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.

Four years later, my mother’s parents chose a husband for her, when she was barely 11. She promptly bore my father a child who got to live to the age of three but who starved to death following advice from older women that my mother cure the measles he had contracted by not feeding him! (To her dying day, the memory of his cries haunted her!) She subsequently underwent further pregnancies, but one child was premature and the other stillborn. Meanwhile her own mother had died and she was fully in charge of caring for her two younger sisters as well.

By then, it was 1915, and she remembered that one day the gendarmes came to her father’s house and, for no reason, shot him and left him lying in the snow, right in front of his house.

Shortly thereafter, my parents along with other Armenians were told to abandon their homes and join the march in the desert that was to lead them to Syria.

My mother told me that they walked for about 40 days, then they reached a church where they took shelter. By then, being pregnant again, 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 she was carrying 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. In particular, a textile factory in Vienne, in need of cheap labor, asked that some Armenians be imported to fill that task.

On the boat that was bringing them over, my mother told me that they were offered meat, which looked very appetizing, but due to all the experiences she had had to face until then, she refused to eat it because rumor had it that it was tiger meat, probably poisoned and not edible!

Once in France, my parents and other refugees were housed in an abandoned factory building and put to work in an active textile factory nearby. My mother worked there while undergoing still additional pregnancies. After a few 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 fruit and vegetable business which my two brothers and two sisters inherited.

As for me, I was fortunate to be able to complete an advanced degree. Hence I came to the U.S. as an exchange instructor of French and English Languages and Literature, but met my husband, built my own family and stayed in the US to this day.

Madeleine Prochazka
(daughter of Armenian parents)