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BOOK REVIEW: A HAIR'S BREADTH FROM DEATH Armenian News Network / Groong August 8, 2005 A Hair's Breadth From Death: The Memoirs of Hampartzoum Mardiros Chitjian. Taderon Press London and Reading, 2003, 433 pages. ISBN: 1-903656-30-3 Distributed by Garod books. By Narini Badalian WATERTOWN, MASSACHUSSETS As 2005 marks the 90th anniversary of the Genocide, Armenians around the world have mobilized with greater intensity to commemorate what their ancestors were subjected to in the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, they condemn and combat the cruel and pervasive denial of the Genocide, which claimed the lives of over a million innocent victims. Most of us can understand the theoretical and conceptual frameworks of genocide. But what is it that was lost? One of the most indispensable sources of information for the experience of the victims and the life that existed for Armenians in the Ottoman Empire is survivor memoirs. Hampartzoum Mardiros Chitjian's memoir "A Hair's Breadth from Death" embodies the true pain and suffering of those dark years. Knowing statistics is one thing, but how such injustices, harsh deportations and senseless murders manifest, is what Hampartzoum provides us with a high sense of responsibility to detail and accuracy. But more than his years in the `inferno', as he describes his six year struggle to live in Turkey between 1915 to 1921, he writes with care and passion about his pre-genocide life, providing a deeper glimpse into the Armenian family, community and culture which had thrived for centuries and was suddenly uprooted in 1915. After fleeing his yergeer (country) via Iran, where he also met hardship, Hampartzoum found himself in Mexico and finally in Los Angeles where he led a more than modest life as a successful business man. He made trips to Soviet Armenia, Istanbul and around the United States to visit with other survivors, attending every Genocide commemoration his health allowed him to. In 1975, his daughter initiated an Armenian history and culture program in L.A.'s public schools. She asked her father to participate. Inspired by his daughter and her inquisitive elementary school children, he began the emotionally drenching process of digging into his memory and bringing to paper his life story. Hampartzoum Mardiros Chtijian provides what we expect and need from a survivor's account. His detailed description of his home, town, school, land resources and chores are impeccable. By the time you are through with Part I of the three-part tome, you can rebuild Perri, Hampartouzm's hometown in Kharpert. But more than the colossal wealth of information, whether it be the dimensions of the tools he used, like the logh to flatten the roof of his home before snowfall, the mesmerizing ouri (willow) trees across the landscape, or the way they used lamb ankle bones, as children, to play street games; you become so acquainted with Hampartzoum, his five brothers, three sisters, father, mother, paternal grandfather and paternal aunt, that you forget you are sitting in your living room in Watertown MA in 2005. You look around, searching for the 150 shops that studded the center of Perri. But the worst part about forgetting you're not in Perri is that there is no toneer, to bake lavash bread, in your home. Hampartzoum was 14 in 1915 and well aware of the precarious conditions Armenians subsisted in. His maternal grandfather had been beheaded in the 1894-1896 Sultan Abdul Hamid massacres. His two older brothers had been sent to America before 1915, as a precaution. One day, the school, which Hampartzoum attended and cherished, had been notified that it would be searched for revolutionary materials. The teachers were rounded up and told to warn the community to turn in all the weapons to the Turkish officials. A committee of teachers, priests and influential community members was formed. One priest was adamant to appease the Turks, and he went so far as to convert from an Armenian priest to an Islamic Mullah. I tried not to imagine other Armenians who might have converted with such ease. Some Armenians secretly bought guns in order to turn them in, thinking that this would spare them, unfortunately, it turned out they were wrong. The teachers and priests were the first to be beaten to death. Perri was a town with 800 Armenian, 100 Turkish and a few Kurdish families. Most of the shops in the center of town, owned by Armenians, were confiscated by the government and turned into make-shift jails where the Armenian males, including Hampartzoum's father, were brought and tortured. After days of torment he returned home, covered in dry blood stains. Advised by an Armenian who had converted to Islam during the 1894-1896 massacres, he took his four remaining sons to a Turkish orphanage where their names, language and religion were changed. These orphaned Armenian children were stripped of their identities by Turkish officials, their lives as they knew it were forever abducted. Hampartzoum's youngest brother was killed, as they had no use for him and the younger boys who constantly cried for their mothers. The older boys were forced to plunder the homes of Armenians (which by now had official Turkish governmental seals on them) and bring back the confiscated goods to the Armenian church, which was also stolen from the Armenians. After there were no homes left to pillage, the older boys were to be killed. Lucky boys, like Hampartzoum managed to escape. The rest of his family, who stayed in Perri as Armenians, were forced on a death march. When they reached a river, his father advised Hampartzoum's sister, because of her physical handicap, to throw herself in the river, knowing the Turks would take great pleasure torturing the helpless girl. I had to stop here and wonder what extremely dire circumstances a father would have to be in to direct his daughter to commit suicide. Hampartzoum, continuously resisting death, worked as a slave for Turks and Kurds, on farms, as a shepherd, sleeping in the stables, keeping warm from the animal manure, laboring hard torturous hours just for something to keep his stomach from collapsing. He saw one gruesome murder after another, corpses filling the gorges and rivers, people tied up to be scorched by the sun, and even children and babies who were not spared. Hampartzoum's heroism is evident through his chronicles. The chores and life he had been exposed to before the `inferno' proved quite valuable in his six year struggle escaping from Turkey. He saved countless lives, by stealing from a bakery where he worked to feed hungry orphans, caring for his tuberculosis stricken cousin, finding places for his brother and others to sleep and work. `I felt every Armenian that crossed my path was mine and I was theirs,' says Hampartzoum. In a devastatingly antagonistic environment, he put his life second to others. The extent of his sacrifice is evident through the following story. Hampartzoum was a slave in a predominantly Turkish village, Parchanj, where a gendarme lived across the street from him. This was in 1918-1919, when `ethnic cleansing should have subsided in accord with the new [Ataturk's] government decree. Instead it worsened. ...Throughout each and every day, the moonehdeegs (Turkish town criers) carried posters, chanting, `Anyone harboring an Armenian will be fined and jailed for five years with a chain around their neck.'' These words haunted him then and through the rest of his life. The gendarme who detested Armenians was, ironically enough, married to one. The gendarme's wife beleaguered Hampartzoum, perhaps more than anyone had in his life, harassing him by shouting "gavour boghee" (infidel s..t). A year later Hampartzoum was living in safer conditions in Kharpert where he found out that another government decree stated that Armenian slaves were to be freed from their Turkish and Kurdish masters. Hampartzoum, without anyone having asked him, set off back to Parchanj to save the Armenian girl who was a slave for the gendarme and his Armenian wife. It just so happened that the wife, who nearly got Hampartzoum caught and killed in order to save herself, needed his assistance to escape. Without a word he rescued her. Some time after this incident he was apprehended for no legal reason by Turkish officials and brought to a jail, where he was to be killed with 50 or so other Armenian boys. A gendarme was staring straight at him, and when Hampartzoum recognized that he was the gendarme from Parchanj, he knew he was too be tortured. By chance, the gendarme was ignorant as to how his Armenian wife had escaped and asked Hampartzoum to find her and bring her back, and Hampartzoum again escaped from death. As someone born in the early 1980's to a safe and secure environment, I found it admirable and inspiring to read of the courage of Hampartzoum in the face of overwhelming adversity. I found myself staring out my front door, imagining what it must have been like to live in constant terror. Society was no longer functional; not only economically, but more so psychologically. Hampartzoum, who came from a very devout family, writes: `you never survive from a genocide', although he did survive in one sense, the tragic years of his life tormented him forever, as is apparent from his own words that he suffered from survivors guilt: `We were completely defenseless!....My survival must have been a miracle, an act of God! But why weren't all of the other martyrs saved by the same means? I have never stopped questioning this dilemma... Did I escape only to relate my experiences as a living witness." He relates his experiences in this 433-page book, with over a hundred maps, photos and illustrations. The book, translated from Armenian under the supervision of Hampartzoum, meticulously supplied with details, was written with a purposefully `simplistic style' as Zaruhy, his daughter, has noted in her preface. With his straightforward style, you will have no difficulties in feeling Hampartzoum's honesty, passion for the Armenian people, his fears for the future generations and his quest for justice. I recommend this memoir, which is perhaps the last published by a living witness of the great calamity, especially to the younger generations. While this review stresses his years in Turkey during the Genocide, it must be noted that this is just part of the book, - a part that we are eternally grateful to the author for sharing with us. Yet, he does not by any means begin and end with the Genocide. The reader will find Hampartzoum's life before and after the `inferno' captivating. One can physically survive trauma, but how does one conquer the mental aspect, how does one go on and create one's own family? His determination, - not just to go on living, - but having endured inhumane acts, to go on struggling for humanity stimulated me to keep reading to try and understand this phenomenon. With a tremendous desire to see the Armenian nation unified, Hampartzoum reminds us that the Turks did not differentiate Armenians based on their chosen political affiliation, nor the church they attended (if they attended at all). He recalls the most memorable words of his father, which were true then and conceivably still true now: `They are going to eat our heads if we do not unite in our actions!' Hampartzoum is no longer with us, and will not see the day when the perpetrators of this vicious crime will face their past. But as the intensity of the 90th anniversary of the Genocide around the world attests, we will see the day. -- Narini Badalian, a native of Watertown, Massachusetts is a major in history at the American University of Paris, France. She graduated from the Genocide and Human Rights Studies program provided by the Zoryan Institute. She's a graduate of Melkonian Education Institute in Nicosia, Cyprus. Narini's articles have been published in various Armenian newspapers and she's currently working on publishing her memoirs about a trip she took through eastern Turkey.