Honoring genocide victims brings hope for the future

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

All while growing up, Michael Nishanian read the newspaper article about his great-grandfather again and again, never imagining he would reconnect with his namesake well into adulthood in a much more personal way.

Preserved by his parents, the article published by The Detroit News 30 years ago was about his great-grandfather’s horrific experience as one of the few survivors of the Armenian genocide.

“They wanted to send us to the deserts because they were told that a lot of dead bodies would cause disease and many Turks might themselves die from disease,” the elder Michael Nishanian said in an interview with The Detroit News in 1985. The article was commemorating the 70th anniversary of the atrocity.

“While we were being marched, I saw the first real massacre on the road. The Turks were killing Armenians, chopping off their heads, hands and feet. We kept going. I saw lots of things along the way. Many people died from thirst and starvation.”

“That News story has been my primary link to his past,” says Nishanian, 35, an associate creative director for Team Detroit. “Each time I read it, it amazes me. His family was murdered, he was driven from his homeland, forced to bury countless numbers of his countrymen and narrowly escaped death. And even after all that, he still viewed himself as ‘lucky.’ ”

April 24, 2015, marks the centennial anniversary of the slaughter of 1.5 million Christian Armenians that took place in present-day Turkey from 1915-1923, during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

Nishanian’s great-grandfather arrived in Detroit in 1920 at the age of 19. Before the genocide, Nishanian’s extended family numbered 44 people. Of those, only 11 survived.

While Turkey’s government has acknowledged that atrocities were committed, it has denied that the killing of Armenians was systemic and intentional.

For Armenians, that denial only amplifies the travesty.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Nishanian says. “To endure and survive the worst humanity has to offer only for your struggles to go unrecognized. It’s as if my great-grandfather’s pain and suffering — history itself — didn’t happen.”

The elder Nishanian died in 1987, when the younger Michael was only 8 years old. Because his great-grandfather implored “Armenian youth to take up our just cause,” in the article, Nishanian says he now aims to fulfill that legacy by sharing his family’s painful history.

“What is so remarkable is how my great-grandfather did not rage over the injustices,” Nishanian said. “He called for understanding, almost forgiveness, because, he felt that everyday ordinary Turkish people did not want to kill Armenians. He said they were stirred by goverment propaganda to be very anti-Christian.”

Nishanian’s great-grandfather was able to escape death, in part, because he dressed like a girl (“If you were a 12- or 13-year-old boy, they would kill you right away, since you were old enough to fight back.”) Eventually, he and a friend were able to run away; they found water and begged for bread from a passerby.

For Nishanian, the pain and loss that has been passed down through generations — what some call transgenerational grief — is still palpable. But Nishanian says there is hope in the struggle for recognition. Recently, Pope Francis said it is “necessary, and indeed a duty” to validate the genocide as an “immense and senseless slaughter.”

Because of their shared history, many Armenians feel an immediate kinship upon meeting someone with an “ian” at the end of the surname. Nishanian says: “It’s knowing that those three letters are not all we have in common.”

That’s exactly what happened recently when Team Detroit was filming an interview with photographer Michelle Andonian as part of a documentary on Detroit’s culture. Andonian is well known in the Detroit Armenian community and is finishing a body of work including a book, art exhibition and a performance art piece that commemorates the 2015 centenary of the genocide.

When the filming was done, Nishanian introduced himself to Andonian. The two ended up talking for an hour.

Andonian told him about her family history; how her grandmother was 6 years old when her father was executed and how her baby brother did not survive the death marches. When Andonian asked her grandmother what she remembered, she replied: “I only remember the smell. There were thousands of dead bodies and we were walking, walking, walking.”

When Nishanian later emailed the article about his great-grandather to Andonian, both were stunned when they spotted Andonian’s name. Andonian worked for The News during the years 1984-1987 and she was the photographer on the story.

For Andonian, memories came flooding back.

“I remember photographing the survivors was a huge honor for me,” she says. “That 30 years later, I met Michael by chance, the great-grandson of the man I photographed, and that photo would carry his story forward to him is amazing to me. Michael Nishanian is more than a namesake for his great-grandfather, he is the future. He’s proof that Armenians have and will survive.”

Nishanian says the serendipity could not be more profound.

“I didn’t get to talk to my great-grandfather, so the bulk of what I know comes from the interview that Michelle got to do with him,” he says. “That connection motivates me even more to spread awareness. I’m so lucky to share his name. I’m proud to tell his story.”