exterminations of an ethnic group in modern history. There are no known survivors left in America to tell the tale. Instead, after decades of censorship during the Soviet era, that work has now fallen to their descendants, including Hovhannisyan’s great-grandson, Father Tadeos Barseghyan of St. Paul’s St. Sahag Armenian Church in Merriam Park.
Barseghyan tells the story of his orphaned great-grandmother and her house key in an elaborate photo exhibit that has been touring the Midwest since April. Developed by — and largely shot — at St. Sahag, the “Treasures of Memory and Hope” features 55 oversized portraits of Armenian-Americans from the Twin Cities displaying the treasured items their ancestors carried during the death march of April 24, 1915 — a broken pair of scissors belonging to a family of tailors, a tunic, a Bible, a family picture.
Together with the images, 6-foot-tall banners feature printed stories of loss, persistence, displacement and rebirth. Somber liturgical music played on a duduk — a traditional reed instrument fashioned from an apricot tree — plays overhead at some exhibit locations.
“For the Armenian Genocide, we do not have survivors,” Barseghyan said. “The only thing we have left is these items, so we photographed the descendants holding them. It’s a memory, but it’s also the idea of the new life they created, and the examples of hope, the examples of courage. They were able to create a new life for themselves and for their families. It’s a new beginning.”
The photos, which were taken by Tonoyan, are also online at memoryandhope.org. The exhibit arrived at the Museum of Russian Art on Stevens Avenue in Minneapolis on July 20 and will remain there through Tuesday. It will be featured at the Basilica of St. Mary from Oct. 11 to Nov. 24, and come to the University of Northwestern in Roseville in February. Additional bookings are likely.
Tonoyan, who spent 18 months working on the project with some 30 families, said his grandparents met as orphans in Alexandropol, or modern Gyumri in northwestern Armenia. Dubbed by many as the “city of orphans,” Alexandropol was home to an estimated 40,000 children left parent-less by the genocide.
When St. Sahag issued a call to the region’s small but tight-knit Armenian community to participate in the photo project, families were all too willing to share their stories. Many had held onto the items that had survived the 1915 death march in their ancestors’ hands and had them readily available.
“They actually want to talk about the genocide, because it’s not so well publicized,” said Tonoyan, who conducted about a third of the shots in people’s homes. “For me, ideally, I wanted them to be in their natural habitat. I would hardly direct or pose them.”
Barseghyan said about 1,000 Armenian-Americans live in Minnesota. The first Armenians had arrived in the Twin Cities in the 1890s, and the first genocide survivor came to the state in 1919, drawing interest from a newspaper writer of the era. St. Sahag, the region’s first Armenian church, opened in 2001.
‘TREASURES OF MEMORY AND HOPE’
- What: Armenian genocide exhibit
- When: Through Tuesday
- Where: The Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Ave., Mpls.
- Info: tmora.org
- Plus: The exhibit will be at the Basilica of Saint Mary from Oct. 11 to Nov. 24; memoryandhope.org
- And: St. Sahag Armenian Church will host its second annual Water Festival at noon on Sunday on church grounds, 203 North Howell St. in St. Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood. An Armenian Festival will be held Sept. 14 and 15.
Frederick Melo was once sued by a reader for $2 million but kept on writing. He came to the Pioneer Press in 2005 and brings a testy East Coast attitude to St. Paul beat reporting.
- Source: https://www.twincities.com/2019/07/25/st-paul-church-at-heart-of-exhibit-that-remembers-armenian-genocide-in-photos-and-text/