www.Hadjin.com A Town No More

History Map Hadjin Family Names October 20, 1920 Keshishian Family Hadjin Photos


www.Hadjin.com A Town No More


By Ermance Rejebian

                                    Aurora – Oct. 15………

                                    The story of Vahram Rejebian is the story of many Armenians

                                    who migrated to the United States in search of the human

                                    dignity denied them in their own lands.  The age-old

                                    horror of genocide became a shocking reality to the

                                    modern world for the first time following World War I,

                                    when hundreds of thousands of Armenians were

                                    slaughtered by the Turks.  Sustained by his faith,

                                    perseverance and courage, the young Vahram was able

                                    to survive this holocaust and eventually – after two tries –

                                    make his way to the United States.


                                    Now an American citizen, successful businessman,

                                    and honored member of his community, Vahram Rejebian

                                    surely is the fulfillment of the American dream.  This

                                    story, seen though the eyes of the man Rejebian as

                                    he recalls his youthful pilgrimage to freedom, is his

                                    expression of gratitude to his beloved America. 




The road to freedom has no geographical or regional location.  It is a way of personal commitment.  Freedom is created by faith, service, character.  In a sense, it can be passed, like a fine work of art, from one generation to another, but essentially it is “of the spirit”.


For Vahram Y. Rejebian, the pilgrimage to freedom began somewhere around Hadjin, Turkey at a time when every external circumstance seemed to block the journey.  The trip was steep hills and sharp curves all the way.


This, of course, makes the story of The Pilgrimage to Freedom so fascinating to those of us who inherited our freedom, and have enjoyed it so easily.  The passage of years, and Vahram’s indomitable spirit, make it possible to chuckle at his tragedies; and rejoice with him in his painful journey.


For those of us who have known Vahram intimately, there is regret that this report has to end with his arrival in America.  The character and spirit which made the pilgrimage possible came into full bloom in subsequent years; for he considered his new found freedom not simply something to be enjoyed, but a cause to be served.


The immigrant boy from Hadjin became an honored leader in the city of Dallas, Texas.  A member of the Board of Directors of the downtown Lions Club, also on the Board of Directors of the Y.M.C.A., a twenty-five year veteran leader in the United Fund, and Chairman of the Official Board of Highland Park Methodist Church suggest the scope and importance of his leadership.


This story of his “pilgrimage” makes all of us appreciate our freedom more dearly.


                                                                                    Marshall T. Steel

Pilgrimage to Freedom

Ermance Rejebian



This is the story of a boy and his town, a story which illustrates the life of the Armenian in the early twentieth century.  It is an account of the events experience by millions of Armenians as seen in the life of one boy who miraculously survived deportation, massacre, starvation, and who, orphaned and penniless, found a new home and a new country in the land which has been the refuge of all the dispossessed of our modern world.  But in essence, this is the story of man himself, his relationship to other men, his love and his hate, his brutality and his compassion.  Above all, it is an account of the unconquerable quality of his spirit.


The story is timeless.  It has taken place whenever and wherever men have dwelt together.  It is happening today in many parts of the world and will be reenacted again and again as long as man’s nature remains the same and he fails to follow the precepts given to mankind by the great prophetic spirits of the race.


I shall begin my story with what should have been my epilogue but which I am using as my prologue, a journey that my husband and I made in 1959 to his birthplace, Hadjin, once a part of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia, and, since the fourteenth century, in the heartland of Turkey.  My husband had been telling me about Hadjin since the day we met and I had come to know this town of his, its terrain, its history, its people, and the poignant memories associated with it, but neither of us ever dreamed that some day he would revisit that town, or the site of it, for Hadjin itself was burned and destroyed by 1920.  Even its name was obliterated and replaced by its present Turkish name – Saimbeyli.


There is an instinct in man which draws him mysteriously to the spot where he was born.  Though we knew that nothing remained in Hadjin except memories better forgotten, still such is this human instinct that despite the foreknowledge of a Hadjin forever dead and buried, my husband felt the eternal longing to return to the place of his birth.  To do so was risky business for a former resident of Hadjin, even though that former resident was now a citizen of the great United States of America.  So when a dear friend of ours, an official of the Mobil Oil Company, offered to have the company’s landman in Adana drive us to Hadjin, 120 miles to the north of Adana, we gratefully accepted.


The Fourth of July, 1959, will live forever in our memory, for it was on that day that Ismet Bey, the Mobil Oil landman, took us up to Hadjin.  It was 7:30 in the morning when he came for us.  Realizing that we would not return to Adanabefore late afternoon, he had brought with him some of the delicious local bread along with cheese, fruit, and a thermos jug of water, for there were no restaurants or grocery stores along the way.  We set out, my husband strangely silent and subdued, traveling over a road he had not seen for forty years, fulfilling a dream which he had felt could never be realized.


The first stretch of sixty miles was rough but uneventful.  In the distance loomed the great Taurus mountains.  Now and then we passed the ruins of medieval castles, their towers standing like mute sentinels along the way.  Beyond the squalid little town of Kozan, ancient Sis, once the pride of Lesser Armenia, we began our climb over rough and rock-strewn roads, forever twisting and turning.  Throughout the last part of the drive which took over three hours, I sat holding on to the sides of the back seat, constantly thrown from one side of the jeep to the other.  We were traveling over the most rugged, wild terrain I have ever seen – formidable mountains of rock towering on either side, the air scented with the pungent fragrance of pine.  Ismet Bey drove carefully for we never knew what we would meet as we made a turn – perhaps some black-haired goats, a flock of sheep, a cow with her calf wandering leisurely along the trail, or a boy on his donkey looking startled as we came unexpectedly around the bend.


When Ismet Bey found a place where he could stop the jeep, we got out to rest, to feast on the bread and cheese and fruit, and to view the magnificent panorama of mountain peak rising upon mountain peak, and far below, the river which now appeared to be a silver thread winding its way through lush green vegetation.  The last thirty-mile stretch is impossible to describe.  We crawled along a narrow ledge hewn out of the rock on the left, with towering crags overhead and a precipice on the right dropping into a narrow gorge.  There were hairpin curves, hair-raising drop-offs, and always the terrifying possibility of coming face to face with another vehicle.


At one-thirty in the afternoon we reached the little stone bridge which leads into Hadjin.  Here my husband experienced his first pang, for the sign beside the road read SAIMBEYLI.  At long last he realized that the beloved Hadjin of his childhood had in truth ceased to exist, and would now live only in his memory.


Only two other former residents of Hadjin had returned since the town was annihilated in 1920, and from them my husband obtained the name of the only Turk left from former days still living in the area.  He asked some small boys who had materialized from nowhere the whereabouts of this man, and in no time at all he was standing at our side, an older man in ill-fitting clothes and on his head the ever-present cap which seems to be the modern Turk’s trademark.


With the amenities over, the old-timer took us to the slopes of the mountain where once had stood the homes of 28,000 Armenians.  There was nothing in the few remaining ruins to indicate that a large community had once thrived here.  We walked along a strip of cobblestone which had been the main thoroughfare.  At the top of a hill stood the ruins of the mother church and nearby were those of the Catholic and Protestant churches.  On the opposite hill rose the walls of the American Mission School.  We made our way to Kirdet where the life-giving waters of Hadjin gushed out of the rocks.  We wandered up a barren hill to where my husband’s home had stood.  Standing beside him on that desolate spot, all the tales I had heard from him through the years of our marriage came to life, and I began to relive with him the story of the boy and his town.


Hadjin owed its existence to its inaccessibility in the Taurus Mountains, slightly over a hundred miles northeast of Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul.  Here, at an altitude of 3,500 feet, the town had been built on the banks of the river which came tumbling down from the heights, continuing through this deep, narrow valley on its headlong plunge toward the sea.  From the beginning it had been called “The City that was Built in a Well.”  During the first decade of the twentieth century it had a population of 28,000 Armenians and approximately thirty Turkish families, a unique situation in the heartland of Turkey, for in some miraculous way this Armenian town of Hadjin had come down in an almost unbroken line from he ancient Kingdom of Armenia.


The Armenians, whom Lamartine called “The Swiss of the East,” and Lord Bryce “The British of Asia Minor,” came from a Phrygio-Thracian tribe, probably from Thrace or Thessaly.  They crossed the Bosphorus and reached Armenia, a land as old as time itself, the land of Mt. Ararat and Noah’s Ark.  They brought with them their Greek-like customs and Aryan language, and they prospered in their new home by tilling the soil.  Although much of this early history is lost in the hazy mist of antiquity, and the later history difficult to reconstruct, it is known that there were periods of great military activity and expansion, first in the sixth century, then in the first century before Christ when, under the leadership of great kings, the Armenian empire extended from the Mediterranean to the Caspian and from the Caucasus to Mesopotamia.  But inevitably Armenia became a battleground for the conflicting powers of Rome on the one hand, and Parthia and Persia on the other, and by degrees lost is independence.


There is one event of great importance to note here.  In 301 A.D., under St. Gregory the Illuminator, the Armenian king accepted Christianity and founded the National Apostolic Church of Armenia, years before Constantine saw the airborne cross.  Thus, Armenians were the pioneers in this massive religious revolution and Armeniathe first country in the world to accept Christianity as that state religion.  They paid dearly for their faith, in battles fought to preserve Christianity.  The Persian fire-worshippers were the first to come.  Then in 744 the Moslem Arabs appeared, initiating the oppression and massacres which would henceforth be the lot of the Armenian.  In 1080 the Seljuk Turks appeared, and with their arrival Armenia proper lost what semblance of independence it had been allowed to enjoy during the preceding centuries.  As a result of this conquest Armenians began a mass migration, some fleeing northward and others moving westward over the Taurus Range into Cilicia.  In the opinion of the German historian, Ritter, Hadjin was founded by those Armenians who, after the fall of Armenia, sought refuge in the high mountains and the inaccessible valleys of the Taurus Range.  Indeed, the Armenians of Hadjin spoke a strange dialect which resembled that spoken far to the east in what had centuries before been Armenia proper.


It was in this town that the boy was born in the spring of 1904.  The earliest memories he would carry with him through the years were happy ones, though poignant, enveloped in the euphoric haze of a childhood secure in the love of his family.  Of the agonies endured by his parents, of the massacres that raged when he was only five, he knew nothing.  His home and family were his world.  He would remember the tall mountain peaks surrounding his town, snow-covered the greater part of the year, and the blue broken skyline above.  He would remember the spur of the mountain extending into the valley, the town rambling up around it so that it was impossible for him to see the homes of friends and relatives on the other side of the slope.  He would remember the thousands of little beehive houses built one against the other, and tier upon tier, perched and clinging to the side of the mountain, the flat roof of one serving as the front yard and playground of the house above.  The steep, narrow streets zig-zagged heedlessly up and down.  He would see in his mind’s eye the government buildings below on the banks of the river, occupied by the few Turkish officials and their families.  And he would remember with delight the family baghtche, the vegetable garden and orchard beside the river, and the family vineyard high up on the opposite slope of the mountain.


Forced to leave his home and his town at the age of eleven, the boy would cherish throughout a lifetime the shadowy memory of his parents.  His father was tall, a handsome man with thick black hair and a luxuriant moustache.  He had the kindest eyes the boy had ever seen and gentle ways about him.  In his company the boy felt secure from the stern discipline of his mother.  He owned a farm on a plateau a day’s journey from the town, cultivated by a Turk who shared in the crops of wheat and barley and the other products which supplied the family’s needs.  In addition, his father had a store down in the Cilician Plain, and there, as a merchant, he lived from October through May, leaving his family in the care of his wife. 


If the boy would remember his father for his gentle and affectionate ways, the memory of his mother would be of a loving but stern disciplinarian who, in the absence of her husband, had to be both father and mother to her family of five children, for the boy soon had two brothers and two sisters.  Although her role was subordinate to that of the male and the older women of the family, especially the mother-in-law, she managed her household with a firm and capable hand.  Treasured family pictures of her show an attractive, modishly gowned young woman.  She was intelligent, an able housewife, a good seamstress and needle woman, and a faithful and active member of the Protestant church.  In an age when women were expected to manage only their own homes, she transacted the business of the family farm during her husband’s absence.


Her father was one of the most prominent men in town, an influential leader of the community and of the Protestant church which had been established with the help of the American missionaries in 1880, and of which he was a charter member.  He was a short, powerfully built man.  In his old age when I came to know him in Pasadena, he was an impressive figure, reminding one of his immaculate attire, white goatee and moustache, of Clemenceau.  In those days he came to be known as the Patriarch of the Hadjintsis – the people of Hadjin – and the great heritage he passed on influenced his grandchildren, especially the boy.


He was a man of substance and maintained two homes, one in Hadjin and the other in Adana, where he and his two sons had a mercantile establishment.  Unlike the men of his era and region, he had traveled extensively, and had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his wife and eldest daughter, the boy’s mother.  From then on he was known as Hadji Agha, the title Hadji being conferred on all those who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Agha, a title of distinction in Turkey; the boy’s mother whose name was Mariam – Mary – would be known as Hadji Mariam for the rest of her life.  Hadji Agha had also gone to the Paris Exposition of 1900 and later to the United Statesto visit his younger brother who was a merchant here.  He had returned with fantastic tales full of praise and admiration for the Landof Freedom.


One of the boy’s earliest recollections was of the first Christmas after Hadji Agha’s return from America.  As in all Armenian communities Christmas in Hadjin was a holy festival.  With the coming of the American missionaries in 1865, some western customs had been added to the ancient rites.  In the mysterious hush of Christmas Eve, long lines of children from the Protestant church, with lighted candles in their hands, moved like a procession of glowworms up and down the streets now carpeted with snow.  The silent night echoed with their angelic voices singing the well-loved carols, imparting to these faithful believers the illusion of a shepherd’s field of long ago and of the heavenly host.  Later, the sexton of the Mother Church, a lantern swinging in his hand, would zigzag his way across the mountain slopes, chanting the ancient hymns, pausing at intervals to announce the great news:  Avedis – I bring you good tidings of great joy.  To many, the services at the church on Christmas morning were anti-climactic; the Christ Child had come in the miracle of the night before.


After church, families always gathered together, but on that first Yuletide after Hadji Agha’s return from America, when the boy was about four years old, something new was added to the festivities.  In his grandfather’s home where his parents had taken him, there was the usual noise and clamor of his many cousins, the ritual greetings, the chatter of the uncles and aunts, and the bountiful feast spread upon the patriarchal board, but when the boy went to kiss his grandfather’s hand, Hadji Agha was nowhere in sight.  Then suddenly there came a break in the conversation, a hush, and down the stairs with a “Ho-Ho-Ho!” came the strangest little man the boy had ever seen.  He had white eyebrows and a flowing white beard and moustache.  He wore a red and white suit and a red cap, and over his shoulder he carried a red bag.  The rumbling sounds rising from his lips and the strange clothes he wore terrified the boy, and in the twinkling of an eye had had dived in the direction of the settee and hidden under it.  It was with difficulty that his parents coaxed him out, and it was with great reluctance that he accepted the gift of fruit and candy wrapped in red gauze which the strange apparition presented him.  Later, when his grandfather made his appearance, he told the boy that in America there was a Santa Claus who always appeared at Christmas time and presented all good little boys and girls with a gift.


One of the marvels of the New World remained beyond the boy’s comprehension, even after this marvel had been viewed, examined, and its function explained.  A certain object which Hadji Agha had brought with him from America and installed in a tiny room on the upper floor reserved for his use alone became a source of mystery and fascination, not only to the boy, who was a frequent visitor at the patriarchal home, but to his cousins who lived there.  Every day Hadji Agha spent some time closeted in this small room, but as the door to it always remained locked, the boys had no way of satisfying their curiosity.  To ask their grandfather point blank concerning the contents of the room would have been a serious breach of established custom.  So they bided their time until one day, forgetful for once, Hadji Agha left the door unlocked.  With what expectancy they tiptoed into the room, their eyes wide with excitement!  With what disappointment they beheld only a strange box-like seat in the middle of the small room, a cover upon it set with hinges.  They peered around it and behind; they lifted the lid and gazed down the round hole; they stood there speculating on its function until their grandfather surprised them there, and at long last unraveled the mystery for them.  In America, he said, every home had a bathroom, and in every bathroom there was this object called a water-closet.  In Hadjin, he said, with no running water in the homes, such a contraption would be impractical.  But Hadji Agha was a most ingenious individual.  He had solved the problem by installing a pipe which went from the small room all the way down under the house, and he had the water hauled in containers from the fountain in the street up to his own privileged “inner sanctum”.


The seasons brought their own delight to the boy.  In the spring the mountain slopes and meadows were a riot of color:  blood-red poppies sprinkled thickly across the grass, nodding asphodel, lavender candy tuft and wild mignonette.  The glory of a flaming pomegranate tree in blossom, its flowers a deep scarlet, was a joy to behold.  The boy and his friends would tumble in these fields of color and roll down beside the little waterfalls bordering them.  But best of all, spring meant Easter and the joy and excitement of the Holy Season.  He loved the services in the church and the stories of Jesus’ Passion.  He loved the musical cadence of the traditional greeting:  Christ is Risen from the Dead, and the response:  Blessed be the Resurrection of Christ.  But the high moment came after dinner when the battle of the Easter eggs began.  Each member of the family had a colored egg, and with it he tried to crack the eggs of all the others.  With what care and concentration each egg was selected from the basket, tested by gently tapping it against one’s teeth and listing to the tick-tick.  There was always one whose egg cracked all the rest and to him went the spoils of battle, all the cracked eggs.  Later, the battle was carried on out in the streets.  This tradition is still a most cherished one in our family.


Summer and fall were the boy’s favorite seasons for then his father was home.  They would go to the farm and to the boy, who had never been out of Hadjin, the day’s trip would seem like a journey across the world.  They would spend the night with their Turkish tenant farmer, sharing the family’s one room.  The next day his father would attend to the fields of grain, the walnut trees, and the livestock which provided them with their winter provisions.  At home, in the baghtche, they would spread large sheets under the cherry and mulberry trees while his father or a friend climbed the tree and knocked on the limbs with a long stick.  The fruit came showering down to be dried and put away for the winter.  Tomatoes were gathered, and okra and squash and eggplants to be prepared for preservation.  Grapes, too, were gathered, and after feasting on the fresh fruit they would spread the clusters on sheets and dry them for raisins which, mixed with walnuts, would help to while away the long winter nights.


With the departure of his father and the opening of school, the boy began the routine of winter, and now he was closer to his mother and her many tasks.  There was no running water in the homes and the boy would run several times a day with his mother to the fountain four streets below.  There she would fill the containers with the water that would be used for drinking, cooking, and cleaning.  Many women took their clothes down to the river to wash.  The public baths were down there, too.  They seemed like a palace to the boy, the marble floors and basins, the pools, and the steam with its indescribable smell, damp and clean, swirling around the disrobed figures and imparting to them a ghost-like appearance.


There was little marketing to be done, for almost all the provisions came from their own land and were kept in the store rooms.  But bread had to be baked, and this event was one of the high moments of the week for the boy.  His mother kneaded the dough in a wooden trough either at home or at the community oven and marked the loaves with her own special symbol.  Every family had its own mark, a cross, a circle, a triangle.  For his services the baker received a predetermined number of loaves.  Oh, the heavenly aroma of freshly baked bread!  To the boy there was no delicacy to compare with it.  He would gorge himself on the day the bread was baked, and on the following days, upon his return from school, his favorite snack would be the heel of the loaf spread with butter and sprinkled with sugar.


Next to his home and that of his grandparents, the boy’s earliest memories would center around the Protestant church.  The boy’s paternal grandparents, too, were devout Protestants.  His father’s younger brother, Samuel, was a minister of the Gospel, serving first in Turkey, later in the United States.  So the boy’s homelife included daily devotions, grace before meals, and regular attendance at church on Sunday and mid-week services.  The boy would especially remember these mid-week services when he sometimes accompanied his grandfather, walking in front of Hadji Agha with a lantern in his hand to light the old man’s way through the dark and narrow streets.  Unlike the Mother Church, there were benches here, the men sitting on one side and the women on the other.  The boy always sat on the floor in front of his grandfather, and if his head nodded during the long service his grandfather’s knee, sternly nudging him, awakened him to the observance of the time and the place.  This early religious training would illumine his tortuous path through life in the years ahead.


Like all Armenians who cherish education, the boy’s mother carefully supervised his schooling.  With what pride she saw him off every morning!  With what concern she admonished him when his reports were not as favorable as she had hoped they would be!  Especially would he remember the cold winter mornings when, after drinking the hot soup his mother had prepared for breakfast, he was put in the saddle-bag slung over their horse, and taken to school through streets deep in snow.  The four of five years spent in the parochial school would be the only formal education he would ever receive, for the gap created by the years of the Great Deportation and Exile would never be bridged.  His achievements in later years would be due to his own native intelligence, his determination, and his indomitable spirit.


The boy was five years old in the spring of 1909 when the Adana massacres began.  Before it was over the Turks had butchered 25,000 Armenians, among them his father’s youngest brother.  When the news of the massacre and the violent death of the youngest son reached home, the boy’s paternal grandfather suffered a heart attack and died.


How can one explain such deeds and events to those who all their lives have lived in a country where human life is highly valued, man’s religious beliefs respected, and his dignity honored?  How describe to the Western mind what the German writer, Franz Werfel, called “the incomprehensible destiny of the Armenians”?  This is not a lesson in history; I can only present a bare outline of what happened to the Armenians in Turkey.  Through the centuries, the Armenian question had been the thorn in the Turkish flesh.  During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Abdul Hamid, the bloody Sultan, had tried to solve it through wholesale massacres.  With the coming of World War I, the young Turks, who were now in control of the government, decided to end the Armenian question once and for all.  More sophisticated, better disciplined and organized than the rude forces of Abdul Hamid, they planned and carried out the first genocide of the century.  First the leaders of the Armenian communities were snatched from their beds and taken away, never to be heard of again; next, the able-bodied Armenians serving in the Turkish army’s labor battalions were destroyed.


With the leaders and the fighting men eliminated, the Turks began the final phase of their program.  They called it deportation, this mass uprooting of a people from their homes and their so-called re-settlement in the arid deserts of Syria.  Within a few months after the order had gone out of Constantinople in April of 1915, a million and a half Armenians were on the march.  According to Henry Morgenthau, American Ambassador to Turkey, they could be seen winding in and out of every valley and climbing up the sides of every mountain.  “During the first days of the march they were robbed by the Turkish villagers and peasants; then by the Kurds who, says Lord Bryce, committed blood-chilling atrocities.  “It depended on the whim of the moment,” he said, “whether a Kurd cut a woman down or carried her away into the hills.  The babies were left on the ground or dashed against the stones.”


It is pointless to describe or elaborate on these atrocities.  Such graphic descriptions are too horrible and offensive to man’s sensibilities.  In a measure they defeat their purpose.  All I can say is this – imagine the worst atrocity man can inflict upon man, the most degrading indignities that can be visited upon a woman, and still you will not begin to plumb the depths of the suffering endured by the Armenians during these deportations. 


In Hadjin, the order of deportation came in the spring of the year that will live forever in the memory of every Armenian, 1915.  The boy was eleven years old then, and to an eleven-year-old even a cataclysmic act such as the Great Deportation carried with it a certain measure of excitement.  He would remember that his mother cried when his father came home with the news that they must leave, but she had also cried a short while before when one of his little sisters had died.  To him, the unusual activity in the town, the farewells to those who were leaving at once, had the aura of adventure.


The 28,000 Armenians of Hadjin left in groups at intervals of a few days.  The boy’s family started out with a horse and two donkeys, the absolute necessities packed in saddle-bags, the foodstuff in baskets.  His father and mother and the boy himself carried packs, while his two younger brothers and sister rode the animals.  Only in the light of later years would the boy be able to interpret the expression in his parents’ eyes as they locked the door of their home, gazed at it long and silently, then wordlessly turned away and began the first part of the march down to the Cilician Plain.


There were other children in the caravan and much running back and forth, even though the grim gendarmes herding the procession tolerated no play.  But it was not long before the heat of the day and the arduous climb began to tire the boy.  No rest periods were allowed, no lagging behind.  Relentlessly the gendarmes prodded the line of men, women, and children.  When, in late afternoon, the boy suffered a severe nose bleed with no let up in the march, he began to realize that the adventure he had envisioned was in reality a grueling ordeal.


The four-year period of exile, from 1915 to 1919, would remain in the boy’s memory as a kaleidoscope of events and experiences, sometimes vivid and painful, at other times hazy and unreal.  There are no details in these memories, no frills, only the bare outline as an eleven-year-old or early adolescent would remember.  These are the experiences and adventures with which his family and friends are familiar.  Through the years, whenever the conversation has turned to that tragic time, we have been enthralled, weeping over his trials, then as spontaneously laughing at an adventure in his struggle for survival.  His dauntless spirit, his complete self-reliance during those years between the ages of eleven and fifteen when he was left alone in a world gone mad, his superb sense of humor which made his ordeal endurable, and his sublime faith, have been a source of inspiration to his family and friends.  There were those who came through the holocaust maimed and crippled in spirit, carrying with them a vengeful hatred which has eaten away at their hearts like a cankerous sore, but the boy, thanks to his heritage and his own inner resources, emerged from those years of fire tall in spirit, equipped to meet and overcome whatever else life had in store for him.


Every night they camped on the side of the road, and every morning they awakened to find some of the animals stolen, as well as the supplies they had carried.  On the morning of the fifth day of the march, the family awakened to find their two donkeys gone.  Even the most optimistic members of the caravan were now aware of what lay ahead.  On they were driven, the strong and the able-bodied pushing ahead, the sick and the dead abandoned, until they reached Aleppo, an oasis in the Syrian desert.  There they found gathered thousands of Armenians from every corner of Turkey.  Every day thousands more arrived, and every day convoys and caravans were formed and sent on their way east toward Der-el-zor in the Mesopotamian desert.  By now, Hadji Agha and his family had established themselves in Aleppo.  Hadji Agha had influential friends everywhere and he had managed his way to semisafety.


Perhaps it was the hope that they, too, would remain in Aleppo that kept the boy’s family from joining the early caravans moving east to Der-el-zor, though his mother was anxious to reach whatever destination was to be theirs and settle down, and to this end she daily urged her husband to move east.  But here, miraculously, fate took a hand, and for one reason or another they remained in Aleppo for the time being.  When it was all over, and the history of the Great Deportation was put together from bits and scraps gathered from the survivors, it became known that of the hundreds of thousands who had journeyed to Der-el-zor and the desert just beyond almost none survived, that typhus raged, and that those who survived the plague fell under the sword.  To this day, the name of Der-el-zor stabs the heart of the Armenian whenever it is mentioned.


So it was that the boy’s family, robbed of their horse and the last of their belongings, were put into a boxcar going to Damascus.  The boy would not remember how long the journey took or how many were in this particular convoy, only the fact that camels were waiting for them in Damascus, and mounted on these beasts the caravan moved some thirty miles farther south into the desert to the small village of Basra-el-Hareer.  There they were all crowded into an old abandoned barracks with broken window panes and the roof open to the sky.  There was no food, so the boy went into the Arab village with a pail in his hand, begging for food from door-to-door.  Whatever the kind-hearted Arab woman was able to spare from her own meager fare, he dumped into his pail.  When the pail was nearly full, he sat behind a bush and gorged himself on the mixture of food before him until he became ill.  To this day there is remorse in his voice as he recalls how he lied to his mother when she urged him to partake of the food, telling her he was not well.  At other times he would go out into the fields and gather grass which his mother would boil, and this in a measure would appease their hunger.


And now typhus began to rage.  Every day many bodies were removed from the barracks and disposed of in heaven knows what manner.  The boy’s mother was among the first to go, and immediately after her, his baby brother.  By now he had become well-acquainted with death for they lived intimately with it and often welcomed it with relief.  Then his father was taken into the labor battalion and the boy was left alone to care for his younger brother and sister.  Because he now had to take care of the little family, he became expert at begging food from the charitable Arabs.  On Fridays, the Moslem holy day, he went to the cemetery where the Arabs brought food for the poor in memory of their departed dead.  In this way the eleven-year-old boy was able to care for the needs of his brother and sister.


The story now moves to Damascus.  A distant cousin, hearing of the boy’s plight through the caravans constantly  moving to and fro, somehow managed to get to Basra-el-Hareer and took the children back to the one room in Damascus he called his home in exile.  Eventually it became impossible for him to provide for the children during those days of starvation and death.  The two younger ones were placed in an orphanage which had opened its doors to those left alone to wander in the streets.  The cousin wanted to place the boy in the orphanage, too, but this the youngster refused.  He was twelve now, and could manage on his own. 


Now began a period of completely incomprehensible to us living in a sheltered world.  The boy’s home was the streets, teeming with children and adults who were homeless and displaced like him.  Sometimes it was a government building which was opened to shelter these dispossessed, then an open square where tents had been pitched.  There was a spirit of helpfulness everywhere.  Those who had been separated from loved ones went from group to group searching, inquiring, and in this way families were often reunited or the whereabouts of loved ones made known.  The boy learned in this way that his maternal uncle, Hadji Agha’s younger son, had escaped from the labor battalion and was in hiding in Damascus.


The boy managed to find his uncle and, seeing his nephew’s plight, this uncle tried to “set him up in business.”  He gave him a silver coin with which the boy bought twelve loaves of bread, placed them on a wooden board suspended from his neck, then went to the station to sell them to the soldiers in transit.  How delicious was the aroma of the bread to the boy who was forever hungry!  What self-restraint he exercised to keep himself from devouring one of the golden loaves!  He had promised to give an accounting to his uncle, and he could not eat until all the loaves were sold but one.  That would be his profit and he could eat it with a clear conscience.  But on the way to the station he broke off and ate tiny pieces of crust from this loaf or that which, far from appeasing his hunger, further tormented and tantalized him.  Then he was at the station, surrounded by soldiers.  They almost assaulted him, lured by the aroma of the fresh bread, jostling his tray, grabbing the loaves, holding out their coins for change, until the whistle blew.  With the bread already in their possession and the bewildered, harassed boy before them fumbling to make change, they turned and ran to their train, leaving him with an empty tray and not one coin in his hand.  Still hungry, dejected, and ashamed, the boy would not report to his uncle, but continued in his solitary search for food.


It was after that that he spent a night or two in a bakery, tending to the oven in return for a corner in which to sleep and a loaf or two to appease his hunger.  But he must have eaten more than his allotted share, surrounded as he was by row upon row of the golden loaves, and in the morning he was dispatched by the baker with a swift kick.  He was preoccupied by thoughts of food and how to obtain it.  One day as he was passing a grocery store, he saw in front of it an open barrel of thick syrup.  Like a magnet the barrel drew him, and he walked back and forth in front of it, scheming to get some.  His mind made up at last, he rolled up his sleeve, approached the barrel, stuck his bare arm into the sticky syrup, drew it out, then ran for dear life as the storekeeper chased him, shouting and cursing.  At last he found a dark alley where he sat down and licked his arm.  For that day at least he was happy.


Compared with Damascus, life in Basra-el-Hareer had been easier for the boy, so he decided to join the caravans which brought wheat from the village to the great city and return to the village with them.  Luckily for him, the caravan that day was led by the son of the village Sheikh.  He offered the boy a place to sleep and three loaves of bread a day in return for his labor.  The old Sheikh was a kindly man with many wives and children, and from the first he felt fatherly toward the Armenian child.  The boy’s job was to take care of the animals and he slept with them in the barn.  He accompanied the men to the wheat fields, performing the most menial tasks, following the animals to gather the droppings which would be dried and used for fuel.  He dressed like the Arabs in a long gown and flowing headgear, and his hair grew as long as theirs.  Warm and affectionate by nature, hardworking and conscientious, he was soon like a member of the Sheikh’s family.  By now he had forgotten his Armenian and spoke-only Arabic.


So the months and the years passed, and the world from which the boy had come became blurred and half-forgotten.  Now he lived within the compound, and he was told daily that it he became a Moslem he could truly become a member of the Sheikh’s family and marry one of his younger daughters.  But somewhere deep within the boy were the old, old memories of home and church, of Christmas and Easter, and the Armenian’s centuries-old faith in Christ.  So, finding one pretext or another, he put off his acceptance of Islam.


Then the caravans brought the great news from Damascus:  the war was over; the British were in Damascus; the refugees were gathering in that city to be returned to their homes.  Then one day an Arab neighbor who had known the boy’s father during his brief stay in the village brought news that affected the boy personally.  His father had been at the caravan terminal seeking out the men from Basra-el-Hareer, asking news of his son.


The boy feared that the Sheikh would put obstacles in his way, unwilling to lose a hard worker who labored without pay, as well as a prospective son-in-law, so he decided to run away.  Early one morning as the men set out in the dark toward the fields, he dropped behind, and after waiting awhile, started out toward the railroad station.  All day long he walked, resting whenever he came to a shady spot, and by nightfall he reached the station.  He had with him the few coins which had been given him during the Arab holidays, but he wanted to save his money, so he concealed himself in the dark and when the freight train finally pulled in he quickly climbed up on top of a boxcar and was on his way to Damascus.  It can be freezing cold in the desert at night and the boy, stretched out on the boxcar, shook with cold, wrapping himself more snugly in his long robe.  Sleep did not come easily, for there was the rattle of the wheels, the monotonous wail of the whistle, and once a choking sensation when the train passed through a tunnel.  At that moment he thought his end had surely come.  Then the tunnel was left behind and he was breathing the clean cold air of the desert, gazing up at the starry sky.  It was not yet dawn when the train reached Damascus.  The boy jumped down, ran to a corner, lay down, pulled his gown over his head, and pretended to sleep.  Soon soldiers wearing uniforms he had never seen before approached him, shook him, then pushed him out of the gate, which was exactly what the boy had hoped would happen.


As he walked toward town, he came to a fountain where a crowd had gathered.  Though he had forgotten his Armenian, he nevertheless realized that these people were Armenian refuges.  He asked them in Arabic the way to the refugee camp.  In no time at all he was at the camp, but at the gate he was stopped by the soldiers in the strange uniforms who, he learned, were British.  They thought he was an Arab and would not permit him to enter.  When at last they were convinced that he was a refugee returning to find his father, he was permitted to pass through the gate.


It was the largest camp the boy had ever seen.  Moving from barracks to barracks filled with family groups, he searched for his father.  Suddenly he was face to face with a man who resembled his father, but oh, so much older, the eyes so much sadder.  As completely Arab as the boy looked in his long hair and flowing gown, his father recognized him at once.  Locked in each other’s arms the years were spanned, and the remnant of the family united.  But before he could join his father, he was taken away by the British soldiers, undressed, showered, deloused, and issued a blanket and old, but clean, clothes and shoes.  After years of walking barefoot, his feet felt strangely confined.


There is an interlude in Damascus before the return to Hadjin.  I tried to imagine what these refugees did, sitting there idly day after day, caught up by forces over which they had no control, until my husband reminded me of the summer of 1968 when we went to Jordan and visited the huge camp at Bekaa, near Jerash, filled with refugees from the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.  Here were Arabs, sitting idly, rehashing the details of war and their bitter lot, smoking their pipes, playing backgammon.  The women were engaged in the eternal tasks of wives and mothers at home or in exile, trying to provide the material comforts for their families, which the children, oblivious to the cares of their elders, played the games children have played since time began.  Do not think therefore that my story concerns an age gone by.  It is happening today.


In Damascus the boy was restless, for it was contrary to his nature to sit idly day after day.  He persuaded his father to provide him with a shoeshine box and every day he went to the main thoroughfare, took his position, and earned a few coins.  My husband relived this experience when we visited Damascus a few years ago.  There, on that same thoroughfare, were boys sitting behind their homemade shoeshine boxes, hopefully waiting to earn their daily bread.  It is in such moments that my husband knows the past was not just a dream.


In the spring of 1919, the refugees were returned to their homes, their safety assured by the British and French forces occupying what was left of the once mighty Ottoman Empire.  They returned home grieving over the loss of loved ones, yet buoyed by the hope of beginning life anew.  As the long caravans of horses and camels moved across the glorious mountains, there were those who even burst into song at the thought of a life to be lived in peace and without fear.


Of the 28,000 who had left Hadjin in 1915, barely 5,000 returned in the spring of 1919.  The first reality hit them as they crossed the little stone bridge and found their town burned to the ground, only a few houses left standing.  How they lived during that year is difficult to imagine.  There was no lumber with which to build or rebuild.  Commodities were scarce.  The churches had burned, and the people gathered wherever there was a room large enough to accommodate the faithful.  Together they offered their thanks to God who had brought them safely home.  The American missionaries returned, providing such work as sewing and weaving to the needy and a home to the orphaned.  The boy’s father had the farm well in hand soon after their return, and until they could rebuild their home, they crowded with other families into one of the buildings that had escaped destruction.  Hadji Agha and his family had remained in Adana, but his older son, Avedis, had returned to Hadjin to look after the family’s interests.  The boy’s father was very close to this brother-in-law, and there was love and respect between them.


There is an episode during this period which our children have never tired of hearing.  The boy dearly loved his Uncle Avedis who must have had a way with him.  Like his father, Hadji Agha, he was a born leader of men.  He always dressed colorfully, and even in exile he had managed to keep his handsome appearance.  By now no one had any decent clothes left.  What the British had given the boy in Damascus had been patched and repatched and was now unfit to wear.  So the boy’s father had the heavy blanket given by the British made into a pair of baggy pants for him. 


I did not know until I began to recount this story that our daughter had written and preserved an account of her father’s pantaloons and accessories when she herself was about the age he must have been at the time, fifteen.  She brought it to me when she learned I wanted to preserve the story of her father’s early years.  She tried to remember the words her father used as he recounted the tale, and which she, a teenager herself, recorded.


“My Uncle Avedis,” begins the account, “was fortunate enough to have money when we returned from exile, and he was good to me.  How I did love him!  Whenever I went to him with some need, he would say: ‘Hold your head high, look into my eyes, and tell me what you want.’  So one day when I felt I just had to have some shoes, I went to him, shy and embarrassed.  He repeated his command to me, so I did look him straight in the eye and said:  ‘Uncle Avedis, I need a pair of shoes.’  ‘Fine,’ he said, and off we went.  Because of the war there was no leather, so our cobbler used pigskin, and he took my fit and made my shoes.  I was so happy I didn’t even notice they were so hairy they swept the floor as I walked.  To complete my outfit I wanted a red fez with a black tassle – all the boys had them, and I did so want one.  Again my uncle took me to the shop and at last my outfit was complete.  But after a while the constant wear was too much for my blanket pants and the knees wore out.  I simply couldn’t ask my Uncle Avedis for another thing, so I went to my father with my need and he came up with a solution.  ‘Turn the pants around,’ said he, ‘for people only look at you when you are coming toward them, and by the time you pass, they’ll by looking at someone else and will never see the holes in the back.  Besides, he added, ‘the holes will make the pants airy and keep you cool.’  When a few months later my Uncle Avedis took me to Adana to live with my grandparents, I was still wearing my pantaloons.  But Haji Agha was not impressed with my ‘country-boy outfit,’ and to my great joy ordered for me a beautiful brown corduroy suit.”


Why had the boy left his father and his beloved Hadjin to go to Adana?  The events of late 1919 and 1920 are beyond comprehension.  This time the destruction and massacre that took place were in a measure caused by the betrayal of the French and British who, after guaranteeing the safety and rehabilitation of the Armenians, withdrew from the area and left the Christians once more at the mercy of the Turks.  And why?  Because after the war Turkey was reduced to a fraction of its former size and many Turks were rebellious against the Western Powers.  There developed a strong militant nationalism whose slogan was “Turkey for the Turks.”  It was led by Mustafa Kemal who would later be known as Ataturk, the Father of the Turks.  These new “Young Turks” defied the allies and ignored the terms of treaties; Britain and France, eager to establish friendly relations with the new regime in order to obtain diplomatic and commercial concessions for themselves, maintained a strict neutrality, withdrawing from the occupied areas in many instances.  So the Turks, aware that whatever action they took against the Christian minorities would remain unchallenged by the great Christian powers of the West, began to exterminate or drive out the handful that had survived the deportation and returned home.


It was because of the wild rumors and the reports that the French were withdrawing that Uncle Avedis asked his brother-in-law’s consent to take his sister’s only surviving child to Adana, and the boy’s father, aware that his son’s safety and future lay away from Hadjin and with his grandparents, reluctantly consented.  It must have been early spring 1920 when his uncle took the boy to Adana.  Though by now the fate of Hadjin seemed certain, for the Turks were massing their forces in the mountains round about, Uncle Avedis returned to the town to participate in its defense.  For seven months, April to October, the town was besieged, until the remnant that had returned literally starved to death or fell under Turkish fire.  The boy’s father and his uncle were among the fallen martyred heroes.


The period from the spring of 1920 to the summer of 1921 was difficult for the boy.  Sixteen years old now, he was well aware of the significance of the events surrounding him, of the bitter fighting in Hadjin, and eventually of the death of his father and uncle.  But now he had the love of his mother’s family and the companionship of his cousins.  Here his grandfather began to instill in him many of the precepts which would serve as guidelines in his later life.  He attended school with his cousins and tried to bridge the five-year gap created by the deportation.  But it was an insurmountable task; he had forgotten how to read and write, forgotten even the Lord’s Prayer.  He joined the Boy Scouts and for the first time felt the joy of just being a boy.


In June of 1921, at the age of seventeen, the boy embarked from Mersin, a seaport near Adana, for the United States.  His father’s younger brother, Samuel, who had gone to the United States to complete his theological studies and was now the minister of an Armenian church in Troy, New York, had been able to contact him and had sent him his fare.  With him traveled two of his cousins, the sons of Uncle Avedis, who had been sponsored by their great-uncle, Hadji Agha’s younger brother, a prosperous merchant.  At last the tragic past was behind him; he was on his way to a land where he would live without fear.  But at Ellis Island where all the steerage passengers were taken, the most cruel blow of his young life awaited him.  There, in full view of the New York skyline, that Promised Land of all the dispossessed, he was told that his minister uncle lacked the material means to guarantee his future.  He would be sent back.


To us, his family, this has always seemed the crowning blow of all that he had endured.  To be on the threshold of Freedom and be refused admittance can be appreciated only by those who have themselves found refuge in this blessed land.  He, himself, confesses that he lived the darkest hours of his life when he was separated from his cousins who had gone ashore, carrying with them the one suitcase all three had shared, while he was taken to a ship sailing for Athens and thence to Smyrna.


Alone and with only three dollars in his pocket, with no belongings except the clothes on his back, the boy reached Smyrnaon the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.  He was able to find lodging in a khan, an inn near the harbor where the kindhearted innkeeper allowed him to spend the night in the stable.  The next day being Sunday, he followed the habit of a lifetime and sought out the Armenian Protest Church where, conscious of his soiled and wrinkled clothes and ill-kempt appearance, he sat in the corner of the back row.  Here he reached the depths, alone in a strange city without a single soul who knew or cared about his existence.  But the service was refreshing to his soul.  As he turned to leave the church, he was stopped by a beautifully dressed, stoutish lady who, realizing that he was a stranger, began to question him.  Her kind heart moved by the boy’s tale, she took him to her carriage where her daughter and two sons were waiting for her.  At home, the boy was made to bathe and put on clean clothes furnished from his young host’s wardrobe.    After much questioning at dinner, it was discovered that the lady had heard of Hadji Agha and his leadership in the Protestant church in Turkey.  She arranged for the boy to enter the American International Collegein Paradiso, a suburb of Smyrna.


With no knowledge of English, his elementary education at only fifth grade level, the seventeen-year-old youth was completely at a loss academically, but the school authorities were familiar with the plight of boys such as he, and he was allowed to attend classes and absorb whatever knowledge was within his comprehension.  In return, he cleaned the rooms of several faculty members and set the breakfast table for the boarding students.  All the while his letters to his uncle were crossing the Atlantic, voicing his fears, his desperate need to get away from Turkey and reach the haven of America.  In July of 1922, a second affidavit from his uncle reached him, and with the help of his new friends and money borrowed from his classmates, his passage was booked.  On the eighth of August, 1922, at the age of eighteen, he arrived once more at Ellis Island.


This time the period of anxious waiting and uncertainty did not last long.  A wealthy member of his uncle’s congregation had made it possible for the minister to assure the authorities that his nephew would not become a public charge.  At last the golden doors were opened.  At last the long pilgrimage from Hadjin in the Taurus Mountains to the Land of Freedom had come to an end.


Fifty years have passed since that memorable day when the youth first set foot on this modern Promised Land.  They have been good years, lived without fear in the atmosphere of freedom.  They have enabled him to fulfill his potential as a man, husband, father, grandfather, friend, and citizen of his beloved United States of America.




The Forty Days of Musa Dagh – Franz Werfel

Beginning Again at Ararat – Dr. Mabel Elliott

Vital Issues in Modern Armenian History – Armenian Studies

Martyrdom and Rebirth – 1965 Report

Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story – Henry Morgenthau

In Our Time – Ernest Hemingway

The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire – Lord Bryce

The Armenian Community – Sarkis Atamian

At the Mercy of Turkish Brigands – Eby

Hadjin and the Armenian Massacres – Rose Lambert

The Smyrna Affair – Majorie Housepian

Neither to Laugh Nor to Cry – A. Hartunian

Letters from Cicilia – Alice Keep Clark

The Blight of Asia – George Horton


A Note about the Author:


For thirty-eight years Ermance Rejebian has been contributing to the cultural life of Dallas and the entire Southwest through her oral book reviews, and lectures.  Born in Bursa, Turkey, of Armenian parents, Mrs. Rejebian lived as a child through the tragic days of World War I, survived the holocaust visited upon her people, and when the war was over, at the age of fourteen, came to the United States, after a brief stay in England.  She attended the Los Angeles public schools, U.C.L.A., taught in Beverly Hills, and upon her marriage came to Texas, living first in Houston, later in Dallas.  The Rejebian’s have two children, a son and a daughter, and six grandchildren.  Through the years, Ermance Rejebian’s influence has been widely felt and recognized.  In 1943, when a survey was made to determine Dallas’ important leaders – those responsible for molding public opinion and inspiring Greater Dallas to action – the list included her name.  In 1951, Mrs. Rejebian was honored as one of nine outstanding women of the Southwest by reason of “her accomplishments in civic, social and economic fields, which identify her as a leader”.  In 1959, the Jane Douglas Chapter of the D.A.R. presented her with its first Americanism Medal “in recognition of the many contributions she has made as a naturalized citizen.”

Hadjin Turkey

Copyright H.M. Keshishian 2006.
Last revised: June 10, 2006.

Copyright Keshishian 2006-2010
Last revised: December 16, 2010.