This photo stopped me on social media, as i was following the different Genocide Centennial Memorial events all over the world. I asked for more details, “the woman is Hayganush and my great grandpa Krikor with 2 of their 5 sons. My great uncle Zareh is holding his dad’s hand and the little baby is my grandpa Diran who found his mom when he was 18 in Istanbul. His brother and dad couldn’t survive….” I wished to comment #turkeyfailed because the strong woman survived but on a second thought I changed my mind to spare trouble to the grandchildren who still reside In Turkey.
The story hits me hard, and I am now eager to know more, I refuse to surrender to the dark images that come into my mind, what happened? Why was the beautiful family separated and what did they go through? How did they survive? Maral and Melisse Horhoryan, share the story of their maternal grandparents of Turkish Nationality, from Constantinople (Bolis), that I have always thought was spared the black days of genocide…
Krikor and Hayganush Lepyan lived in Yerzenga, and had five sons. They had lost a son to illness before 1915, and had given Diran to Krikor’s sister because she couldn’t have children. When the war started they decided to move from Erzenga, to safer grounds. Hayganush disguised her husband, whom she knew since she was 13 years old, in women’s clothes, and left their home along with their 4 boys and Krikor’s sister.
They came across a group of Turkish soldiers, who were almost tricked into thinking they are all women, and who let them pass the inspection point, when one of the Turkish gendarms noticed that one of the women was wearing men’s shoes, and upon checking Krikor was exposed. They wanted to arrest him and take him away.
Hayganush tried to stop them, she tried to beg for his life, pulling his arm in a desperate effort to save him. One gendarm took out his sword, Killed Krikor, and almost cut her hand leaving a deep scar “she had to live with that mark on her hand. She always looked at that mark and cried- grandpa told us”
In one chaotic moment that changed their lives forever, Hayganush lost her husband, her sister in law, who ended her life by jumping into the river. Everyone was running in all directions, running for their lives, running without looking back. She lost 3 of her sons in a split second and soon she found 7 year old Haygaz.
The older boy in the picture, Zareh of 5 years, died on the road calling “Father, Father…” because of the cruelty of what he had witnessed. The younger boy (Grandpa Diran) in the picture, who was three at the time, was taken by the Turkish soldiers. 12 years old Gaydzag was no where to be found, but was later found by French soldiers and sheltered in an orphanage and later on sent to Iran.
Hayganush gathered her strength, and with her son Haygaz(7 years) on her back and some other women from their village, rode her horse for 3 days, to reach and hide in the mountains and escape the Turkish and Kurdish troops. She knew very well that once she had been captured, she would either be tortured, killed or raped, or forced to marry.
Hayganush never gave up on her kids, even went to France then to Russia searching for them. She came back to Turkey to look for her sons, but kept sending letters to Erzincan from Istanbul to see if anyone knew about her lost son. Then 15 years later, a neighbor who had known everything but had kept silent, finally decided to send a letter to Istanbul. She had been bit by a dog that belonged to a family who had adopted Diran, so she got mad and sought revenge.
The letter included information about the whereabouts of Diran, whom the Turkish soldiers had given away for adoption to a certain family who needed a son because they had lost their own during an earthquake.
“My grandpa was 3 years old when he was adopted. He didn’t know that they were not his real family. His friends used to call him “gavur.” He didn’t understand why they used to call him infidel as both his mom and dad were Muslims.
“Our grandpa was raised as a Muslim and didn’t speak Armenian… He didn’t know that he was Armenian until the age of 18 when his ‘mayrig’ found him .. That’s how he used to call her “.
The eldest son Gaydzag, who was sent to an Iranian Orphanage by French soldiers, found out somehow that his mother and brothers were alive and united in Istanbul, and he often visited them after reaching adulthood, and never lost contact.
LEPYAN… was their last name, LEP means money in old Turkish, and they were a rich family. They lost everything, but the courage of this great woman, and her will to survive, helped her find her sons and ease the pain of the past memories.
Diran grew up to be a fine Armenian Christian father and Grandparent, telling his story of survival to his grandchildren as a bedtime story. Maral and Melisse, remain loyal to his memory and promise to Remember and Demand Justice for their Great Grandfather Krikor, their young uncle Zareh, and continue the legacy of their Great Grandmother Hayganush in keeping their families united forever.