From Van to Toronto: A Life in Two Worlds
Review by Tamara C. Gureghian
Used with permission from the Armenian Weekly.
If you are looking for a Christmas present for someone special, look no further. From Van to Toronto: A Life in Two Worlds should be under your tree. I highly recommend this book for young and old readers alike. It will serve as an excellent present for teachers, for it educates as it entertains.
From Van to Toronto details the life of survivor Oksen Teghtsoonian, who lived from 1896-1987. What sets this book apart from others regarding the Genocide is that it details the early childhood of a boy as told to his son and grandson.
From the editors' note and introduction it appears that the author did not intend the manuscript to be mass produced, but rather to be savored by his immediate family and heirs. Thus, a certain truthfulness rings throughout the prose.
You learn details that an author by trade may have discarded as a digression. I valued each "digression" as a treasured morsel of life that otherwise may have been forgotten. I have always wondered about the details of my grandparents' lives. What was it like to be a kid in Armenia before the Genocide? How did they live? What did they play? What was school like?
"The ruling Turkish government had no public educational system at all, and it was up to the ethnic groups to provide education for their children." The Armenian Church primarily took over this role for the Armenians. Teghtsoonian informs readers that his school was strictly segregated by gender--"we were not even permitted to say hello to each other." He reveals details such as how our ancestors slept, how marriage was proposed, and how trains operated without schedules.
Teghtsoonian discusses how the Armenians excelled in matters of economics, culture, and education before the Genocide, and he recalls specifically a high Turkish official stating, "You Armenians are running too fast for us Turks. You are far ahead of us in education, culture, trade, and commerce. If you don't slow down your pace so that we are able to catch up, we will drag you down to our level, and worse."
Within the dramatic autobiography are interwoven stories of intrigue and corruption. The author discusses individual revolutionary organizations and the repercussions of heroic acts. You often hear about the heroism, but rarely of the consequences. He details how Turks destroyed villages by day and how the Armenians rebuilt them at night, thereby infuriating the enemy.
He describes his understanding of how the fedayees obtained and stored weapons; how they traveled, lived, and sometimes betrayed their own. He uncovers how the irrigation canals served as an underground railroad of sorts for freedom fighters. There are more than enough stories enticing the reader to turn the page just once more.
He brings to light fascinating information that is often overlooked. We know about the Young Turks, but did you know how happy and hopeful the Armenians were when they first came to power? We hear about the death marches, but did you know that some Armenians evacuated their cities and marched for days and weeks not at the butt end of a rifle but on their own accord to escape the forced marches? We know about the draft, but did you know that many Armenian boys were saved from the draft due to a head tax that was imposed at the time of their birth?
Teghtsoonian was born at a time when Armenians were not permitted to be a part of the army. As penalty for not serving, a head tax was imposed upon the Armenians; thus, parents avoided declaring the birth of a child as long as possible. This law forbidding Armenians to serve was lifted by World War I.
Nonetheless, the birth records were still off. As a result, although Teghtsoonian was 18 during the war, he was not drafted because according to his paperwork he was only 12!
He puts you in the heart of the action, allowing you to feel the fear and confusion of the times. Teghtsoonian escaped and returned to his hometown several times, always hopeful that life would return to some semblance of normality. You sense the dilemma our people faced caught between the Russians and the Turks. While the Russians were in their city they felt safe, but then the rumors started. Are the Turks coming back? Will the Russians who moved in and protected the Armenians now retreat? Are the Russians starting the rumors to get the Armenians to leave? Or are the Turks really on their way back to murder the remainder?
Details of the marches are described with vivid poetic accuracy. "The wide avenue was thick with marching humanity. The dust of the traffic was choking." He recounts how hail the size of walnuts ferociously beat down on him, turning the ground to thick mud as he walked for hours.
The details he includes are personal, real--the type that you tell your children, someone who cares about you, but are often omitted when talking to an outsider, a stranger.
He captures the essence of why many survivors did not want to talk about their ordeal--the guilt of having survived. "Sixty years have gone by, and I still feel shame and remorse over leaving my family in a time of crisis, when I should have stayed and shared their fate."
How sad that so many of our ancestors who ensured the survival of our nation never forgave themselves for doing so.
Teghtsoonian notes the craziness and deception that permeated society. He states that those with oxcarts would carry useless junk rather than carry needy people. "There was a sort of madness and selfishness, everybody for himself, the survival of the fittest." He tells how he was robbed by someone who claimed they could get him a passport, how he was told he could work for a nice family and be treated like a son, when instead he was treated like a slave.
He tells of his triumphs: how he revolutionized a hospital helping hundreds of Armenians, how in his mid 20s he became the highest paid official in Armenia and was able to create many jobs for the struggling populace. He relays his failures: how his poor translation of an important document caused international trouble.
Historical moments, such as the new republic and the wars, are interwoven and given new perspective from one who lived through it all. There are endearing little tidbits, such as a story about black olives.
His orphanage received 50 barrels of black olives, which Armenians in his area had never seen before. He had a terrible time convincing the children to eat them, something we consider a staple in the Armenian diet today.
His struggle to survive and the tragedies in his life did not end when he went to Toronto. Year after year, he struggled to survive the Depression, fight assimilation, and protect his family from personal misfortunes. He talks about his children: "It is one thing to feed and clothe a family as best you can, but it is a 100 times harder to mold their characters as you desire." You receive a complete portrait of this man whose life story will enrich your own.
I feel privileged to have read this book. I feel blessed that Oksen Teghtsoonian has shared his story with me. I feel a part of his family. As a result of this book, I have a deeper understanding for my family, my heritage, and my legacy. For those of you who never had the opportunity to ask your great grandparents their stories, I suggest you adopt Teghtsoonian as your own. Share this book. Give this book. Rejoice in this book.