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Now Embarking: An Artistic Interpretation of the 1947 and 1949 Armenian Repatriation

Now Embarking: An Artistic Interpretation of the 1947 and 1949 Armenian Repatriation
Repatriates in Yerevan 1950-51 with the Antaramian American Nash Ambassador (known as the car with the visor)
Repatriates in Yerevan 1950-51 with the Antaramian American Nash Ambassador (known as the car with the visor)

I was born in 1960, in Yerevan, Armenia, yet spoke little Armenian and what I did speak was Western Armenian. As a young child, I always wondered why I came from such an exotic place when my father was born in Kenosha, Wis., and my mother was from Lyon, France. Only after years of hearing stories did I realize that I was the product of two Armenian Diaspora post-World War II repatriate children, who were compelled by their father and mother’s emotive sense of hayrenik to leave one known cultural and ideological ground for another.

The post-WWII repatriation movements uprooted many Armenians from all over the world: France, Lebanon, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Bulgaria, Romania, Palestine, the United States, even some from Sudan, Iran, Iraq, India, Uruguay, Argentina and China. It was an orchestrated campaign to repopulate what fraction that remained of a vast land well-documented as the ancestral home of Armenians from the time of Darius the Great. But the repatriates were headed not to the romanticized, vast ancient land of their forebears, but to a “sovietized” Armenia under Stalin. It was a migratory event complete with personal and spiritual dispossession and cultural disparity.

The Republic of Armenia was in a state of extreme poverty after World War II. By November 1945, Stalin authorized the return of Armenians to Soviet Armenia with the incentive of bringing in new life in the construction, vitalization and economic development to a destitute Soviet Republic. Armenian nationalistic organizations, political parties and religious leadership organized efforts of the repatriation. The Armenian Repatriation Committee stressed the need to nationally support the country of Armenia while downplaying the reality that Armenia was now a Soviet-dominated country.

The basic repatriation story is riddled with individual twists and turns, but in most cases, there was a common thread: more often, a nationalistic, or at times, a socialist-leaning decision was made by a patriarch or a matriarch, who uprooted their family in response to an emotional global appeal encouraged by Soviet propaganda. The call to Armenians worldwide was a maneuver to attract young people of child-bearing ages; to secure skilled workers and professionals from developed countries; and to obtain new technologies and products. Encouraged by promises of free housing, land to build upon and job opportunities, those who left the Diaspora made their life-altering move with false hope. Upon their arrival, they witnessed unimaginable social and economic conditions, with no opportunity to leave the Soviet bloc Armenia or regain their confiscated citizenship papers. The collective social memory of many hayrenadartsner was one of betrayal and deceit under the guise of a patriotic call. Those who survived the times would later tell stories concerning backward social economics, disease, discrimination, psychological anxiety and physical brutality encountered under the Soviet system. Zabel (Chookaszian) Melconian, a 23-year-old New York native left the United States in 1947, to support her father’s decision to move to Armenia. After experiencing abysmal living conditions, she recalls trying to warn her relatives in America not to come to Armenia by sending them cryptic messages in outbound letters, which were routinely censored.

Scholarly articles, lectures and testimonial documentation have only begun to shed light on this period in Armenian history. Crosby Phillian, a native New Yorker, who left the United States in 1949, at the age of 16, says that “survival” was the sole mantra of many repatriates who when living in Armenia had to sell their personal belongings on the black market for a few rubles in order to eat for the week. The sale of goods on the black market became a ritual every Sunday. Anxiety-ridden akhbars were at the mercy of those who had some money and knew how to work the system. Phillian, who currently lives in France, also notes that the unwritten law in the Soviet Union at the time seemed to be standing in long lines to buy basic food items, such as bread, meat or cheese. Bursting crowds, arguments and physical fights were not unusual occurrences in these lines. There was even an occasional death. Phillian remembers when a man who was trying to simply buy some cheese was killed by a woman’s shoe heel striking his head.

My own personal memory of life as a child in Armenia is limited and untainted by the social conditions experienced by my elders. Later in my life, when I listened to family stories, I knew that there was a painful difference in the cultural experiences of my parents between the times they grew up as youth outside of Armenia and later as they matured during their formative years in Armenia. Upon reflection, I can only imagine the culture shock witnessed by those who grew up in the late 1940s in the United States, where the sounds of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra were popular, and the faces of Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Lana Turner and Loretta Young dominated the silver screen. To understand and to retell the story, I turned to ethnographic research and to my art. In 2010, I began personal interviews and the collection of family photographs, memoirs and travel papers. Based on these sources along with historical documentation, my interest was to capture this multi-faceted story through paintings, drawings and installation art, as an expression and interpretation of social experiences. When author and family friend Tom Mooradian visited Fresno in the Fall of 2009 (and then later in 2011), during the promotion tours of his memoir, Repatriate: Love, Basketball and the KGB, I found that we shared each other’s understanding that there were more personal histories that needed to be documented. But as I indicated to Tom, my goal was not to write people’s individual biographies, but to use imagery and text to narrate the story of the late 1940s repatriation within the manifold of twentieth-century Armenian history. Not only would I better understand my own early personal story, but I would be able to collect oral history to artistically interpret the culture shock, loss of freedom and the ideological turmoil that shaped the historical time of the akhbars.

In December 2011, I traveled to Paris, France, to make contact with old family friends who had repatriated in 1947 and left Armenia in 1966. Stories about the post-war departures from France to Armenia were convoluted, depressing and at times surreal. Over six decades have passed since a bizarre stand-off at the Marseilles port just days before the Russian repatriation ship set sail on December 24, 1947. Stranded aboard the Pobeda, 300 French-Armenians awaited their travel plans. They were denied permission by French authorities to sail from Marseilles and subsequently told to disembark. The ship eventually set sail with 1,122 Armenians, without the 300 French-Armenians who the French considered part of their citizenry. Twelve-years old at the time, Virginia (Hekimian) Antaramian, who was born in France to foreign born parents, recalls several sketchy events of that day. She remembers being surreptitiously guided to the ship by her communist Uncle Hagop Chiljian like many other French-born children of French-Armenians, then waiting in hiding onboard expecting to be joined later by her parents. For the French, who lost many citizens in the war, it was a matter of safeguarding their young populace. Virginia heard about other children who were placed in a similar situation. They were covertly taken to the main ship in small boats in the middle of the night to get on board without knowledge of the French authorities, or were carted in large crate boxes to the Pobeda. Ultimately, those who were not originally given permission to sail from Marseilles were allowed to leave France.

In March 2012, I took my second journey to collect stories and photographs for my project. I went to Yerevan to visit an old family acquaintance and her family. She was not part of the repatriation, but during her younger years she had befriended many Armenians who came from America and France. As we gathered for our evening meals, neighbors or workplace friends, people who either remembered stories of repatriates or were themselves children of repatriates but never had an opportunity to leave the country, came to tell stories. The most interesting stories shared were those of the unrecognized contributions in technology and specialty trades that Armenians from the diaspora made to Armenian society. All in all, the cosmopolitanism of Yerevan was born from those Armenians who came from the outside.

I have just begun my artistic journey of the postwar Armenian repatriation. From my visits thus far I have collected over 45 black and white photographic images of repatriate children and families taken in Armenia from 1947 to 1966. The photographs collected are to be complied in a database for my artistic interpretation as well as archival documentation. In a mélange of drawings, paintings and installation art scheduled for exhibition in Spring/Summer 2013, the imagery will be used to interpret the cultural, social and economic situations of that period. I am also documenting short stories that narrate the circumstances and emotions of the people who experienced the events during this particular episode in Armenian history. Clearly, it is another facet of the social aftermath of the Armenian Genocide.

(Hazel Antaramian-Hofman is interested in collecting more photographs and interviewing more people for their stories. If readers are repatriates or know of others, they can contact her at hazelantaramhof@yahoo.com, with “repatriate project” in the subject line.)

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