By Stefanie Pousoulides, ’21

My summer research project examines the League of Nations’ humanitarian and legal solutions for Armenian Genocide survivors during the interwar period. I have previously examined the League’s publications and have read secondary sources related to this topic and have noticed that the genocide survivors are often portrayed as objects of assistance and not as agents themselves using the aid. I decided that, before delving further into the League’s digitized materials this summer, I wanted to take a step back by getting a better understanding of how survivors of the Armenian Genocide described their own experiences.

Rose Apelian on May 6, 1992, interviewed by J. Michael Hagopian in Los Angeles, California, USA. Video by the Armenian Film Foundation.

Last semester, I was in a course called Genocide and Human Rights, for which we had the option of using the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation visual history archive to find a primary source for one of our assignments. The oral history I chose as my source for that assignment was about an Armenian woman describing a judge in Harput granting her biological mother, who was an Armenian woman, custody of her, even though the girl had testified that the Turkish woman, who had been taking care of her after she was abducted, was her mother. The story was so fascinating and relevant to my interest in studying legal solutions available to Armenian women survivors of the genocide that I decided to listen to 18 more oral histories through the archive this summer. Although I have yet to find a similar story of an Ottoman court, I have realized that there were other ways Armenian women survivors had to prove their identity in a less formal setting in order to receive assistance.

I first listened to the oral history I had already written about to reflect on whether I would have done the analysis differently now. The Armenian survivor, Haiganoush Bedrosian, at the time of the interview was 75 years old and first described being deported with her mother, aunt and grandmother from Bingol, Turkey. During the deportation, Haiganoush said that her mother had wanted to throw her in a creek after a baby they were taking care of had died of starvation but that her aunt had convinced her mother otherwise. Her aunt later became separated from the rest of the family, and Haiganoush does not mention her again. One day they came to a brick building, where her mother and grandmother had decided to sit. Haiganoush, at the time was around three years old and was playing in the street, when two Turkish women took her with them, as her mother and grandmother could not stand up due to their swollen legs. Haiganoush described that, nine months later after living in the home of a Turkish officer and his wife, her mother, who had since been working for Turkish soldiers, saw her in the street in Harput, Turkey. Her mother went to Turkish officers and told them she thought she saw her daughter, and soon they had a court hearing for Haiganoush’s mother to prove that she was her mother.

Nvart Assaturian on February 21, 1988, interviewed by J. Michael Hagopian in McLean, Virginia, USA. Video by the Armenian Film Foundation.

The key part of the court case is that the judge asked Haiganoush to point out which woman was her mother. When she motioned to the Turkish woman, the Armenian woman began to cry and described to the judge what had happened. The only other detail Haiganoush provided is that the judge believed her and allowed Haiganoush to be reunited with her mother, presumably meaning that the judge ruled in favor of her Armenian mother. This story first made me wonder who had standing in the Turkish court, and which cases the judges selected to hear. Was this the first case the judge had heard of its kind? How often were Armenians able to appear before a Turkish court trial seeking similar remedies during the genocide?

My original interpretation was that it was Haiganoush’s mother’s connections to the Turkish officers and soldiers who provided her access to the court, and that perhaps one of the Turkish officers or soldiers was representing the interests of her mother, if she herself did not have standing. Now I am also considering how the judge’s decision likely evaluated both Haiganoush’s trauma being taken from her family but not realizing it, and her mother’s trauma in witnessing her child no longer recognizing her as her mother and having to retell her story in court as more significant than Haiganoush’s testimony as a toddler. It’s likely that Haiganoush did not remember every detail she recalled in the interview for the oral history, and that her mother likely retold the story to her when she was older. How Armenian women explained their experiences and their identities was key to receiving assistance.

Haiganoush Bedrosian on March 26, 1987, interviewed by J. Michael Hagopian in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. Video by the Armenian Film Foundation.

With this new perspective in mind, I began to recognize a theme among the other oral histories I listened to, how Armenian women described their identity to others in order to receive assistance and survive the genocide. For instance, one Armenian survivor, Nvart Assaturian, living in a Turkish household recalled encountering Russian soldiers in Turkey during the war, and how the soldiers asked her to prove she was Armenian before they would help her. To do so, she read a note written in Armenian to them, which caused them to cry, and Nvart was soon after living in a hiding location for Armenians. Another Armenian survivor, Rose Apelian, was recently orphaned and met an Armenian woman in a hospital who asked her to prove she was Armenian in order to receive her assistance. Rose displayed tattoos of crosses and Jesus on her arms to the woman, who then arranged for a Turkish person to help Rose be sent from the Diyarbakir, Turkey hospital to an orphanage in Istanbul.

In the absence of formal means of redress, these survivors chose personal characteristics to perform their identity to convince aid providers that they should receive assistance. These Armenian women making their own cases for redress outside of legal infrastructure demonstrates another way Armenian women acted as agents of change and not just recipients. I find this perspective crucial to understand prior to delving into analysis of how institutions, like the League of Nations, responded to the needs of Armenian women during the interwar period in treating them as objects of humanitarianism instead of as self-advocating survivors of genocide.