By MAUREEN O’DONNELL S
Chicago Sun-Time Helen Paloian, believed to be born 14 years before women got the vote and six years prior to the sinking of the Titanic, was one of the few people left in the world to have witnessed what’s been called the first genocide of the 20th century.
Deportations, forced marches, massacres and starvation befell Armenians in 1915 after a political coup in Turkey by the so-called “Young Turks.”
In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times around her 100th birthday, Mrs. Paloian remembered when Turkish soldiers forced everyone from her village in the Armenian province of Kharpert. She said she begged on the streets for food, grubbed for roots and ate grass “like a chicken.” Sometimes, she received bits of bread from kindly Turkish people.
“Be happy,” she liked to say. “Hope and pray. Love.”
She died Oct. 24 at Midwest Palliative & Hospice CareCenter in Glenview. Her family’s research puts her birth year at 1906, which would make her 108. A Sun-Times check of records lists birth years for Mrs. Paloian ranging from 1898 to 1910.
“She was one of the few survivors left in the world who could remember in detail all the horrors,” said Richard G. Hovannisian, a Guggenheim fellow and professor emeritus of Armenian history at UCLA. “She spoke with a strong and assured voice, shared her amazing story without rancor and, throughout it all, displayed a wonderful sense of humor.”
She might have been the oldest survivor in the United States, according to Marc Mamigonian, director of academic affairs for the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research in Belmont, Mass.
The super-ager, who was living at her son Matthew’s Northwest Side home until June, attributed her longevity to happy thoughts and prayer — and not smoking or drinking. A year ago, she was still attending St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church at 6700 W. Diversey, where, if she didn’t grasp the sermon by Father Aren Jebejian, she’d tell him right out, “I don’t understand your point.”
Until she was about 104, Mrs. Paloian did the cooking for her caregiver. And she liked working the Rubik’s cube she received from her neuroscientist grandson, Robert Ajemian of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She still had her own teeth. A hip broken in four places healed nicely when she was around 98. She survived two heart attacks. During one, she walked down two flights of stairs because she didn’t realize what was happening, said her granddaughter, Marianne Ajemian.
At physical therapy, Mrs. Paloian could get feisty, especially if she was tired of being urged to take a few more steps. “Don’t start your business with me!” she’d say.
In the 1920s, to improve her odds of getting into the United States, she took a detour to Cuba, where she entered into a sham marriage with an Armenian-American, Zadig Paloian. Then, they fell in love. The marriage lasted 55 years, until his death.
Women don’t have to do what their husbands say, she would say: “Zadig always said, ‘Vote Democratic.’ I said, ‘OK,’ but I vote Republican.”
She never knew her parents, who died when she was very young. Relatives cared for her until her village was ordered emptied, said family historian Charles Hardy. Two of her brothers were conscripted into the Turkish army, and one fled to America. None was heard from again.
At one point, she recalled, Turkish soldiers took her and other children to a church packed with Armenians. The women feared the solders would set the church on fire. She decided to escape.
“I jump from the window,” she told the Sun-Times. “No stocking, no shoe, nothing. They don’t catch me because I’m little girl.”
Jacob Hardy — a first cousin of Mrs. Paloian and the father of Charles — was living in Tennessee when he dreamed young Helen’s mother, Mariam, visited him in their ancestral orchard. “She showed him the last rose in the garden and told him to pick it and take it with him,” Charles Hardy said.
The next day, Jacob Hardy saw her name on a list of orphans in an Armenian newspaper. “The rose,” Charles Hardy said, “was Helen.” Jacob Hardy retrieved her from an orphanage in Corinth, Greece and helped her immigrate to America.
She outlived her husband and two of her children, Mary and Lilly Ajemian. When Lilly died, she helped raise her granddaughters, Marianne and Geri Lyn Ajemian, who were 3 and 6.
Mrs. Paloian loved the White Sox. “She would whoop and holler at the TV whenever there was an exciting game,” her granddaughter said. She also liked to watch “Everybody Loves Raymond.” She cooked delicious lamb dumplings called manti and the Armenian pizza known as lahmajun and fragrant baklava and rice pilaf.
She is survived by a daughter, Lucille Ajemian; a son, Matthew Paloian; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Services have been held.
“She was a link to people and to places whose physical existence was destroyed in 1915 and in many cases only lived on in the memories of the survivors,” said Mamigonian.