“Some journeys can only be made with inner peace, a wounded child’s memory can never be healed”.

  • by Western Armenia, March 22, 2024 in Presidential Council
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We have learned of the death of Mr Stéphane MARGOSSIAN, himself a citizen of Western Armenia and father of our President of the Republic of Western Armenia, Mrs Lydia MARGOSSIAN.

At the age of 91, after several months of a tough battle against illness, Stéphane passed away, and our President told us, "he has returned to Western Armenia, the land of his ancestors". 

So we wanted to better understand the background of this family, which has shaped the personality of our President Lydia Margossian.

From the outset, it was Western Armenia.

Under the orders of the young Turkish government and according to a plan drawn up in high places, hell was about to break loose on the Armenian population of the town of Marash.

In the midst of the turmoil, a little girl called Sirvart, aged 4, lost and with nowhere to go, was kidnapped, put in a sack and carried on horseback by a compassionate man to save her. It was a bitterly cold winter and her foot, sticking out of the sack, froze.

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My grandmother Sirvart at the Tebrotzassère School, seated bottom left. Her age is indeterminate. She will never know.

For many years, she was moved from orphanage to orphanage before finally arriving in France in the town of Raincy near Paris at the École Tebrotzassère [1]. Throughout her childhood, youth and entire life, she mourned the loss of her parents. At school, there were only a few olives and a little bread to eat, but that was not the most important thing. The school ensured the transmission and preservation of Armenian culture by teaching the language and history to these children who were to be adopted. When she was a teenager, a benevolent English family wanted to adopt her but refused. As the seasons went by, other opportunities to be placed presented themselves to the young girl, who turned them all down. In her eyes, France had become her only country of adoption.  She was then introduced to a young man who was humble, thoughtful and keen to found an Armenian home, and she agreed to become the wife of Édouard Margossian.  He was originally from Sivrihisar[2].

The young man had also suffered. He had witnessed the deportation of Armenians. However, his family had been spared because his father worked for a German railway company that protected its employees and their families. As he was sometimes sent on missions to different towns, little Edouard would wait on the platform bench at the station for his father to return. One day, he waited until dawn, but his father never returned. He learned later that he had perished in the explosion on the train that was due to take him back to Eskisehir station. Turkish soldiers had blown it up by mistake, thinking it was carrying Greek soldiers, when in fact it was carrying only civilians and Turkish soldiers.

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The Oddo camp in Marseille

In the twilight of the Genocide in 1923, the Margossian family landed in France. Edouard, then aged 13, was assigned number 2350 at the Oddo camp in Marseille, where the French authorities marked his Nansen passport "stateless". There, like many of the Armenians who died, he contracted tuberculosis but miraculously escaped. Like many of the survivors from his village, he dreamt endlessly of returning to Eskisehir and couldn't escape the nostalgia of sitting on the station bench where he had waited for his father, seeing the house where he had grown up and played, but he never went back. The trauma was too great. Some journeys can only be made with inner peace, a wounded child's memory sometimes never heals.

My paternal grandparents started a family and settled in Bron, near Lyon. I was born the granddaughter of survivors, lulled throughout my happy and tender childhood by this culture that was passed on to me about the rich values of a people now in diaspora, and about my duty never to forget that children two generations earlier were massacred.

As a child, I remember the stories told to me about the immense cruelty inflicted on the Armenian people. I can still hear my grandmother Sirvart recounting the sordid deeds she had witnessed: "Before being hanged by the hair, the Armenian women had their breasts cut off, which the Turks had used to make necklaces that their wives would wear proudly".

When I was 6, I remember the tears that ran down my grandparents' cheeks when Charles Aznavour sang "Ils sont tombés" for the first time. Too many raw emotions and too many terrifying memories rose to the surface.

A few years later, the school teacher asked us to draw up our family tree. Unlike my French classmates, who had long-branched trees, and to my great despair, I was unable to go back any further than my grandparents, although I did not understand the cause of this gap and became exasperated with my mother, who was unable to provide me with any precious information.

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The Margossian family in 1943. From left to right Édouard Margossian and Sirvart Margossian. In the middle, my father Stéphane Margossian. Seated in the front row on the right is Édouard Margossian's mother, Nevart Margossian.

When I was a teenager, my mother urged me to read "Un poignard dans mon jardin" by Vahé Katcha and then "Les 40 jours de Musa Dagh" by Franz Werfel. I had to go through those long pages of humiliation and atrocities inflicted on the Armenian people. The condition of women particularly revolted me: humiliation, abduction, rape. Through these books, my mother Dirouhie awakened my Armenian identity and played a fundamental role in the transmission of memory and identity. Alongside my French culture, I was reappropriating the history and culture of my origins.

At 16, I wanted to understand the world and the best way to do that, according to my economics teacher Mr Boidart, was to read Le Monde Diplomatique. The first article I came across was an article on the holocausts of our century by Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel[3]. On reading this article, I put horrible legal words to the suffering of my grandparents: genocide, holocaust, statute of limitations, international sanctions, impunity...

Esquivel said: "Genocide is a crime against humanity and the worst of all crimes against the State. The tragedy of the Armenian people cannot be considered as an isolated and distant event; it concerns the whole of humanity and each individual human being". I understood the magnitude of the misfortune that had befallen my people, but which had also befallen other peoples who were victims of the same barbarity. This was the starting point of my political awareness and my commitment to the Armenian cause.

At the age of 25, at a conference, I had an extraordinary encounter with one of the leading specialists on the Armenian question, Professor Arthur Beylerian. At the expense of a comfortable life, he devoted his life to the search for the truth by working on archives in libraries all over the world. He offered me his book[4] and reinforced my desire to work on the Armenian question. We became great friends and began a collaboration that was to last around ten years. Mr Beylerian introduced me to the work of a historian and, immersed in the archives, I made some valuable discoveries. Sadly, Mr Beylerian died on 29 March 2005 and I was outraged to see that so few people attended the funeral of one of the most illustrious experts on the Armenian Question, Ottoman history and Turkish history in the 19th and 20th centuries, and one of the few experts on the ancient Turkish language.

Now living in Switzerland and a teacher by profession, I am infinitely grateful to the French Republic for taking in my grandparents.

I am infinitely grateful to the French state school system for having educated me and enabled me to meet some admirable teachers, without whom I would not have been able to progress and work on the Armenian question.

I am infinitely grateful to my grandparents and my parents for wanting to found an Armenian home.

I am infinitely grateful to my mother for having played the role of transmitter of identity and memory that I believe every mother should play.

I would now like to say to you young people: immerse yourself in the search for your identity and the knowledge of history. There is no nobler cause than the defence of a just cause: that of recognition and reparation for the genocide committed against the Armenian people. "The duty of memory is the duty to remember: life has lost to death, but memory wins in its fight against nothingness"[5].

Following the example of the Bulgarian philosopher and historian Tzvetan Todorov, let us defuse the pain caused by memory and open up this memory to analogy and generalisation, and make memory a memory of justice, because justice is born of the generalisation of the particular offence. "The essential thing is to re-establish truth and justice. Truth in itself is not a moral value, but being prepared to tell it in public is one of the highest"[6].

Isn't that the least we can do for our ancestors and for that little girl crying alone in the midst of chaos?

The truth is ugly, said Nietzche, but those who refuse to look it in the face and refuse to deal with the past by regarding the Genocide as an event of little importance are insulting humanity and collaborating de facto in Turkey's denialist policy.

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[1] The origins of this school date back to 1879 in the suburbs of Constantinople. Its initial aim was to train women teachers to teach in the remote provinces of Western Armenia. It was closed in 1895 by order of the Red Sultan Abdul Hamid. After the massacres of 1894-1896, which left 300,000 dead, it was reopened in 1909 during the extermination of the Armenians of Adana, with the additional mission of taking in very young orphans. During the genocide, the school's activities continued, but it was forced into exile in 1922, first in Salonika, Greece, then in France. Today, the school is celebrating its 135th anniversary and has over 200 pupils from nursery to collège, with a lycée planned.

[2] Sivrihisar is a town and district in the province of Eskisehir in Western Armenia.

[3] "Les holocaustes de notre siècle", Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Le Monde Diplomatique, November 1986.

[4] "Les Grandes puissances, l'Empire ottoman et les Arméniens dans les archives françaises: 1914-1918" Arthur BEYLERIAN, Sorbonne publications.

[5] "Les abus de la mémoire" Tzvetan Todorov, Arléa, 1995

[6] "L'homme dépaysé" Tzvetan Todorov, Seuil, 1996