George Hakalmazian

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Fresno Bee May 22 2008 CA

George Hakalmazian was 99 or 100 when he died May 15 in Fresno. His age and birth date were an impenetrable mystery, but not the place of his birth, Peri, Armenia, nor the horrors he witnessed there as a child.

Ninety-three years ago, turmoil and massacres at the hands of Ottoman Turks nearly killed him, and did kill some 1.5 million other Armenians.

His family retells his death-defying experience as one boy's chapter in the sad saga of the Armenian Genocide.

Grandson Scott Tejerian recounted the word-of-mouth family history that passes from one generation to the next. As an Armenian boy of 6 or 7, Mr. Hakalmazian escaped Peri, but without certification of his birth. There was no time to retrieve documents.

In an uncanny family coincidence in Fresno, Scott Tejerian's father, Thomas, died Friday of cancer, one day after Mr. Hakalmazian.

Scott's father and his maternal grandfather were not blood relatives, but they were close friends who shared vital history, Scott Tejerian said, because they shared memories of mass slaughter not far from the Yeprat River, better known as the Euphrates.

Mr. Hakalmazian never forgot the brutal and terrifying massacre he witnessed as a small boy.

He talked about it often with his grandson in his still-thick Armenian accent, and Tejerian retells it, keeping alive his grandfather's account of the Armenian genocide:

Mr. Hakalmazian's sister was forced to marry a son of the Turkish mayor of Peri. The sister, whose name Tejerian doesn't know, married the Turk on the promise that these nuptials would guarantee the safety of Mr. Hakalmazian's family. That promise was betrayed, Tejerian said.

His mother and father were taken and killed.

Turkish soldiers took Mr. Hakalmazian and an older brother, Hagop, for slave labor. A third brother, Marderos, already had left Armenia and was living in Chicago.

Soldiers grabbed Mr. Hakalmazian's small nephew, too small for labor, and threw him into the Yeprat to drown. But the nephew, whose name has disappeared in the century since, had often swum the Yeprat.

He stroked easily until, as family history has it, horrified relatives saw soldiers shoot him dead in the water.

That execution haunted Mr. Hakalmazian forever.

"It didn't matter how old he was," Tejerian said. "As he told us that story, he cried."

Mr. Hakalmazian was taken for slave labor for a Turkish farmer and toiled for him for several years. A cousin in his late teens sometimes sneaked into the camp to check on him until the night he finally took Mr. Hakalmazian and several others and shepherded them to an orphanage, Mr. Hakalmazian's daughter, Margaret Tejerian, recalled.

The orphanage arranged for them to get to another orphanage in Lebanon.

In 1923, brother Marderos Hakalmazian sponsored them for immigration to the United States.

In a fitting coincidence, Mr. Hakalmazian entered his new country on Ellis Island under the watchful gaze of the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July, 1923. Mr. Hakalmazian always treasured the timing.

U.S. Customs agents asked the teen for his birth date, which was a mystery to him and his surviving relatives. They didn't know, so they told the agents it was that day, July 4.

"He always loved that," Margaret Tejerian said. "It made him very proud to have the same birth date. ... He was happy be alive and go to school."

Mr. Hakalmazian arrived with no English. Marderos Hakalmazian brought him to Chicago, where he got work in a print shop and learned English. He started first grade as a teenager and graduated from high school at 21.

He worked in a Chicago dry cleaning shop and learned to become a tailor.

Later, he moved to Glendale -- whose large Armenian community welcomed him -- and opened his own dry cleaning store with money he had saved in Chicago.

Scott Tejerian grieved for his father and grandfather this week.

What he said of his father, who served under Gen. George S. Patton in World War II, applied as well to his grandfather: "My dad was a very proud man. He didn't talk about it a lot. He loved the Armenian traditions, but loved being American. He said this was the best place to live."

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