Heghnar (Helen) Kherdian Paloian was one of the few survivors left of that generation of Armenians who lived through the Genocide of 1915. She was born in 1906 in the village of Khulakugh located in the Western Armenian province of Kharpert. Her parents, Kevork and Mariam Kherdian, died when she was a young child. At the age of 108, she was our family’s last link to the past.
Her funeral took place October 28 at the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church. Presiding was her pastor, the Very Rev. Father Aren Jebejian. Participating clergy were the Rev. Fathers Yeprem Kelegian, Hovhan Khoja-Eynatyan, Tavit Boyajian and the pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church, the Rev. Jeremy Tovmassian.
A message from His Eminence, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, was read by Father Tavit. His Eminence reflected upon the deep faith and trust which enabled Heghnar to survive the horrors she experienced.
Father Aren, in a very moving eulegy, stressed the impact of Heghnar’s suffering. “Imagine the hopes and dreams of a young girl, and in one flash of a moment, it was gone. It not only disappeared but was taken away in a tragic way with death, killing and with murder. Anyone who witnesses that would be forever changed. And yet she endured.”
Several years ago, while visiting us at our home in Racine, Wisconsin, I asked her to tell me everything she could remember about her life in her native Kharpert. I wanted to record it on audiotape for our descendants.
Heghnar never knew her parents. Aunts and uncles took care of her until they were driven into exile. She remembered the day Turkish soldiers entered their village and forced most of its inhabitants to leave. Two of her brothers were drafted into the Turkish army and never heard from again. A third brother eventually made his way to America but mysteriously disappeared. All that she had left was her sister-in-law Osgee and son Mihran. A short time later, Osgee became seriously ill and died in a makeshift facility in Mezre, the city located at the foot of Kharpert City. That left her with one relative, her nephew Mihran.
They had no home. The Turks had destroyed most of the buildings in their village. Left alone and hungry, without food and shelter, Heghnar and Mihran had to fend for themselves. One night, exhausted and hungry, they fell asleep in front of a Turk’s home. When the owner found them the next morning, he angrily kicked them away.
To alleviate their hunger, they went into nearby gardens and secretly gathered fruits and vegetables. They often slept outdoors having nothing to cover themselves on bitter cold winter nights. There were times they even had to sleep among the dead to avoid the same fate. Depressed, Myron ran away. His body was found later on the outskirts of the village. He too had been killed.
One day, Heghnar found a poor Armenian blind man in Kharpert City who had a place to live but nothing to eat. He would send her to knock on the doors of Turkish homes to beg for food in exchange for shelter, but usually she returned empty-handed. There was a kind woman who did open her door to give her a bowl of soup which she took to the blind man. Watching him eat, she too was hungry and took a spoonful thinking that the blind man would not know. Accidentally, the spoon fell from her hand. Hearing the sound, the man went into a rage. Frightened, Heghnar fled to find refuge elsewhere.
In 1999, during my first pilgrimage to Western Armenia, I visited my family’s village of Khulakugh. There I found the three springs she used to mention and also our family orchard of Karatsor which was next to the village. Adjacent to it is the 10th century monastery of Khulavank which was built in 943 A.D. by the Armenian King Abas. During the Genocide, the orphans of Kharpert were kept there for a time before being taken to Mezre. When I returned home, I showed my aunt the video. She remembered the time she leaned against the surviving pillars of the monastery waiting for food.
Aunt Heghnar’s life was not just a story of pain and suffering. It was also one of survival nurtured by her deep faith in God which gave her strength and hope for the future and the will to live. In the words of the Apostle Paul, she “fought the good fight” determined to overcome the adversities of life.
Heghnar’s first cousin, my father, Hagop Kherdian Hardy, was a disabled World War I veteran who came to America in 1913. He had become gravely ill due to war injuries and was sent to a veteran’s hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee. His relatives in Racine were notified of his condition and the next day rushed to see him.
Upon their arrival, they were told that the doctors did not expect Hagop to live. When they entered his room, they were surprised to find him awake and smiling. Hagop told them about a dream he had the previous night. His Aunt Mariam, Heghnar’s mother, was with him in their family orchard of Karatsor. She showed him the last rose in the garden and told him to pick it and take it with him.
One of his relatives had brought to the hospital a copy of the Hairenik Daily. In it were the names of Armenian orphans who were being kept in Corinth, Greece. There in the list was the name, Heghnar Kherdian.
Hagop now understood his dream. The rose was Heghnar, the daughter of his Uncle Kevork. He vowed that if he recovered, he would journey to Corinth and take her out of the orphanage and bring her to America.
Upon his release from the hospital, Hagop made the necessary travel arrangements and sailed to Greece. He arrived at the orphanage and explained to the authorities that Heghnar was his long lost sister. He had come to get permission to take her to the United States. Convinced that he was her brother, they entrusted her to his care.
Before they could enter America, they first had to go to Cuba to wait for the necessary legal work to be completed. The orphanage administrator, Edma Cushman, had told Hagop that the easiest way to get her to the United States was to find an American citizen to marry.
In 1927, Heghnar’s Uncle Hovhannes from Racine came to Havana with an Armenian man from Chicago who had agreed to marry her. The marriage would be annulled once she arrived in America. His name was Zadig Paloian, a native of the village of Todorag, Sepasdia, in Western Armenia. They were married that year in a civil ceremony. Zadig and Hovhannes returned home, but Heghnar and Hagop had to wait another year before they were able to leave Cuba.
Finally arriving in the United States, they settled at their uncle’s home. A short time later, Zadig came to Racine and told the relatives that he wanted to have a lifelong marriage with Heghnar. They left the decision to her and she accepted his proposal. An Armenian clergyman was found and brought to the Kherdian home where the ceremony took place in the presence of relatives and friends from both of their native villages.
Zadig and Heghnar made Chicago their home. They were blessed with four children and eight grandchildren. Two daughters, Sima and Mariam, and her grandson, John Ajemian, are now deceased. Surviving are her daughter, Lucille Paloian Ajemian, and a son, Matthew Paloian. Her seven grandchildren, Jeri Lyn, Maryanne and Robert Ajemian, Michelle Rudden and Jennifer Anderson, and four great- grandchildren, Catherine and Nicholas Rudden and Julia and Matthew Anderson, brought her much happiness.
Before leaving Greece, her Armenian school teacher, Mr. Bangian, said to her, “Heghnar, never lose faith in God. Wherever you go, never forget that you are an Armenian. Cherish your heritage.” She never forgot those words, despite all the hardships, sorrow, and suffering she experienced.
Heghnar Kherdian Paloian’s life is a living testimony of what it means to be a genuine Armenian, true to her Christian faith and ethnicity. She was a source of inspiration from which we drew our strength and courage, sharing our happy moments and was always at our side during times of sorrow.
We thank God for all the years she was with us. May she rest in peace in the embracing arms of her Lord and Saviour together with all her loved ones.
Deacon Charles Kherdian Hardy