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Armenian genocide resonates through three generations of Fresno family

Though he narrowly missed it, Sarkis Sahatdjian considers himself an Armenian genocide survivor.

“The average American doesn’t see what I see because they haven’t been through what I’ve seen: The aftermath,” he said.

The 95-year-old was the first-born son of two survivors who fled Armenia in 1918, settling with extended family in Fresno by 1924.

Next week San Joaquin Valley Armenians, along with those around the world, will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide: April 24, 1915. By its end in 1923, an estimated 1.5 million people were dead at the hands of Ottoman Turks. The Turkish government rejects the term genocide and despite more than 30 years of attempts by politicians and Armenian-American leaders, the United States government also has not officially recognized the massacres as a genocide.

As the population of living survivors diminishes, keeping the genocide alive becomes a task for their children and grandchildren. But the Sahatdjian family, now with three generations of native-born Americans, has found its significance resonates differently at each age level.

“I want my descendants to know that the world can be a dangerous place,” Sahatdjian said. “The family stories can be both cautionary and inspiring.”

Settling in Fresno

Sarkis Sahatdjian nearly became a casualty of the genocide.

His parents married in 1918 and relocated to what is now Istanbul, Turkey, after surviving death marches through the Syrian desert.

In 1922, Sahatdjian, a toddler, his brother Haig, a few days old, and their parents applied for passports to Buenos Aires, Argentina. A Turkish embassy official said they could leave with the baby but the 2-year-old would stay. Following the genocide, Turkey maintained a policy of “Turkifying” young children born in Turkey. Some Armenian children in orphanages there were forced to change their names, religion and language.

Afterward, an Armenian worker who overheard the interaction whispered to Sahatdjian’s father to go back and say the boy was born in Armenia. It worked; the family was allowed to leave intact.

They stayed in South America for more than a year, waiting for their U.S. immigration paperwork to be processed before moving to Fresno.

Sahatdjian grew up learning intimate details of the atrocities his family faced, such as the day two Turks beat his father up before one took out a revolver to shoot him. “The other one said, ‘Don’t waste the bullet. This guy is finished anyway.’ And that saved his life.”

He remembers learning how his aunt put dresses on two of her sons because boys were killed more than girls. He also recalls his cousin Adrine describing how her mother was beheaded in front of her for refusing a Turkish soldier’s proposition.

By the time his parents made it out of Armenia, they each had little family left.

Sahatdjian’s father ran a leather tannery and sewing machine distributing business in Armenia. In Argentina he repaired shoes. In the U.S., the family became migrants, working at canneries and packing houses in Fresno during fig season, Rio Vista during asparagus season and Yuba City, San Jose and Emeryville during peach season.

By 1928, they bought their first farm — 20 acres of vineyard for $6,000. Then the Great Depression hit, and the family spent years struggling to survive as farmers.

After finishing high school, Sahatdjian joined the Army Air Forces, serving in Guam during World War II as a military policeman guarding Japanese prisoners of war. After the war he married Iris, an Armenian woman whose parents left Armenia before the genocide, and returned to farming with the family. Sahatdjian’s father, facing a steep language barrier, never became the businessman he was in the old country.

“In a free society here I was able to do what I did,” he said. “My father brought it so far. He got into farming because he didn’t know the language.”

In 1963, Sahatdjian and his brother bought raisin processing equipment, placed it on 40 acres in Madera and named it in memory of their late father: Victor Packing. The business required all hands on deck. Sahatdjian’s wife Iris did payroll; their eldest child Victor and his high school friends worked as a clean-up crew; daughter Margaret and youngest child Bill joined in later.

Victor Packing remains a family business, also employing five of Sahatdjian’s 12 grandchildren. Looking back on the genocide makes Sahatdjian think of them.

“Why destroy people that could create something like this?”

Second generation

Margaret Shirin, 61, grew up with a deep sense of her family’s loss. Being Armenian gave her an appreciation for how delicate life is and a heightened fear of what the world can bring. She remembers her grandmother’s horrific tales of the genocide.

“She told me about seeing water and the Armenians rushing to drink and the military hitting the people with clubs to prevent them from getting water. Grandma went and was able to get some water, and some to bring back to the children. She was so bloodied that her sisters were asking each other, ‘Who is that young girl with blood running down her face?,’ not even recognizing her.”

Shirin sees a disconnect between her generation and her children’s reactions to the genocide. They didn’t have someone like her grandmother keeping it alive.

“These grandparents who went through this, I was really close to,” she said. “When there’s an eyewitness to it, it’s very vivid, very real. I’ve tried to tell my kids, but I can tell it’s not as real to them because they didn’t know her or my uncles.”

Despite being the youngest, Bill Sahatdjian, 55, is the most active of his siblings in the Armenian community. He is a deacon at Holy Trinity Armenian Church in downtown Fresno and is on the Armenian Genocide Centennial Fresno Committee. He also participates in community activism, marching for recognition of the genocide on several occasions.

Bill said his grandparents’ stories shaped his life. He sees strength in numbers, hoping that his individual involvement will help create change.

“I don’t want to see things get forgotten,” he said.

Bill has five children, the youngest age 21. He hopes they will get more involved in Armenian issues, but so far they have not.

Barlow Der Mugrdechian, coordinator of Armenian studies at Fresno State, said it’s a case of distance and human nature.

“Everybody’s story becomes less relevant,” he said. “You kind of want to live your own life. On the other hand, there are quite a few third- or fourth-generation Armenians that are pursuing the genocide issue because it’s a question of knowing who they are and where they come from.”

Third generation

Though all of Sarkis Sahatdjian’s children speak Armenian, none of his grandchildren know the language fluently.

“That’s where the word genocide comes in,” he said. “When they lose the language, little by little they disappear. We’re in America, which is a melting pot.”

Richard Sahatdjian, 33, said he is fortunate to have been able to learn from his grandparents’ struggles. He said it’s difficult to comprehend how a piece of history such as the genocide is not accepted as fact by the U.S. government.

“History is so dependent on politics,” he said. “That’s bothersome, I think, because it makes you question everything you’ve ever learned.”

But other than attending a few genocide-related events, Richard, whose father is Victor Sahatdjian (named after his grandfather), said he’s not that involved in the Armenian cause. Protest is just not in his nature, he said.

“It’s not my personal story, but it’s something I’ve heard all my life,” he said. “The way that I deal with it is to do my best to succeed. That’s the only thing we can do. We’re not powerful enough to make governments do things.”

Richard’s sister Kristina Surabian, 35, said knowing her family’s connection to the genocide makes her hyper-aware of what they endured so her generation could succeed.

Of Armenian culture and history, she said: “It’s our choice as the third generation to continue it. As fast as they started it, we can get rid of it, too.”

Surabian said it was important to her to marry an Armenian man and continue being involved in the Armenian Christian church. She also took Armenian language, history and culture classes in college, but is not directly involved in recognizing the genocide.

“What’s most important is we know who we are, we know the history of the genocide, we know the culture,” she said. “I hope to continue to preserve it and continue to talk about it with my children. I hope that it doesn’t go away. I don’t want that to happen.”

When Shirin’s daughter married a non-Armenian, her first reaction was “How could you do this?” Shirin said that’s not because her son-in-law isn’t a great guy, but because she was afraid her family’s Armenian culture would begin to fade.

Shirin said the family’s history is important to all of her children, but manifests differently in them than it does in her generation. Her youngest son, for example, took up a traditional Armenian instrument and is now in an Armenian band. “He has found his roots through the music and gone from being not active to quite active in the culture,” she said.

“Every generation does their best to pass along the story and their children do what they can with it,” she said. “You put it out there and do your part. Beyond that, you hope someone picks it up somehow.”

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