Metz Yeghérn (“The Great Evil”)

In the summer of 2005, my family and I had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian at his home in New Hampshire. I have followed the work of Dr. Kalpakgian since the early nineties. I first recall reading him in the New Oxford Review as a high school senior. At the time, I was being fed a steady dose of Homer in my Greek class and I noticed similar themes apparent in Kalpakgian’s writings. He wrote about the homely virtues and simple pleasures; the truly heroic things in our unheroic age. This is what attracted me to Kalpakgian then, and attracts me now.

Our visit was in July and the weather was hot. Dr. Kalpakgian served us a delicious chilled cucumber yogurt soup, a favorite Armenian treat. I savor the memory even more because of the absolute relish with which Dr. Kalpakgian both described the soup’s origins and ate the soup. He recalled for us that eating this soup brought him back to the days of his youth when this was standard summer fare on Armenian tables. He spoke of his memories and his family and of his proud heritage. Of course, our conversations that summer lingered on a whole host of topics, largely revolving around literature and the virtues that animated our culture but seem to be disappearing. But seeing his delight and happiness around that table over that soup was the thing that I will most remember.

My wife Annie and I also received a gift from Dr. Kalpakgian on that trip, his book An Armenian Family Reunion. Like all of the books he has given us, he inscribed it:

To John and Ann Dejak and children: May this book make you fall in love with life all over again and make you forever grateful for the joys, adventures, and comedy of family life in all its abundance. Mitchell Kalpakgian, Warner NH, July 24, 2005.

Of course we couldn’t wait to read it and we decided that we would read it together on the way back to Ft. Drum, NY where I was then stationed in the U.S. Army. As we began to read it out loud on the way home, we were intrigued. He started off the book with a dedication:

To the Armenian martyrs who died for their Christian faith and passed on to the Armenian people and eventually to my family and to me the good news about God’s inestimable love for every human being as a precious gift from Heaven.

He continues the dedication to his family, his children and his beloved deceased wife. Yet, the first names mentioned were poignant. Who were these Armenian martyrs to whom Kalpakgian dedicated his book? A hint of an answer was to come in the opening lines of the preface: “When I was a young man in my twenties pursuing graduate degrees in English and preparing for a career in teaching, my father–a survivor of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915–urged me, ‘Mitch, you should  write my story!'”  I confess that it was the reading of this book in the summer of 2005, that I first heard, in any detail, the story of the Armenian genocide.

The recent remarks of Pope Francis commemorating the horror of those days in 1915 caused great diplomatic furor between the Holy See and Turkey.  For the pope’s courage in speaking the truth–as both John Paul II and Benedict XVI did on the same issue–protests were made by Turkish officials and the Western diplomatic corps remained in a rather supine position. The issue takes on a greater poignancy as the ongoing onslaught of ISIS proceeds and the systematic extermination of Christians in the Middle East and Africa by Islamic militants continues.

Armenians_marched_by_Turkish_soldiers,_1915In light of these realities, the 100th anniversary of the Metz Yeghérn (“The Great Evil”) takes on a greater significance. For years, the history books were silent on the Armenian genocide during World War I, but now a new appreciation for the horror suffered by those good people is being recognized as a new genocide is being perpetrated upon believers in Christ that has not been seen in a systematic way since 1915. God’s ways are indeed inscrutable and the sufferings of the Armenian people in 1915 may be a spur to the conscience of those in the West to take seriously the plight of persecuted Christians today. Similarly, the sufferings of the great Armenian people not only are a reminder to us of the depths of iniquity to which man can fall, it also shows us the values of love and sacrifice and the heroism of parents loving their children. These are the things of which Kalpakgian speaks.

As a remembrance of that annus horribilis of 1915 and as a paean to the heroic Armenian people who suffered greatly for their faith–many offering the ultimate sacrifice–I reproduce for you selections from the story of one such survivor of the Armenian genocide as told by Dr. Kalpakgian. It is a story of love and family and one such of many more:

In the village of Agun your grandfather Nubar lived with his mother, a widow, and his younger sister Nunia. He was about thirteen or fourteen years old. He was the fourth of five children, his three older brothers having left the old country for America or France to find jobs and find opportunities. One day the Turkish army entered the village and ordered the people to gather all their possessions and to prepare to relocate for purposes of safety because of the war. Of course it was an enormous lie. It was a trick to lead the Armenians in caravans through the mountains and deserts and then rob them, starve them, kill them, or let them die of exhaustion.

The Turkish soldiers and the Kurds from the mountains plundered and looted the Armenians, seizing any of the possessions they wanted, checking all their clothes for money, jewels, or prized belongings. After a few days of marching it became perfectly clear to everyone that they were destined to die in the desert of Der-el-Zor or at the hands of Turkish soldiers. Grandpa mentioned the horrible memories of death he saw everywhere around him, shocked at the sight of women jumping into rivers with their babies rather than suffer the heat and torment any longer or the cruelties of the Turks. I remember Grandpa mentioned his disgust at the smell of human bodies left unburied by the soldiers and the horror of seeing so many bodies thrown in the rivers. Yes, I know these details are loathsome and depressing to hear, but you’re all old enough now to understand these things. This is just one reason why people refer to the ‘ugliness’ of sin and evil. We should never forget–the whole world should never forget–how gross and repulsive evil always is no matter how much lies, words, and propaganda attempt to deny it.

So one evening as the march through the desert continues, Grandpa’s mother Yeranoui (Evelyn) told her son, ‘I want to tell you something. You must listen and promise to do it. It is nighttime now. When we wind around the next mountain in the darkness, I want you to run. Yes, hokees (my beloved one), you and Kevork, your best friend, have a chance to escape if you run under the cover of the dark and stay in the back of the march. The gendarmes may see you, but they cannot chase you; you can easily outrun them. They may fire, but they will not see their target. You must take this chance. I want you to do this. I am your mother, and I don’t want you to be killed or die in the desert. The Turks are going to kill every last one of us somehow. I cannot run like you, and I must stay with Nunia. It is better that one of us should live than all of us go to our deaths….

When the path began to wind, [ ] Yeranouhi tapped Nubar and said “Heema!” (Now!) Nubar and Kevork ran wildly down the slope and ignored all the shouts and threats of the soldiers who fired several shots in the distance in vain. When they finally stopped running about ten minutes later and looked backwards, they heard no footsteps and saw no movements…For the next year and a half…Grandpa and his friend Kevork lived like vagabonds, hiding during the day, stealing fruit from orchards wherever possible, living outdoors, starving for food for much of the time. Once he was so desperate that he ate grass to curb his raging hunger….Grandpa lived like this…until the Armistice was signed in 1918.

In speaking of this amazing story, the narrator in Kalpakgian’s book tells his children:

Never take the gift of life for granted. It’s a miracle we are alive, and only by the grace of God are we here today. We would never have been born if Grandpa had died on that march or was slaughtered by the vicious Turk. Just think: what if Grandpa’s mother did not beg him to run? What if Grandpa was too afraid to run and decided to stay and face death with his mother and sister? What if there was no kind Turk to protest the savage killing of an innocent orphan? When you know all the facts about your family history or the great events of your parents’ lives, you then begin to understand the mysterious hand of God’s Divine Providence in human life. Don’t forget:  your grandfather’s escape from death is a miracle. Your lives are also a miracle. The survival of the Armenian people is also another miracle.

As a final comment to the whole story, the narrator recounts the words of Nubar, the young survivor now grown old with years. Having recalled the whole painful memory of the horrors of 1915, he is asked if he might say something in Armenian. The elderly survivor obliges:

‘Hokees goodum haires yev maires vor desnum.’ (‘I would give my heart and soul to see my father and mother.’)

Indeed, please God, he now does.



This article, Metz Yeghérn (“The Great Evil”) is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

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John M. DeJak

John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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