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Detroit photographer Michelle Andonian Retraces a grandmother’s steps in Armenian Genocide

Photographer Michelle Andonian traveled to Turkey last year to retrace her grandmother’s steps after she was driven from her village during the Armenian Genocide of 1915, The Detroit News reports.

The Turkish government, however, has always denied the genocide, maintaining that the deaths were just an unfortunate consequence of wartime chaos.

The visit to Turkey was a profoundly affecting experience for Andonian. Out of it came a photo exhibition at the College for Creative Studies Center Galleries, up through Oct. 24, and a book — “This Picture I Gift” — just published by Wayne State University Press.

On Sunday, Andonian will participate in “Hope Dies Last” at the Detroit Film Theatre, a multimedia performance with violinist Ida Kavafia commemorating the Armenian Genocide. She talked to The Detroit News about her trip and the book.

Where did the title for the book and exhibition come from?

I came across a picture postcard of my grandmother and aunt while going through my grandmother’s things, and it said that on the back. It’s a literal translation of the Armenian.

She sent it to a relative in Detroit they were coming to live with. I felt it was saying, “Here we are. We’re coming. We’re leaving everything we know behind, but this picture I gift to you.”

What did you take on this project?

My nephew saw that picture in my loft one day, and he asked who it was. I said, “My goodness, that’s your great-grandmother. You don’t know who that is? You don’t know what she went through?”

I realized all that would get lost in the next generation. Fear of losing that history was really the inspiration. And I learned so much about my people I didn’t know. I’m still learning.

When did you go?

July 2014. I was in Turkey and Armenia about a month, though I’d been in Armenia a number of times before.

Did your grandmother die in the genocide?

No, she died in 1987 when I was 28. Her name was Sara. She raised us. We lived next door to her in southwest Detroit. Both my parents worked, so my grandmother took care of us. But she was also the grandmother to the entire neighborhood.

Why did your grandmother and family leave their village?

In 1915, my grandmother’s father —a shepherd — was killed. Murdered. The course of the atrocity went like this: Ottoman Turks would go into the villages, take away all the men, and for the most part, kill them. They deported the women, children and older people who couldn’t fend for themselves.

They said, “It’s a war, you’re going to leave. Pack your stuff on a donkey.” But it was a death march, marching through the desert toward Syria.

How old was your grandmother?

Seven or eight. The family basically walked for three years with no food, no water. You know the migrants today, from Syria to Turkey to Greece to Hungary? It’s basically the same thing. My grandmother remembered stepping over dead bodies. She remembered the smell. Her baby brother died in her mother’s arms. But those who did survive did so because of the kindness of some Turkish and Kurdish families.

Where did they go?

They walked from their village of Iskhan to Homs and Salamiyah, in present-day Syria (over 400 miles). From there they got to Somalia, and finally back to Aleppo in Syria. But I couldn’t go there because of the civil war. Eventually she went back to Turkey in the early 1920s.

How did your grandmother get to America?

She came to the U.S. in 1922 from Istanbul. She came over with her aunt and uncle to Ellis Island, and was promised as a bride to my great-aunt’s cousin.

Did you tell people in Turkey what you were doing?

Not in Turkey. I played it low, with small cameras. I didn’t want to carry a big camera with a long lens and look like a professional photographer.

Are there still Armenians in Turkey?

Yes. There’s a fairly large community, though nothing like it used to be. I stayed with relatives of friends while there. But Armenians are definitely looked down upon.

What particularly affected you?

The ancient city of Ani. It’s this haunting heartbreak, a ruined, medieval Armenian town once known as the Land of 1001 Churches. The earliest inscriptions on the walls are from 1031. It’s literally a stone’s throw from the border of (present-day, independent) Armenia. That’s where I kind of lost it, I have to say. To see something so incredibly beautiful in such a state of ruin, so close to Armenia — the Turks could give it back to us without even a thought. It’d be an easy gift. For the 100th anniversary of the genocide, why not give us Ani?

Did you do all this alone?

No. I traveled with my friend Ani Boghikian Kasparian from Detroit, who’s an Armenian scholar. She teaches the language at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Dearborn. We’d been talking about this for years. She did so much for me. She arranged the guides, she arranged the connections.

What’s takeaway from all this?

Had the Armenian Genocide been validated, and Ottoman Turkey forced to recognize and do something about what happened, maybe it wouldn’t have given a permission slip to other atrocities.

You know what Hitler said when planning the holocaust? “Who today remembers the Armenians?”

The Syrian refugees today are just like the Armenian refugees, forced to leave their monuments and homes and history. It’s the same story. The timeliness of all this is horrifying to me.

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