“Atrocity” in the Forest City

“Turkishness 2,” by Stephen Koharian. image/courtesy Koharian

Portland’s Armenians struggle to address the genocide

A century later and half a world away, a young Armenian man prepares to hang paintings in a Portland gallery to protest the massacres and death marches that nearly annihilated his people.

One painting depicts a woman, naked and emaciated, hands bound behind her back, her bald head a cracked skull, staring in horror at a naked girl screaming on the ground. The canvas behind them is a wash of black and rusty brown evocative of fire and dried blood. If one peers closely enough, the faint figure of a menacing man can be discerned lurking in the background.

The work’s title is “Turkishness 1.”

“Turkishness 1,” by Stephen Koharian. image/courtesy Koharian

In the book Four Years beneath the Crescent, published in 1926, the Venezuelan mercenary Rafael de Nogales described a similar scene he encountered while serving with the Turkish military in 1915. The forced “deportation” of Armenians from Turkey to Syria during World War I was, in practice, a death sentence decreed by the political party known as the Young Turks, who controlled the government at the time.

Encountering a ragged caravan of women and children granted a brief rest in a village market, Nogales wrote: “Their sunken cheeks and cavernous eyes bore the stamp of death. Among the women, almost all of whom were young, were some mothers with children, or, rather, childish skeletons, in their arms. One of them was mad. She knelt beside the half-putrefied cadaver of a new-born babe.”

Despite volumes of documentary evidence, the Turkish government has never acknowledged that the slaughter of approximately 1.5 million Armenians around the time of the Great War was genocide — a willful, systemic attempt to exterminate an entire race. Deniers attribute the deaths to the general chaos of wartime and point to the handful of Armenians who sided with Russian forces during the conflict. Within Turkey, scholars who assert that the atrocities constituted genocide have faced prosecution under a law that makes it a crime to insult “Turkishness.”

Thus the title of artist Stephen Koharian’s painting, which shows this month at Two Point Gallery on Congress Street as part of Koharian’s first solo exhibition, Atrocity: Armenian Genocide and Other Works.

“I’m calling these works ‘Turkishness’ because that’s what I identify Turkey with — its history of denial, 100 years of denial of their own culture,” Koharian said. “It’s absurd to think you can’t go into [Turkey] and state the widely documented fact that this genocide happened.”

But that’s only half the source of Koharian’s outrage. The United States has also refused to formally recognize the mass murder as genocide. In recent times, U.S. complicity in Turkey’s denial has been motivated by concern that acknowledging the genocide will hamper our ability to wage war in Iraq.

In 2007, a broadly supported Congressional resolution condemning the genocide fizzled after both the Turkish government and the Bush administration lobbied hard against it. Turkey recalled its ambassador to the U.S. and threatened to end its support of American military operations in neighboring Iraq if the largely symbolic resolution passed in the House of Representatives that year.

The Armenian Genocide Resolution has been reintroduced in Congress this year. Maine’s delegation unanimously supports it. As a senator and on the campaign trail, Barack Obama strongly supported recognition of the genocide and pledged to do so as president.

But since taking office, Obama has been silent on the matter. During a trip to Turkey last April, he avoided explicit mention of the issue, saying only that he wants to encourage ongoing efforts between Turkey and Armenia to come to terms with their history.

“It’s absurd that our president sidestepped the question,” said Koharian. “He just backed out on the Armenians. He betrayed all the Armenians in the world.”

Yet President Obama is hardly the only one displaying ambivalence about Turkey’s recognition of this crime against humanity. The issue also divides Armenians. Members of the Armenian Diaspora (estimated to include about 8 million people worldwide) tend to be adamant that Turkey accept responsibility, while many who live within impoverished Armenia (estimated population: 3.1 million) are more concerned about the quality of their lives today than formal acknowledgement of past misery.

“Their first priority is jobs, security of lifestyle, then genocide is second,” said Gerard Kiladjian, head of the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine.  “We’re all here because of the genocide,” he said, so it’s “natural” for exiles and their children to feel more strongly about it.

Turkish violence against Armenians prompted the first Armenian family that settled in Portland to flee their homeland in the late 19th century. Hundreds of families followed over the next two decades, establishing a significant Armenian community in the Forest City, centered in the Bayside neighborhood.

Much as the malevolent forces of war, racism and religious intolerance decimated and displaced Armenians in Turkey, the considerably more benign forces of assimilation, prosperity and urban renewal have combined to scatter and erode Portland’s Armenian community over the past half-century. Armenian culture was in danger of disappearing entirely from Maine until a few years ago, when Kiladjian and his wife, Annie, started the cultural association and began bringing local Armenians back together again.

But the cultural association is an apolitical organization. It organizes picnics, not protests. Though its members will never forget the atrocities visited upon their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, the intensity of those memories fades with each successive generation.

Therein lies the danger. If genocides are forgotten and their perpetrators are allowed to deny them, future atrocities will surely continue.

Seventy years ago, explaining his decision to invade Poland and “send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language,” Adolph Hitler asked rhetorically, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

An Armenian-owned barber shop in Portland. image/courtesy “The Armenian People of Portland, Maine,” by Anthony Mezoian

A forgotten memorial

The first project undertaken by the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine was the completion of a monument to the Armenian families who escaped the genocide and settled here. Dedicated in 2003, it consists of a rough-hewn granite pillar that stands no taller than a child and two small granite benches set in a tiny brick “plaza” near the busy, barren intersection of Cumberland Avenue and Franklin Arterial.

The nondescript memorial is practically invisible to the thousands of commuters who drive past it every day. It’s been neglected and vandalized: cigarette butts, broken glass and other trash litter the site; weeds are growing between the bricks; one of the benches has been desecrated with graffiti, including a tag that reads (most likely with no irony intended) “blame.”

Armenians’ presence in the city and influence on Portland culture and politics have also practically disappeared. For example, Portland City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, whose district includes the Bayside neighborhood once known as Little Armenia, said he is aware of the monument but knows nothing else about the community it was erected to commemorate.

Anthony “Andy” Mezoian, a second-generation Armenian-American whose father owned a bakery in Bayside, documented the local community’s roots in his 1985 book, The Armenian People of Portland, Maine. It opens with a description of the circumstances that compelled Portland’s first Armenian settlers, the Yeghoian family (who later changed their surname to Charles), to flee Constantinople and make their way here.

In the late 1800s, Abdul Hamid II, one of the last sultans to rule the once mighty Ottoman Empire, continued the Muslim Turks’ historic persecution of the empire’s Christian Armenian minority. Seeking to draw the attention and help of European powers, a small group of Armenian revolutionaries seized the Ottoman Bank in Constantinople in the summer of 1896. The standoff failed to draw Europeans to their cause, and was followed by a furious, mob-fueled massacre, ordered by the sultan, that left upwards of 8,000 Armenians lying dead in the city’s streets.

One of the victims was the owner of a coffeehouse above which the Yeghoian family lived. The sight of the man lying in the street outside their flat with his throat slit spurred the frightened family to seek refuge in the Russian Embassy and later join other refugees on a voyage to France.

In Marseille, the refugees were “paraded through the streets in the hope that someone would see them and want to help,” Mezoian wrote. No French stepped forward, but the Armenians were eventually aided by an American philanthropist and temperance crusader named Frances E. Willard, who, with help from the Salvation Army and an English friend known as Lady Somerset, arranged for their passage to America.

The Yeghoians arrived by train at Portland’s Union Station later that same year. Willard Stevens, head of the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, settled the family in a small apartment on Munjoy Hill, and people in Portland and throughout southern Maine contributed money, clothing and other goods to help them begin their lives anew.

The Yeghoian (Charles) family pictured in Portland in 1914. photo/”The Armenian People of Portland, Maine,” courtesy Andy Mezoian

Many of the refugees who followed came from the same places in Armenia — towns and provinces like Kigi, Van, Erzurum and Hogus — and the majority settled in Bayside. “Most of the Armenians who lived around our neighborhood … all knew each other from the old country,” said 81-year-old Pauline Krekorian of Portland. “We called each other ‘kissing cousins’ because we all came from the same village.”

Garabed Yeghoian, the patriarch of the family, got a job at the Portland Stone Ware Company on Forest Avenue (later known as the Winslow Pottery), which made clay bricks, urns and sewer pipe. Krekorian’s father worked there for a time, too. Armenian men also labored at the Portland Leather Tannery and the Portland Stove Foundry in Bayside, working alongside Irish and Italian

As the Armenian community began to establish itself, many of its members opened grocery stores and barber shops. A survey conducted in 1934, cited in Mezoian’s book, counted 18 grocers and 21 barbers among the 187 Armenian adults in the Portland area. The total Armenian population in Maine was pegged at 1,600 that year.

An Armenian-owned grocery store in Portland. image/courtesy “The Armenian People of Portland, Maine,” by Anthony Mezoian

Krekorian was born in the back of her parents’ grocery store in Bayside. At night, the store doubled as a social gathering place for the community. “They would come down every evening, go in back and talk about the old country,” Krekorian recalled. “I’d hear them talking about the massacre and other things.”

For a few of the early settlers, the genocide was a taboo topic. “Some of them wanted to forget about it and wouldn’t speak about it, but a lot of them did,” said Krekorian. “Some of them came over here and never spoke of it in front of their children. I don’t know why.”

Krekorian’s cousin, Patrician Tevanian, 75, has similar memories of gatherings at her parents’ grocery store across the street. She said her mother “never spoke about what happened in the old country. It was something she wanted to forget.”

Armenians who fled the genocide were not particularly nostalgic for their homeland, given the horrific situation that compelled them to leave. Tevanian said she once asked her mother, “‘If you ever have a free Armenia, would you go back?’ She said, ‘Are you crazy?’”


The first generation of Armenians in Portland were eager to learn English so they could become American citizens, Tevanian said.

“Education was stressed,” said second-generation Portland Armenian Bruce Koharian, 65, a teacher at Deering High School (and father of Stephen, the artist). “All Armenian families wanted their kids to go to school and succeed.”

Many members of the second generation did that and then some, rising to prominence in the larger Portland community. They include John Martin, the grocer and restaurateur; Ralph Amergian, a Portland City Councilor and Mayor; Casper Tevanian, a well-known criminal-defense lawyer and Democratic state legislator; and Gus Barber, founder of Barber Foods, who did much in his lifetime to help fellow Armenians and subsequent groups of immigrants in his employ.

But prosperity came at a cost to the original Armenian community. It began “when the shipyards came in and World War II started,” said Krekorian. “My mother said once people got a little money and started moving out of the neighborhood, then they got altogether different, the feeling [was different].”

The wave of urban renewal that followed further frayed the ties that once kept the community tight. Entire neighborhoods were razed to build Franklin Arterial, displacing Armenians, Italians and other ethnic families who used to shop at downtown businesses. “That’s what really killed Congress Street,” said Krekorian.

The mom-and-pop grocery stores that once did business on nearly every corner of Bayside have disappeared (the last to close was Amergian Bros. Market on Oxford Street). The Armenian barber shops, eateries and coffeehouses are nothing but memories and photographs.

The children and grandchildren of the first Armenians in Portland began to marry outside the culture — a practice sternly discouraged among the first generation, many of whom chose spouses from the old country through photographs, subsequently arranging for their partner-to-be’s passage here. They became increasingly Americanized. Efforts to keep Armenian culture alive through social activities continued for several decades, but by the 1990s, attendance at these events was dwindling as organizers aged and died off, unable to attract younger participants.

The Kiladjians arrived in 2000 and started the Armenian Cultural Association three years later. “I didn’t want to see the Armenian spirit die with the older generation,” said Kiladjian, 44, general manager of the posh Portland Harbor Hotel.

The cultural group — the sole Armenian organization remaining in the state — has between 400 and 500 registered members, and can reach two or three times as many Mainers of Armenian descent when it publicizes its events, which include lectures, dances, concerts and an annual picnic. “There is a strong community, but not like it used to be,” Kiladjian said. “They’re very assimilated, very much mixed into the fabric — more or less becoming Mainers.”

Trick or treaty?

The Armenian Genocide resurfaced in the news last month after Turkish and Armenian officials signed an agreement to resume diplomatic relations and open the border between the two countries for the first time in 13 years. The accord — which has yet to be ratified by either nation, and faces strong opposition in both countries — nearly fell apart at the last minute, and was only saved by frantic negotiations by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the New York Times reported.

The agreement would establish a commission of international  scholars to review World War I-era documents related to the killings of Armenians. It is by no means certain that those scholars will reach the same conclusion most others have: that the 1.5 million deaths constitute genocide. Critics fear it will whitewash the crimes and produce a revisionist version of history.

Local Armenians’ opinions are split as to whether the treaty is a step forward or backward, said Kiladjian, who generally supports the agreement.

Those most passionate about the need for Turkey to take responsibility for the genocide tend to be most wary of the deal.

As he has done for many years, John Malconian drives up to Augusta every spring to submit a proclamation to the Legislature recognizing the genocide and honoring the Armenians who escaped it and settled in Maine. April 24 is the traditional day of remembrance of the genocide. On that date in 1915, the Young Turks arrested and imprisoned hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders, most of whom were subsequently executed.

In the past, it was not uncommon for Malconian to make the trip alone; these days, Kiladjian joins him. (“He tries very hard to get people to go up,” said Krekorian. “I’m ashamed of myself that I haven’t gone.”)  State lawmakers have always agreed to endorse the proclamation and read it into the official record.

Malconian, 79, has mixed feelings about the agreement signed last month. “My mother and father went through hell with them,” he said of the Turks. “I just don’t trust ’em.” Though his parents escaped and made it to Portland, other relatives were not so lucky.

“My aunt got killed by the Turks because she didn’t want to be raped by them,” he said. “My grandfather was taken out of the house in his pajamas and never seen again. They found his pajamas.”

Stephen Koharian is another generation removed from the genocide, but he feels the same way. “I don’t think the borders should be opened,” he said. “If I was living in Armenia, I wouldn’t feel safe with an open border. They killed one-and-a-half million Armenians that they haven’t admitted to. What would stop something else like this happening?”

His father, Bruce, takes a more pragmatic approach to the issue. “If Armenia is gonna make some progress, they’ve got to open some trade,” he said. Opening the western border with Turkey could help the landlocked country’s struggling economy recover.

Armenia was a republic of the Soviet Union from the 1920s until the U.S.S.R. broke up in 1991, and has been a democracy ever since. Conflicts with its neighbor to the east, Azerbaijan, continue to cause economic and political problems, though its relations with Iran, to the south, and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, to the north, are more constructive.

Stephen Koharian has been making artwork about the genocide since high school. “I want people to see the brutality of this genocide,” he said of his paintings. “I want people to be really emotionally affected by this work. That’s the best way anyone can become passionate about anything — it’s an emotional reaction.”

“It feels like a burden of each Armenian generation to get Turkey to acknowledge the history, and to get America to acknowledge what went on,” he continued. “They should admit to what they did. It’s just humiliating to Armenians over here.”

Bruce Koharian coaches track at Deering and teaches health and phys ed, but he also speaks to history classes at the high school, where students learn about the Armenian Genocide along with the Holocaust.

“Even the kids who aren’t Armenian, it opens their eyes,” he said. “Most people don’t realize what it was until somebody sits down and tells them.”

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