Genocide Survivor Continues to Inspire

Araxie Altounian, Toronto, 27 April 2014

On August 14, 2012 Sirvard Kirishjian Kurdian, a Genocide survivor and a Toronto resident,  celebrated her 100th birthday, surrounded by family and close friends. She also received congratulatory letters by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England, and His Excellency the Governor General of Canada.

Still very much part of her family’s life, Sirvard inspires us with her quiet inner strength and to reminds us where we come from, as well as the sacrifices that our parents and grandparents made to preserve our Armenian identity.

Araxie Altounian, Toronto, 27 April 2014

On August 14, 2012 Sirvard Kirishjian Kurdian, a Genocide survivor and a Toronto resident,  celebrated her 100th birthday, surrounded by family and close friends. She also received congratulatory letters by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England, and His Excellency the Governor General of Canada.

Still very much part of her family’s life, Sirvard inspires us with her quiet inner strength and to reminds us where we come from, as well as the sacrifices that our parents and grandparents made to preserve our Armenian identity.

Sirvard was born in Erzerum, in August 1912 to Yeghishé Kirishjian, a textile merchant, and his wife Yepraksé. She was the youngest of six children. Three siblings had died of illness when the deportation of Armenians began. Her father and uncle, like other able men, were taken away and killed. Women, children and the elderly were ordered to leave their homes.

The Kirishjian women, children and grandfather started their forced journey on an ox cart. A few days later the Turks took away the cart. Sirvard and the family Singer sewing machine were loaded in a bag on one side of the ox, while her two paternal cousins were loaded in another bag on the other side. After a few days, grandfather Kirishjian was too exhausted to walk. A Turkish gendarme shot him in the head and ordered the family to move on. Later, it was Sirvard’s five-year-old brother, Vahram, who started to feel frail, begging for water. According to my great-grandmother, Yepraksé, whenever the Armenian caravan reached a source of water, the Turkish gendarmes would urinate in it to prevent the deportees from drinking. At some point, when they approached a Kurdish village, Yepraksé paid the locals for a cup of water. Alas, it was not enough to save Vahram. For the rest of her life, Yepraksé (who died in 1967) could never drink a glass of water without remembering her young Vahram. Neither could she finish saying the Lord’s Prayer, which brought back scenes of death and horror from her tortured past.

After six months of the forced march, the caravan reached Mosul, Iraq. Sirvard’s little cousins had died of exhaustion, thus bringing the number of surviving family members down to four: Sirvard, who had just turned three; her mother Yepraksé, sister Araksi, 12; and her uncle’s wife, Siranoush Kirishjian. Siranoush taught her niece Araksi how to sew on the Singer machine, and helped secure a modest income for the family. Sirvard still owns that machine which, she claims, saved their lives. Recently, her daughter researched its manufacturing date which turned out to be January 1912, the same year Sirvard was born.

The Kirishjians lived in Mosul for four years. During that period there was famine in the Middle East. When Sirvard’s mother Yepraksé delivered the clothes sewn by her daughter and sister-in-law, she occasionally brought along her young daughter Sirvard, hoping that people would give her some food. One day, when she made a delivery to the home of a Circassian photographer who lived with an Armenian woman, she took along Sirvard. A British soldier who happened to be there asked if he could be photographed with Sirvard. He rewarded her with a mejidieh (one Ottoman pound). It was the first time (1918) that Sirvard was photographed. In the photograph she is wearing a dress that her sister Araksi and aunt Siranoush had made from the better parts of a worn-out military blanket.

After the end of the war, Sirvard’s mother moved her family to Aleppo hoping to find relatives there. Sirvard was placed in several orphanages because her mother was unable to provide for her. Sirvard's sister, Araksi, took her to an orphanage, pretending the two had lost their mother. In the first orphanage Sirvard contracted leprosy and came close to losing her sight. She was taken out and after recovering was placed in a Catholic orphanage. There the Orthodox children were not given Holy Communion; she was converted to the Catholic faith. When her mother found out that the young girl had become a Catholic, she pulled her out again. Through the assistance of the newly formed association of Erzerum Armenians, Sirvard attended the Guiligian School.

Given her family’s situation, she never owned books during her school years, but copied her classmates’ books in her copybooks. One day, during a cultural event, she recited Daniel Varoujan’s “The Red Earth” (Կարմիր Հողը) with such intense emotion that she caught the attention of one of the school benefactors, Missak Azirian, who was in the audience. Learning that she was a fatherless child, he offered to pay her tuition until her graduation at fourteen.

It was during this period that her sister Araksi died at the age of 23, after being bedridden for six months. Sirvard became Yepraksé’s only surviving child. At 15 she married an orphan from Erzerum, Khachig Kurdian. Khachig had lost his entire family, and had been in four orphanages: in Mosul, Jerusalem, Beirut, and finally Aleppo. He had learned how to drive a tractor with the intention of returning to the newly-formed Republic of Armenia to work in agriculture. But political and financial obstacles got in the way, and he worked as a truck driver in Syria, often traveling to the Syrian desert for weeks on end. The couple had four children.

In the 1960s they moved to Beirut, Lebanon. Khachig died in 1974. Sirvard now lives in Toronto. She has seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

As a young mother, Sirvard complemented her husband’s modest income by doing exquisite embroidery and crochet–some of the finest in Aleppo. While in her nineties, she created several crochet covers for the altars and chalices of Armenian churches in Toronto, Armenia and Karapagh. Sirvard, well versed in traditional Armenian cuisine, was an excellent cook. Adored by her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, Sirvard remains the strong central pillar of her family. Her selflessness, generosity, patience, and immense love and affection have inspired her family members to remain closely knit and supportive of each other. During her 90th birthday celebrations, Sirvard said, “I have never owned any jewellery. My children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are my jewellery.”

When Sirvard turned one hundred in 2012, our parish priest, Fr. Zareh Zargarian, paid her a visit and was very moved by her stories of survival. He finally asked her, if she were to be born again, what would she like to have in her life. She said, “I would like to have a childhood. I never had one.”

How did Sirvard survive the harsh conditions of her youth? An Armenian poem that she had learned at school and which she loves to recite might summarize her philosophy that helped her to surmount the enormous challenges of her life:

Կամք, աշխատանք ու կորով Will, hard work and perseverance
Երեք ձիրքեր են որով Are three attributes by which
Մարդ ծովի վրայ թէ հողի, Man definitely succeeds
Անպայմա՛ն կը յաջողի: On sea or land.
   
Սակայն ձիրք մ'ալ կայ ա՛յն է, However, there's another attribute
Միւսներուն չափ պիտանի. As useful as the others:
Համբերութիւնն է որ մեզ Patience is what helps us
Հարթէ ամէն ասպարէզ: Overcome any challenge.
   
Համբերողն է իմաստուն, He who is patient is wise.
Կը ծաղկի իր արտն ու տուն: His land and his home prosper.
Համբերողին տան դրան՝ Of him who is patient.
Աստուած ինքն է պահապան: God Himself guards the home

Will, hard work, perseverance and patience have indeed become Sirvard’s, and by extension her family's driving force. As for the secret of her longevity? In Sirvard’s words, “When I see all this love and affection around me, I don’t want to go.”

 

1 comment
  1. The love that illuminates Sirvard
    May God continue to bless you and your family, Sirvard jan.

    You are beautiful, inside and out!

Comments are closed.

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