by Wally Sarkeesian
Watch Son of Dikranagerd Onnik Dinkjian; the romantic Armenian singer explains how singing in church in Paris helped him to keep Western Armenian songs and music alive in the diaspora interviewed by Wally Sarkeesian.
Son of Dikranagerd
He was born Jean-Joseph Miliyan in Paris, France in 1929, the son of Garabed and Zorah from Dikranagerd (Diyarbakir), who both escaped persecution during the genocide. He and his sister, two years his senior, were orphaned five years after his birth. Garabed died when Jean-Joseph was not yet one year old.
They were adopted by his godparents, Nishan and Oghida Dinkjian, who were also from Dikranagerd, and continued to live in Paris. Growing up he learned not only fluent French and Armenian, but also the melodious dialect of Armenians from Dikranagerd.
Nishan Dinkjian went to Paris from Aleppo and worked various menial jobs before he fell into the wholesale banana business. When fruit became scarce after the war started in 1939, he went into clothing sales to support his family.
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Although Onnik’s schooling was in French, he attended Armenian school once a week.
“We didn’t have French school on Thursdays so my parents enrolled me in the Armenian school,” he said. “It was just a big room with an Armenian teacher and maybe a dozen students.”
His Armenian writing skills, especially, came in handy years later when he was serving in the U.S. Army.
“If it wasn’t for me writing Armenian letters to my parents, they would have been very unhappy because they couldn’t yet read and write English since we just came to America,” he said.
Onnik first began taking an interest in music when he went to St. Gregory’s Armenian Church in Paris for the first time at the age of 10. Every Sunday he would need to take two metro rides to get there. The sacred hymns of the liturgy sung by the choir and soloists aroused something within him that would change his life forever.
“I absolutely fell in love with the music,” he said. “This is what brought me into the Armenian Church, not necessarily as a religious person but as a lover of the Armenian music.”
As time passed the choirmaster, Baron Nishan Serkoian, allowed him to sing small parts on occasion. But Onnik found him to be intimidating, and he wasn’t alone.
“Serkoian ran that church with an iron fist,” he said. “Even the priest that was going to do the service was nervous. We had three resident priests, and each Sunday one of them would do the Mass. And that particular priest had to come to rehearsal to make sure he would sing in tune and so on. But that’s how he ran the church, and that’s how it should be run.”
Just before he and his family left France, Baron Serkoian permitted Onnik to sing one verse of “Der Voghormya” during what would be his last church service at St. Gregory’s.
“That was one of the highlights of my life,” he said. “I had a rash after that because I was sweating so much. To be able to sing in Paris in that beautiful church, where the sound was like heaven, the acoustics—you could just whisper and you could hear it.”
New York, Boston, California
At the age of 17, in July 1946, Onnik and his family moved to the United States, Nishan Dinkjian’s two sisters had settled. They had been separated during the genocide but desired to live in close proximity with one another. Onnik entered the U.S. with his given name, but would later change it legally to Onnik Dinkjian in honor of his adoptive parents.
One of Nishan Dinkjian’s sisters, Azniv Keuredgian, had been living in Bridgeport, Conn., where the family stayed for some time. His other sister, Makruhi Sarkisian, tragically died only two months before their arrival.
While Onnik was learning English, he could only find work doing manual labor. The family moved to New Jersey where his father opened a little dry cleaning store.
Later Onnik found a job working in the laboratory of a soap factory. They continued struggling along until finally opening a dry cleaning store in New York City.