On the enduring legacy of Karnig Panian and his story.
At the dawn of World War I, Karnig Panian was a young Armenian boy living in an Anatolian village in what was then the Ottoman Empire. In his lifetime he witnessed and experienced firsthand the mass persecution, deportation, and extermination of the Armenians, a minority group both by dint of religion and ethnicity, at the hands of the nationalist Ottoman government. His memoir describes his experiences as a refugee in the deserts of Syria and as an orphan in an Antoura facility whose administrators sought to “Turkify” non-Turkish children. It also chronicles his personal struggle to guard against despair and erasure in the context of war and extreme loss.
In commemoration of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day (April 24th), we share an excerpt from his memoir, as well as a few words on Karnig's life and legacy from Armenian-American scholar, Vartan Gregorian, and Houry Boyamian, Karnig Panian’s daughter.
The history of World War I is steeped in tragedy so fathomless as to sometimes seem impossible to comprehend. Millions died, both soldiers and civilians. Nation-states emerged; others were carved up, absorbed into neighboring regions, or simply—forcibly—had their name and borders erased from the world map. But if one looks back at this world conflict, a single word among all others asserts its right to define the underlying tragedy of this era, and that is genocide.
One of the tales arising from the seemingly unspeakable atrocities of genocide is given an extraordinarily strong voice in this memoir by Karnig Panian (1910-1989). Panian was a young child when he was caught up in the Armenian Genocide. With heartbreaking and yet affectingly poetic language, he brings the reader into his life as an orphan subjected to the daily abuse that inculcated a devil’s bargain: Forget who you are and we will let you live. You will always remain the “Other” but at least you will be alive, and for that you should be grateful. This combination of outright slaughter and brute-force brainwashing was the first modern example of a kind of historical lobotomy meant to erase an entire people from the record of human existence. Thankfully, it did not work.
The Armenian Genocide was the first modern example of a kind of historical lobotomy meant to erase an entire people.
The publication of this book is timely because it comes on the eve of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. And it is presented to us at a time when genocide and ethnic cleansing are not just isolated episodes but practiced almost routinely around the world. Indeed, genocide seems to be one of the great afflictions of the twenty-first century. In her recent book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power, the current United States ambassador to the United Nations, references acts of genocide against Armenians, and later Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Rwandan Tutsis, and Bosnians, arguing it is “no coincidence that genocide rages on” when the world becomes indifferent, overloaded, perhaps, by endless images of atrocities that appear before our eyes in the relentless news cycle that assaults us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
And therein lies the great importance of Goodbye, Antoura. It is a testimonial to the impossibility of denying the invaluable, eternal, and unalterable humanity of even a single child, and thus, by extension, of his family, his village, his people. Armenians and all those who were subsequently devastated by genocidal acts never simply constituted a political problem to be solved, were never a “category” to be eliminated for the supposed purpose of a greater good or design, never a mere millet to be allowed a measure of autonomy until it suited a greater power to crush it into nonexistence. Karnig Panian will not allow us to rationalize that kind of excuse for the idea that even a single individual’s memory or identity can be taken from him. Bodies may be slaughtered, human beings bludgeoned and burned, but if even a single child survives, then memory survives as well. Memory cannot be assassinated. Truth cannot be denied. Karnig Panian survived, along with the revelatory truth of his story, and all of humanity is enriched by what he remembers and what he relates.
This is a remarkable and unforgettable book. It is an indispensable tool for awakening our consciences, restoring our collective sense of decency, and forging our solidarity with all those who have suffered the horrors of genocide. And it bears a message that must be heard: we can never let our guard down. We can never forgive or forget the suffering of all Karnig Panians, all over the world. That is the responsibility of humanity. It is the responsibility of each and every individual, as well.
Upon reading my father’s memoir for the first time, what struck me most were the details with which he described his childhood and his orphanhood. He was so young during the genocide, yet these details remained so clear in his memory forever. He vividly described his family’s idyllic life in their hometown, the joyful moments spent with his family and extended family, the love and attention that he and his siblings received from them, their church, their village school, their traditions and festive events.
When he and his family were forced from the village, it was the hope of returning home soon that kept them going. But unfortunately, this was never to be, and following the deportation everything he cherished was taken away—he witnessed the death of his beloved mother, his two-year old sister and three-year old brother, and his family lost all their properties, their possessions, their home.
My father made it his mission to preserve everything he could of his Armenian background, his language, culture, and heritage.
The one thing he could preserve was his Armenian identity, though he faced the threat of having even that taken from him. In the orphanage at Antoura, he and his fellow orphans experienced the most horrific methods used by the Ottoman government to change their identity. They were given numbers and Turkish names, and they were harshly punished every time they uttered a word in Armenian. During a three-year period, from 1915–1918, 300 of the 1,200 orphans kept at Antoura died. Thankfully, my father survived.
I remember my father as a man of principle, integrity, conviction, and clear mission. And it became immediately evident to me in reading his memoir that it was these traits that also sustained him as a child. Even at a young age, my father, and his fellow orphans, had a strong will to survive, as well as a strong sense of identity and justice.
My father made it his mission to preserve everything he could of his Armenian background, his language, culture, and heritage. He valued education, and, as a young man, he worked hard and saved money to attend the newly opened Armenian Lyceum (Djemaran) in Lebanon, where prominent Armenian intellectuals became his mentors. He then dedicated his life to educating future generations, serving first as a teacher and then as head of school at his alma mater. He played an important role in overseeing and reforming the educational system of Armenian schools affiliated with the Armenian Church in Lebanon. He established and published Agos, his alma mater’s alumni literary magazine, for 16 years. He gathered and edited his mentor Nigol Aghpalian’s four-volume manuscript. He knew how important it was for the world to know about his generation’s experiences, so in addition to this memoir about the orphanage at Antoura, he wrote about his experience at the orphanages at Aintab and at Jbeil, about his mentors, Levon Shant and Nigol Aghpalian, and about the Armenian Educational and Cultural Society (Hamazkayin) and Djemaran.
The emotional scars that the genocide left on my father were very deep, though he did not often talk openly about these events. He was a reserved man, always looking toward the future, determined to overcome any difficulty and maintain a positive attitude toward life. But every April, when the Armenian world commemorated the genocide, he sank into a kind of depression. These may have been the only times that he allowed himself to remember and relive the pain of those years.
On the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, my sister and I felt a deep obligation to introduce my father’s memoir to a wider readership. We hope to honor the memory of my father and his fellow orphans; to contribute to the demand for reparations; and to prevent, in our own way, future injustices.
Stanford University Press blog
A blog series in commemoration of the centennial.
Stanford University Press
One man’s recollection of his childhood spent in a “Turkified” Antoura orphanage.
A book review for Goodbye, Antoura.
Stanford University Press blog
Why do we downplay the non-lethal elements of genocide?
Stanford University Press blog
Justice, Martin Luther King, and the Armenian Genocide.