The Knock at the Door

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The Knock at the Door
Book-cover-the knock at the door.jpg
Author Margaret Ahnert
Publication Year 2007
ISBN ISBN 9780825305122
Publisher Beaufort Books
Format Softbound
Language English
Category Genocide, Biographies & Memoirs


In 1915, Armenian Christians in Turkey were forced to convert to Islam, barred from speaking their language, and often driven out of their homes as the Turkish army embarked on a widespread campaign of intimidation and murder. In this riveting book, Margaret Ajemian Ahnert relates her mother Ester’s terrifying experiences as a young woman during this period of hatred and brutality.

At age 15, Ester was separated from her foster family during a forced march away from her birth town of Amasia. Though she faced unspeakable horrors at the hands of many she met on the road, and was forced into an abusive marriage against her will, she never lost her faith, quick wit, or ability to see the good in people. Eventually she escaped and made her way to America.

Ahnert’s compelling account of her mother’s suffering is framed by an intimate portrait of her relationship with her 98-year-old mother. Ester’s inspiring stories, told lovingly by her daughter, will give you a window into the harrowing struggle of Armenians during a terrible period in human history.

Excerpts from chapter eight

Excerpts from chapter eight The Knock at the Door Ester – June, 1915

The morning before we planned to leave, zaptiehs came pounding on our door. A youthful Turkish soldier with the authority, might, and terror of the Turkish army in his voice, shouted that we had to leave immediately.

"Whoever remains will be shot," he said. "Move along, yallah, yallah." Two other soldiers were standing behind him with large rifles in their hands. I backed up against the far wall. Vartouhi threw her shoulders back and stood tall. “How can we leave so quickly?” she said, catching her breath between words. “We need to prepare.”

“That’s not my business,” the soldier said. “Just gather some things and leave.” The three zaptiehs looked no older than I did. Fuzzy hairs of manhood were just starting to pop out on their faces. They were just boys carrying guns almost as big as they were. The boy’s thin hand wrapped around the shining wood handle of the gun. With his other hand he rubbed the dull gray metal of the barrel up and down. It was a crazy thought, but at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder how often he polished the handle to make it shine so much.

I took a closer look at their faces. Why, they looked like my classmates from school. Could they shoot me? Would they shoot me? I tried to understand why this terrible thing was happening; but all I could think was, we had waited too long. We should have left before they came for us. We should have listened to Haroutoun.

Aksor — the deportation word everyone in town was whispering. What did it mean? What would it be like? There was no time to think. With Papa gone, we were on our own.

Vartouhi quickly tied a canvas over our open wagon filled with food and blankets. She hitched a single cow to pull it, and we fled, joining the caravan of wagons leaving Amasia. In my haste, I left my tan wool coat hanging behind the door. I never thought I’d see that coat again.

We were only a half hour out of town when a group of Kurds charged down from the mountains and attacked the first group at the front of the caravan. Then the zaptiehs started grumbling. Someone in the group said they were there to protect us from the Kurds. This was a lie, because these soldiers attacked us along with the Kurds. Swinging their curved swords in the air over their heads, screaming and shouting curses, they rode their horses straight into the slow-moving crowd of people.

I slipped to the ground. Around me people were screaming. Some were crushed under wagon wheels; others were bleeding from various parts of their bodies. One horse stomped on a woman next to me and I heard the loud cracking of her bones breaking. It was like the sound of Grandmom cracking walnuts, only louder. Another man near me was stuck under a broken wagon wheel. He was holding onto a woman’s hand. Her head was missing! Those who were not killed on the first charge were robbed and beaten.

Then the soldiers came for the girls. The prettiest ones were taken first. I watched as soldiers lifted some of the girls by their hair and threw them over the backs of their horses. Then they rode away.

"Asvadzeem!" cried Grandmom. She pushed me down in the wagon and scratched my face with a sharp rock and rubbed raw garlic and mud into the creases. Grandmom always carried garlic in her pocket to keep away the evil eye.

Then, with a satisfied tone in her voice, she said, “There, this will fester and weep and you will look ugly. Quickly, put on these baggy clothes, and maybe the soldiers won’t want you. Keep your head down and be still.”

After the attack, it was very quiet. We moved slowly with the rest of the group. Around us the silence hung heavy like thick fog. By morning, my face was itching and oozing with white pus. I grabbed Vartouhi’s small hand mirror. Who was this creature staring back at me? I turned away with disgust at the sight of my face, the same face that many had said was a pretty face. I looked like a monster. No one looked at me. Grandmom was pleased with her handiwork.

Our group slowly moved ahead. Grandmom and Vartouhi rode in the wagon. Arsen and I walked close by. By nightfall, the caravan stopped. Amasia was behind us. I fell into a deep sleep. Through the night, I heard the cries of babies and women screaming in the darkness. I turned my head to a bright, blazing light in the sky. Could it be sunrise already? I turned to Grandmom and whispered, “Is it morning?”

“No, Ester, it’s not the rising sun, it is houses in Amasia burning.” Smoke and flying embers filled the air like fireflies on a summer night. I crouched down low and prayed. Was this the good luck I was waiting for each year when I found the coin in my choreg at Christmas? Finding that coin was supposed to guarantee me a year of good luck and happy times. Not this.

That morning, after we had been walking for three hours, the soldiers attacked the slow-marching caravan again. This time our supplies and wagon were taken. We walked on the inside of the mass of bodies because the people on the outer edges were whipped and trampled by the soldiers on horseback. Grandmom kept pushing me into the center if I strayed a little. Arsen held my hand tightly and Vartouhi struggled to keep up. We walked this way for three days and three nights. All we had to eat was some cheoreg that Grandmom had in her pocket. She broke it into three pieces, one for Vartouhi, Arsen, and me. She had none.

There were about a hundred in our group. Ahead of us was another group a little larger, and behind us a third group about the same size. Some whispered that our destination was the death camp in the desert of Der-el-Zor. It was rumored that those who made it to the death camp were the strong ones, most died along the way. For the first time, I wondered if we would make it to Der-el-Zor or be among those who died.

It was a hot June, and what little water we had was drying up because of the heat. I held on to a small water jug I had saved from our wagon, but it was almost empty. The next night we camped near a well. The Turkish soldiers filled their canteens and water jars to the brim.

After they finished, they shouted to the crowd, “Anyone caught trying to get water will be shot.”

We sat close to each other, our bodies touching. No one went near the well. Later that same night we heard a woman’s scream coming from the direction of the well. Nobody moved. In the morning we saw the body of a young bride we knew from Amasia. A water jug was hanging from her blackish-blue fingers. Someone said she had been stabbed many times. I saw her pregnant stomach sliced open and her unborn baby stuck on a sword that was shoved in the dirt near her head. As we walked past, Vartouhi pushed my face into her chest so I could not see, but I had already seen it all very clearly.

The middle of the next day we passed a deep pit by the side of the road filled with the naked bodies of young and old men. I leaned over as far as I could to see if Papa was one of the dead. There were so many crumbled shapes, heads under feet, hands frozen stiff toward the sky, mouths open, and eyes unblinking. There was no real sound, but I could feel pressure in my ears as though I were hearing voices. I must be crazy, I thought. How can one hear silence?

“Move, move along,” the zaptiehs shouted.

Arsen hung on my arm and cried. I could hear Grandmom saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over. Vartouhi held her pregnant stomach with both hands as she marched. We hadn’t eaten for five days when we came upon some women so thin that the skin hung on their bones. I wondered how many days would pass before we looked the same. A tiny baby was sucking on the breast of its dead mother, while other women were tearing pieces of flesh from the bodies left by the road. Arsen yanked hard on my arm.

"Please, please, promise me you will not let anyone eat my body except you.”

"Arsen, don't talk crazy. No one is going to eat your body."

"No, no, you must promise me now," he said.

I was weary. "All right, I promise."

We had stopped for rest by the side of the road when Kamal Bey, the leader of our group of zaptiehs, shouted to his men. “Attack, attack!”

Someone said he was angry because he had picked a beautiful Armenian girl for himself, but rather than go to him, she cut her wrists. Wagons were overturned. The sound of bullets filled the air. People near me were stabbed. Some tried to run away, but they were run over by the soldiers’ horses. They circled us as if we were a herd of cattle.

There was no escape. We lay very still for a long time not talking, not moving. Around us lay the dead and near-dead. After their assault, the soldiers backed off to the edge of the group. Slowly, we rose, gathered together our few belongings, and marched again. We had one quilt, one enamel cup, and some dried apricots and almonds that Grandmom had picked off a corpse. Well, I think it was a corpse. Grandmom passed a body lying beside the road. She pushed what appeared to be a man’s body with her cane. There was no movement. Thinking the man was dead, she went through his pockets and found the stale apricots and almonds. It was the first solid food I’d had in five days. We had no water. I tied the quilt to my shoulders and carried Arsen. Vartouhi and Grandmom walked slowly close by.

I felt the weight of hands on my back. A dirty old man with a beard down to his chest grabbed my shoulders and said, "Come with me, foolish girl. You have no chance. You will be killed. I can save you."

"No!" I screamed. “Get away from me.” I pushed myself into the crowd dragging Arsen by the arm. The old man followed another young girl. I never saw either of them again.

The ground was dry and cracked. The following day shortly after sunrise dark clouds swept across us, turning day into night. High winds gathered up the loose dirt under our feet and whipped sand and leaves into our faces. I covered my face with my hands, but the thin sand found its way into my eyes and mouth. It was hot and wet. I could not breathe. My nose was filled with this sticky muddy sand. Lightning flashed and hit the ground nearby. When it struck again I was sure that some people near me were hit because the screaming got very loud at the very same moment.

Then the rain came. The weight of the water pushed me to the ground. Some people nearby tried to fit under our quilt. There must have been fifteen or more bodies covered by that quilt. A hand, a head, half a body, a finger. Everyone was looking for some cover from the pounding rain.

Then a flood of water rushed down from a hill close by, bringing with it a mixture of small rocks, sand, mud, and all kinds of human filth. The little children were the saddest. Some slipped right out of their mothers' arms and disappeared into the thick mud. The lightning, thunder, and pounding rain seemed to make the soldiers crazy. They attacked us harder than before, as we ran to get away from them. I tried to fill my small cup with some of the water that spilled from the corner of the quilt. I collected only drops.

We held on to each other, afraid to move. I looked for Arsen. He was gone. "Arsen, Arsen, where are you?" I called. It was quiet. Then I heard some whimpering to my left.

“Arsen is that you?” No, it wasn’t. Sometime during the night, he had been taken. I never felt his tiny hand leave mine.

“It’s my fault. I should have held on to him tighter,” I said to Grandmom. But she didn’t hear me. She and Vartouhi were crying and praying for God to save us.

Now we were three.

Every so often, the leader of the Turkish soldiers would bend down from his horse, take hold of a small child by the arm and twist the body in the air. Then he’d smash the baby to the ground.

He shouted loudly to all listening, "Don't think that I have killed an innocent child. Even these newborn babies are criminals, because they carry the seeds of vengeance. Kill the children, too."

I heard the soldiers say, “Kill the children too. Kill them all.” I put my hands over my ears but I could still hear them.

Ahead in the distance, I saw smoke rising from the lower side of the mountain.

"Grandmom, look it's a town! We'll be saved," I said.

Grandmom lifted her eyes toward the sky and slowly moved her head from side to side. "It's only the group ahead of us, my child. The smoke you see is the steam caused by the hot sun on the wet tents. Just steam, my child, just steam."

I watched some women a few feet away eating the flesh of a dead horse. Though I hadn’t eaten for days, I felt no hunger. I wondered, “Is Arsen dead? Is someone eating his flesh?”

There was no time for anyone to mourn the dead. Those who were alive marched along, hoping to escape the next attack. Grandmom was walking more and more slowly. The soldiers cracked their whips across our backs to make us move faster. Grandmom fell. I grabbed her. I carried her on my back for a while before she fell again.

"Go on without me," she whispered. "I'm old, I will not make it, but you must live."

Then she reached up and pulled a little blackened iron cross from her neck. She stuffed it into my hand and said, "Keep this, Ester, and pray for God’s help."

I reached for her again, but a soldier on horseback came between us. I was pushed ahead with the others. She was left behind. I turned to look for Grandmom and saw the butt of a rifle coming down on her head. A splash of red flew through the air.

I shouted, "Grandmom, Grandmom!" but I knew she would never hear me again. What kind of God could let this happen? The little cross was burning in my hand. Women ran screaming in all directions during the killing. They rushed ahead to get away from the dead.

Now we were two.

I looked at Vartouhi. Her hair had turned gray. When did this happen? Could one’s hair turn gray in days? Would mine turn gray too? Her dress was torn and her arms were scratched and bleeding. Would she die? Would I be alone? Vartouhi was all I had left. She could not die. I thought of the poor people getting ready to leave their hometowns as we had. If only they could be warned. But they probably wouldn’t believe, just as we hadn’t.

The next night Vartouhi had her baby. I rubbed her stomach as she twisted and turned in pain. I had never seen a baby born. Only midwives and older women understood such things. I was always pushed out of the room. I saw some women I did not know holding Vartouhi down by her shoulders.

“Keep her down or the soldiers will see us,” said one. Hiding behind a tree, with strange hands covering her mouth to cut off her screams, Vartouhi gave birth. It happened so fast I was surprised when the spot I was rubbing on her belly suddenly went flat and a baby slowly came out from under her on the soft dirt.

"It's a boy, Ester, it’s a boy,” Vartouhi said.

Quickly, two more women came to help. They buried the slimy afterbirth with more care than they did the dead we left along side of the road. The burying of the afterbirth was a custom the women would not give up, even on this death march. Barely able to stand from the pain of her labor, Vartouhi picked up her newborn baby and marched with the rest of us for six hours. We gathered some weeds and dandelions and boiled up a broth for Vartouhi in a small pot of water that one of the women shared. The baby cried all the time. Vartouhi's dried up breasts had no milk.

Still hopeful, I said, "Perhaps when we catch up with Papa, he will have food and water for us." Vartouhi looked at me sadly.

Featured Book Review: The Knock at the Door by Margaret Ajemian Ahnert

For anyone who has ever wanted an introduction to the Armenian Genocide, reading Margaret Ajemian Ahnert’s memoir, The Knock at the Door, would be a good place to start. The book deals with Ahnert’s mother, Ester, and how at the ages of fifteen through nineteen, the Armenian girl has to endure starvation, beatings, and rape—yet manages to survive. This story, based on the stories that Ester relayed to Ahnert, talks about how the Armenians were forced out of their houses, ordered to march for weeks through the desert with little food or water, undergo regular beatings and killings by the Turkish soldiers, and how anyone worshipping the Christian religion or speaking Armenian would result in torture and death.

In an interesting online interview with the author, Ahnert has much to say regarding the Genocide and the public’s denial of it. In Turkey, it is against the law to speak of it, and on May 1, 2007, Ahnert was giving a reading at a New York Barnes & Noble when she had several Turkish men in the audience stand up and begin to pass out flyers, claiming she was a liar. That story hit the news, and it was upon reading about that incident, that prompted me to purchase the book.

Throughout the story, after having survived the brutal walk through the desert and being left for dead, Ester is rescued by a woman and then eventually shuffled through several homes. In one house she acts as a maid, and upon overhearing some Turkish men bragging about the brutal ways in which they killed the Armenians, becomes so overwhelmed with fear that she falls down the stairs and eventually informs the woman of the house that she must leave. The woman, who at first said she was willing to treat Ester as a daughter, only allows her husband to rape Ester that same night. Then, as Ester is sent to an orphanage, where she is forced to strip down and undergo ‘lice treatment’ as well as molestation by one of the women, there she meets a Turkish man who takes her by force, marries her, yet regards her as nothing more than a slave. Ahnert talks about how during these years, Turks were allowed to marry Armenians or kill them, but they could not, under any circumstances, hide them. So because this Turkish man is willing to marry Ester, she is relatively safe for a while (albeit still undergoing regular beatings and abuse from her husband).

Several years pass, and then Ester believes she sees her brother on a wagon passing by. Running out to greet him, he helps her to escape by informing her of a place to stay. Ester escapes her husband and goes to this house that dwells one of the few Armenian families whose lives were spared because they are blacksmiths. The family takes her in, despite their constant worry of getting caught. Ester is forced to sleep in the moldy basement with vermin crawling all over her. Fearing the family would be ready to throw her out, she does not complain. Eventually, she is able to get to America after being given a third class passenger ticket and a false passport. But the insides of the steerage are no better. Larded with roaches and disease, people are crowded together and must suffer through the filth until they can arrive at Ellis Island. The book skips back and forth between Ahnert visiting her mother in a nursing home in 1998, and her mother’s experiences in 1915 through 1920. Ahnert also has a scene where she encounters a Turkish cab driver and fears to tell him that she is Armenian.

This book is one woman’s story—well two actually, and it provides a personal account of what happened during those years. Through Ester’s tale, readers will be given an introduction to the Armenian Genocide, and what those brutal times were like. Similar to that of the Jews, Ahnert speaks about the famous quote by Hitler in the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C., where he mentions that no one remembers what happened to the Armenians (implying that no one will remember what happened to the Jews either). The Knock at the Door is a memoir more in line with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, where both stories serve to personalize the history, as opposed to viewing it only as dates and numbers. Angela’s Ashes is the more artful of the two books, while The Knock at the Door is more straightforward in its spare narrative style. Worthy of your readership, it is a story that will certainly pique your interest in wanting to know more. And if Ester herself were alive to know that, indeed she would be pleased.

This review first appeared at http://mvdg.wordpress.com/

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