Editor’s Note: President Biden on Saturday recognized the mass killings of Armenians more than a century ago as genocide, The late Sharon Litwin, co-founder of ViaNolaVie, sat down with the Louisiana Armenian community to talk about just that in 2015. Sharon’s deep connections into so many aspects of the community and her awareness of topical issues are reflected in a conversation that remains relevant today. — Renee Peck
Tamar Gregorian and Vasken Kaltakdjian are two locals who trace their heritage to Armenia, one small, very ancient country that has survived unimaginable catastrophes and efforts to destroy it. They and the 300 other Armenian-American families in Louisiana live with a common tragedy, one that binds them all. It is a tragedy they cannot forget.
One hundred years ago this month, the beginnings of Armenia’s worst disaster took place when several hundred Armenian intellectuals were executed by the Young Turks, a group of military officers who had seized power from a collapsing Ottoman Empire. It was near the beginning of the First World War, a time of international chaos and conflict. For Armenia, a country that had embraced Christianity as early as 301 A.D, there followed a systematic purging of 1.5 million of its citizens, from a population of 2 million in 1915 to fewer than 400,000 by 1922.
By the end of World War I, worried that Turkey would attempt a takeover, Armenia’s leaders chose to become a republic within the Soviet Union. It remained so until 1991, when Armenia declared itself independent.
For the seven-year period of the genocide, those who could escape the killings and the starvation made their way to Syria, Lebanon, even Persia. As the decades passed, those with families in the United States decided to join them.
Tamar Gregorian is a first generation Armenian-American born and educated in New Orleans. Owner of her own public relations firm and member of the adjunct faculties of both Tulane and Loyola Universities, she is committed to the Armenian diaspora.
“Nowhere in my text books growing up did I ever learn about the Armenian genocide,” she says. “I had to learn from my family, from my grandmother, from stories about them leaving Turkey, them leaving Armenia.”
Often asked by friends and colleagues why she doesn’t let go of an incident that happened 100 years ago, she repeats her philosophy over and over to those who question.
“It’s not something you can let go of and move on,” she explains. “Because if you think about it, genocide is still happening, in Darfur, in Sudan, in northern Iraq, so there’s a piece of me that needs to make sure that it’s in those history books.”
It’s just as important to Vasken Kaltakdjian, who immigrated to Baton Rouge in 1977 to join an uncle. He was 17 and did not speak a word of English. He was confronted with a lifestyle that was light years away from that of Damascus, a city of 5 million people. But soon his parents and siblings joined him in Baton Rouge.
The family tried their hands at a number of occupations. Vasken says they were not successful at the beginning. But all worked hard, first opening and then selling a series of Pizza Kitchen restaurants in New Orleans, then opening a group of restaurants called Serops in Baton Rouge. They offered, and still do, the first Mediterranean cuisine in the state.
For Vasken, it was important to educate Louisiana’s legislators about Armenia, its past and its present. It was equally important to do all that he could to keep the ancient Armenian culture alive in Louisiana. In his youth in Damascus, he recalls, all the Armenians lived in one section of the city. They had their churches, shops and community centers there. He felt, he said, a hole in his heart that there was no such space in Baton Rouge. So he purchased a building and built a church for the Baton Rouge families. And then he got the permission and permits to create a cemetery in the rear for all the Armenians in the state.
He was 40 years old before he made his first trip to the country of his ancestors, a country recently separated from a Soviet Union in flux. Armenia’s new-found independence became an opportunity: For Veskan to help the homeland of his ancestors by bringing Armenian products to the American market and American expertise to Armenia.
“Always we knew the homeland was Armenia,” Vasken says. “It was the duty of every Armenian to help there because they went through a lot hardship. The Soviet Union was breaking down to pieces. There was no money. I felt a duty as an Armenian to help in some way.”
For all his efforts, Vasken was recently awarded the highest honor a non-resident can receive, a medal bestowed on him by Armenia’s president. On April 24, Vasken traveled to Yereven, the capital of Armenia, where, as a guest of the government, he observed the ceremonies marking the centennial of the genocide, one Turkey has yet to recognize.
“There are 22 countries around the world that recognize the Armenian genocide,” Vasken says. “It’s very important that many more countries, especially the United States, also recognize it because we want to make sure nothing like this will happen again.”
For Tamar, who works year-round for the advocacy of the Armenian genocide, it is not at all surprising that New Orleanians are willing to listen to her story.
“One of the reasons my parents moved here (from Los Angeles) and one reason my dad fell in love with New Orleans is because they are accepting of different cultures, different people. You know your English doesn’t have to be perfect; your food just has to be good.”
Vasken, grateful for all that this country has done for his people and for his family, will continue being an advocate for his ancestral homeland, continue being a liaison between America and Armenia.
“This country is full of opportunity,” Veskan says of his adopted country. “We all believe we have to work to earn our living. This country will provide if you are willing to work. What we have here, it’s not possible to have in other countries. A lot of Americans don’t understand how fortunate they have it. They have no idea that this is the best country in the world.”