When my mother found my grandfather’s notebooks, tucked away at the back of a bookcase, it changed my family’s life. My mother sat stunned at the dining room table, momentarily muted by the discovery. As she tried to translate it for me, sounding out her father’s writing, pressed inside the black and white speckled covers, the Armenian script proved too difficult for her. With the help of her elderly friends, though, we began to unlock the story from a century earlier, and soon unearthed two more journals in my uncle’s garage, detailing my grandfather’s courageous survival of the Armenian genocide.
As I read his pages for the first time, I couldn’t believe that the endangered protagonist who kept defying death was my own grandfather Stepan, and how close my family came to not existing at all. As a reporter, I’d spent my life telling other people’s stories, and ignoring my own family’s important testimony of the genocide that Turkey still denies occurred.
For the next decade, I delved into his life, and the result is The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey. Throughout it all, I felt like a detective searching for clues. And Ancestry was my magnifying glass, helping me fill in what happened to him in the last days of the Ottoman Empire when the government deported the majority of the two million Armenians, and drove more than half of them to their deaths. After the genocide, the survivors had fanned out across the globe, like ashes after a fire. Where exactly had they gone, along with their precious accounts? I searched Ancestry’s immigration, naturalization indexes, death records, draft records and birth certificates for my extended family and others from their hometown, along with their offspring. I travelled the globe, looking through libraries in multiple countries and found invaluable old documents so dusty that I coughed, and yellowed newspapers from the period so brittle that they broke when touched.
In the land where my grandfather had struggled, I retraced his nearly 1,000-mile odyssey across present-day Turkey and Syria. My Christian grandfather had survived because he’d escaped his caravan of thousands before they were slaughtered. Stepan had also lived because of a stranger’s kindness. A Muslim Arab Sheikh took him in, and gave him refuge, despite the Ottoman government’s rhetoric that all Armenians were dangerous people. During my visit to Syria, I found the Sheikh’s family and thanked them for bravely saving my grandfather.
A handful of years later, though, I watched in horror as Syria turned into a war zone, and the Islamic State rose up in the region I’d visited. My heart broke as the cycle of history repeated. One of the sheikh’s descendants made the perilous trip to Europe across the Aegean on a lifeboat. He’s now a refugee, happy to be alive, but facing discrimination just like my grandfather a century earlier.
Though I had filled in many gaps in my grandfather’s story, there were still so many pieces missing. Following the genocide, my grandfather’s family was desperate to leave. They had lost their home, life’s savings, belongings—everything— and the land around them had become a cemetery. My grandfather’s three younger sisters, and three nieces, were the first to immigrate to the United States through Ellis Island, but I didn’t know exactly when. After playing around with the spellings of their names, I finally pinpointed the date on a passenger manifest list: September 1, 1921 aboard the SS King Alexander. As my grandfather created a family of his own, more of his family left. With a growing urgency, he knew he had to secure a safer future for his wife Arshalous and his two daughters, Alice, and my mother, Anahid.
To get around strict quotas preventing my grandfather from fleeing Turkey and entering the United States, he paid a priest to forge his documents that he was born in Armenia. After a search on Ancestry, I discovered more about their trans-Atlantic voyage to the United States: both the ship’s name—SS Statendam—and its passenger manifest list. Not only that, but I was soon able to picture my toddler mother on the deck too. A photograph showed the hulking SS Statendam, with its multiple decks and three funnels, striped in green and white. My grandfather Stepan was so happy to arrive in this country, and feel safe, that he regularly played God Bless America on his accordion for the rest of his life.
My family knew his widowed mother, Hripsime, had fled Turkey too. My mother thought her arrival was after 1930; her older cousin Jack thought she had come before then. We pulled up her passenger manifest on Ancestry. Turns out, Jack had been right: Hripsime left Turkey in December 1927, arriving on New Year’s Day 1928. Her naturalization came with an alternative spelling, a common issue when names are transliterated from languages with foreign characters.
My grandfather passed away at the age of 88. In the end, he didn’t die in that faraway desert, like so many other Armenians, but was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, alongside Rudolph Valentino, Jane Mansfield and even Bugsy Siegal’s kissed-filled crypt. One afternoon, during a visit, my mother spotted the graves of some family friends, all genocide survivors, nearby. My mother bent and kissed the one marked with the name Heranoush. “Dawn, do you remember her?” I nodded. “Yes, I remember that she kept asking me when my wedding was going to be. Even when I was seven years old.” We laughed. ”See this date, Dawn?” asked my mother as she pointed to the date of birth. “It is a lie.” Then my mom explained how Heranoush and all her sisters forged their birth dates in order to appear more attractive to the American workforce—to appear younger. My grandfather had done the same, saying he was born in 1892, yet his real birth date, the one my mother had etched on his tomb, was 1886. Without my mother’s explanation, I would have thought the discrepancy was some clerical error on his naturalization form, not the concerted effort of a man who did everything to leave a place where so many friends and neighbors had been killed. The documents told one narrative, my mother’s recollection told another. I needed both to understand the complete story of my family’s past.
Learn more about the inspiring story of Dawn’s family in “The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey” on Amazon.