Walter Vartan

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Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Knight/Ridder Tribune News Service
June 1, 2006 Thursday

Walter H. Vartan: 1907 - 2006
Armenian genocide survivor

by Mitch Dudek, Chicago Tribune

Jun. 1--Walter H. Vartan was 8 years old in 1915 when a Turkish Army officer announced from the center of his small hometown that all residents had to gather their valuables and form a line.

The line, filled with Turks of Armenian descent, was ordered to begin a four-week march through mountainous terrain during a genocidal campaign launched by the Turkish government to rid the region of Armenian Christians during World War I. About 1.5 million Armenians died from forced marches and other atrocities.

Mr. Vartan lost a brother, a sister and his mother as a result of the roundup and march. But he also gained an appreciation for the fragility of life and a sense of how easily things could be taken away, his son Gibby Vartan said.

"When I was 8 years old, I was running around worried about being late to school. When my father was 8 years old, he was worrying about whether or not he would see the light of the next day," he said.

Mr. Vartan overcame this difficult start and lived a long and prosperous life as a businessman in the Chicago area. He also was a Golden Gloves champion in his youth and became a friend of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Mr. Vartan, 99, of the Lakeview neighborhood died Sunday, May 28, of heart failure in the Midwest Palliative and Hospice Care Center in Skokie.

His life began with tragedy. At the start of the march he and his family were forced to make in 1915, Mr. Vartan's brother Garabed, 16, was rounded up with the rest of the men from his hometown of Harpoot who were of fighting age. His sister Elizabeth, 14, was also taken. The two were never heard from again, Gibby Vartan said.

Mr. Vartan's father, Hagop, had immigrated to the United States a few years earlier to earn money to send back to his family. His other sister, Agnes, was forced into service in the home of a Turkish officer, but she survived, Gibby Vartan said.

Mr. Vartan walked for four weeks with his mother, grandmother and two brothers under the constant gaze of armed guards.

They were to march from Harpoot to Aleppo, Syria, where they would reach the safety of refugee camps run by the French Foreign Legion. Many people died of starvation or exposure, or at the hands of Turkish soldiers.

One night, Mr. Vartan sneaked away from the camp with his brothers Leo and Victor in search of food. But a Turkish soldier caught them, Gibby Vartan recalled his father saying.

The soldier ordered two of the brothers to stand one in front of the other, so he could shoot them with one bullet.

Before the soldier was about to pull the trigger, Mr. Vartan's grandmother, who noticed the missing boys and went to look for them, appeared and appealed to the soldier to spare the lives of the boys in exchange for money. The soldier accepted, and the march continued the next day.

After a month of marching, the family made it to Aleppo. But upon their arrival, his mother died from malnutrition, Gibby Vartan said.

Mr. Vartan and his surviving relatives traveled to Marseille, France, and from there to Boston, where Mr. Vartan was reunited in about 1915 with his father, who worked in a shoe factory, Gibby Vartan said.

Mr. Vartan lived and worked in Boston, where he met his future wife, Irene, before his family moved to Chicago about 1920 for better economic opportunities. Mr. Vartan attended Lane Tech High School on Chicago's North Side while living with his family in the Little Italy neighborhood and later in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood.

During his time at Lane Tech, Mr. Vartan was a Golden Gloves boxing champion, and he befriended Robert Quinn, a boxer who became Chicago's fire commissioner. Quinn introduced to Mr. Vartan to Daley, and the three became friends, gathering occasionally to play handball.

Mr. Vartan worked throughout high school and years after as a woodcarver and at a photo engraving plant.

In 1930, Mr. Vartan married Irene, and two years later, during the Depression, and with his wife pregnant with the couple's first child, Mr. Vartan started Lake Shore Photo Engraving with a partner, his son said.

Using a bench as bed, Mr. Vartan often slept in the building that housed his company at 222 E. Superior St. after finishing shifts that lasted as long as 16 hours, he said.

In 1948, the Vartans moved to Evanston, where the couple lived for 54 years and where Mr. Vartan was active in civic and community affairs.

Mr. Vartan was appointed by Daley to be chairman of the city's first Armed Forces Week in the 1970s.

Mr. Vartan retired in 1974 after selling his business to his sons Gibby and Gentre.

Mr. Vartan also is survived by a daughter, Juraine Golin; a third son, Gerron; 10 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. His wife died in 2003.

Visitation will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Donnellan Family Funeral Home, 10045 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday in St. Athanasius Church, 1615 Lincoln St., Evanston.

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