Madeleine Prochazka

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I was born in 1940. I was a little girl when my mother--over stacks of beans she collected almost religiously from her garden in France and which she would insist we clean and eat every day--would tell me of her youth and of the ordeal she and my father had to go through during the Turkish massacres. She would explain to me how, after many grueling experiences, they finally reached France, along with a number of other Armenian refugees.

Both my father and mother were from Marash. My mother told me that her parents used to own a textile weaving business, which flourished until one day, when she was 7 years old, the Turks came and took the business away. She had just entered school and had received one week of schooling only. Since money was scarse, and since my grandparents, in addition to my mother, had two younger daughters to feed, they took my mother out of school and put her as an apprentice in a carpet weaving workshop. My mother told me she had to memorize every design and every color and apply them, even at that young age. Since she was born in 1903, this must have happened around 1910.

Seven years later, my mother’s parents chose a husband for her, when she was barely 14. She promptly bore my father three children. The first one lived to the age of three but starved to death following advice from older women that my mother cure the measles he had contracted by not feeding him! The next two children were premature and stillborn. Meanwhile her own mother had died and she was fully in charge of caring for her two younger sisters as well. As my mother was undergoing her fourth pregnancy (by then it must have been 1920), one day the gendarmes came to her father’s house and shot him in the snow, right in front of their house. Right after, my parents were told to abandon their home and were sent out to the desert to join the march of other local Armenians like them. Since my mother was pregnant and could not very well walk for long, my father somehow procured a camel. The legend has it that my oldest brother’s nose, which was flat, had rubbed against the hump of the camel which had broken it even before he was born!

My mother told me that they walked for about 40 days, then they reached a church where they took shelter. By then she was thirsty and hungry, particularly for salt, and afraid the soldiers might do to her what they had done to others, i.e., slice open her belly and cut off her breasts to steal the child from her. She begged a “nice” young soldier for salt and asked for his mercy, and the young man agreed. She was thus able to survive and eventually make her way to Syria with my father and her two younger sisters.

Some time afterwards, they emigrated to Lebanon, which, being a French protectorate at the time, was under French supervision. The French loaded several groups of refugees on boats and brought them to France. On the way, my mother told me that they were offered meat, which looked very appetizing, but although she was hungry my naïve mother refused to eat it because rumor had it that it was tiger meat, hence poisoned and not edible!

Once in France, my parents and other refugees were housed in an abandoned factory and put to work in a textile factory. After several years, my mother had the idea of selling fruit on the sidewalk and, never having managed to learn to read or write, with the help of my father and older brother she nevertheless managed to build a successful business which my two brothers and sisters inherited. As for me, I came to the U.S. as an instructor of French and English, met my husband, built my own family and stayed in the US to this day.

Madeleine Prochazka
(daughter of Armenian parents)