Caroline Melkonian Ylitalo stood next to a portrait of her ancestors from Armenia, gently holding an old comb and tarnished scissors in her cupped hands. The two items are the only remaining objects that once belonged to her grandmother, a survivor of the genocide of Armenians a century ago.
Her grandmother managed to keep the comb and scissors after being forced by Turkish soldiers into a death march to the Syrian desert. Now, 100 years later, their story will travel across Minnesota.
The items are part of an new exhibit designed to keep alive the memory of the 1.5 million Armenians who perished in what’s called the “hidden holocaust.” The exhibit, launched by St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul, features ordinary belongings of extraordinary people who somehow escaped death and whose descendants eventually made their way to this state.
“The family packed a donkey with their belongings, and these were the only things left after the Turkish soldiers confiscated everything from them,” said Melkonian Ylitalo, of Stillwater.
“Everyone in my family is very pleased that my grandmother’s story has a new chance to be told,” she said.
The exhibit, called Treasures of Memory and Hope, opened last week at St. Sahag church. It will travel to at least a dozen Minnesota churches, universities and other institutions in the year ahead, said the Rev. Tadeos Barseghyan of St. Sahag.
Its format is unusual, if not unique, for Armenian memorials, said Barseghyan, who said he will be encouraging other Armenian communities nationally to try something similar.
The exhibit was unveiled last week on the 104th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide, when Armenian Christians living in the Ottoman Empire were forcibly removed from their homes and killed or marched into the Syrian desert where they faced certain death.
Barseghyan held a candlelight ceremony outside his church to commemorate those who died. He then welcomed his congregation inside the church for the first viewing of the project.
“Your ancestors are going to tell their stories,” he told them.
How they survived
Their stories are told through a series of 6-foot-tall photographic banners portraying the treasured objects — a gold ring, a church hymnal, a hand woven vest — that endured the passage of history. When possible, a photograph of the person who once carried the object, or a descendant, accompanies it. How the objects ended up in Minnesota, a century later, is explained in a narrative that follows the owner’s survival story and eventual new life.
The precious objects came from treasured boxes in the closets and drawers of Minnesota’s Armenian community. Many attended the opening ceremony.
Karzouhi Ousdigian Balian, for example, is pictured holding a delicate, framed embroidery sewn more than 100 years ago by his grandmother. The narrative explains that she was spared death by the fact that she was carrying a thimble and scissors on the march to the Syrian desert, and was discreetly taken home by two Turkish women who needed a seamstress.
The Rev. Barseghyan also is featured holding a photograph of his great grandmother — but nothing belonging to her. The narrative explains that his grandmother’s most precious possession was the key to the house she was forced to flee during the genocide, and that she always believed she’d return.
“She was buried with the house key,” Barseghyan said.
Artyom Tonoyan, who photographed the project, watched people as they eyed the photos, sometimes reaching out and touching the faces of ancestors they never knew. For him, the exhibit was a labor of love more than a photographic assignment. An associate researcher at the U’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, his only personal tie to his grandparents who endured the genocide was a photograph.
“Both of my grandparents grew up in an orphanage and we didn’t have a keepsake from the old world,” Tonoyan said. “This was my way of creating an homage to my grandparents.”
Lou Ann Matossian, who brought with her a small fringed purse belonging to a woman killed in the death march, said the objects add to the ever-growing exploration of Armenian history and culture in recent decades.
“Many of us growing up had little fragments — a story, an anecdote, a remnant — of what had been an entire culture,” she said. “We’re putting together the mosaic and telling the stories. These are real stories, real people, and here in Minnesota.”
The project was inspired by the “Transfer of Memory” project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, a touring exhibit of portraits and stories of Holocaust survivors, said Barseghyan. Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish council, said both projects are important tools to educate and inspire.
“We’re highly honored to work with the Armenian community, recognizing the congruences of our histories,” said Hunegs. “The ‘Transfer of Memory’ has been an effective exhibit in teaching history of the holocaust, and we expect a similar outcome for ‘Treasures of Memory and Hope.’ ”
The Armenian exhibit will be on display at St. Sahag church for several weeks, with hours listed on the church’s website. It also can be viewed online. The exhibit will travel to the Basilica of Saint Mary, the Museum of Russian Art, Bethel University and other locations in the year ahead.
Churches, schools and other organizations are welcome to host the exhibit, said Barseghyan, who hopes the stories of genocide survivors will not just educate Minnesotans, but offer hope and inspiration.
“We died, but our story did not end in the grave,” said Barseghyan. “There is a new beginning.”