Israel (Vahan) Pilikian’s Memoir
Vahe. H. Apelian
One does not need to be a psychiatrist or psychologist to affirm that the survivors of the Genocide of the Armenians were traumatized. Modern medicine has coined a name for it--Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is an acronym that is mentioned often these days because of the recent wars the West has engaged in. In North America it is mostly referred to or in conjunction with the returning soldiers who had their 'boots on the ground' in foreign 'theaters'–-the military has its ways of making things palatable through euphemism, doesn't it? These soldiers have all sorts of trained specialists to help them overcome the effects of their traumatic experiences. The survivors of the Armenian Genocide were much less fortunate. They had no such intervention nor could they dream for such intervention. They were left to their lot. The survivors, however, created their own ways of coping with their traumatic experiences. They helped each other in the makeshift camps and laid the foundation of the modern, prosperous and ever more confidant Armenian Diaspora.
They also resorted to writing. Pen, pencil, and paper became their catharsis. In doing so, they created the post-Genocide Armenian literature. Some of them attained the pinnacle of literature (e.g. A. Dzarougian). Some created novels that will remain classics of the Western Armenian literature (e.g. Shahan Shahnour). Some wrote a novel with characters portraying the prominent Armenian men of letters who were killed during the genocide (e.g. “Love in Medz Yeghern” by Antranig Dzarougian) and others they knew. Some recounted their experiences as memoirs (e.g. Mushegh Ishkhan, Karnig Panian, and Armen Anoush). Some attained recognition posthumously and only after their memoirs became known to a wider readership, thanks to translation, such as Grigoris Balakian’s “Armenian Golgotha”.
The memoirs of others remain dormant. They wrote so as to pass a legacy to their children. They may have cared less whether their memoirs were published or not or even was understood by their descendants who were born and raised in lands far away from theirs and in cultures far different from theirs and consequently would not be able to read their memoirs. Their memoirs first and foremost unburdened them from the trauma. Among such memoirs is the memoir of Israel (Vahan) Pilikian, the father of the gifted and eminent Pilikian brothers in London.
In the close-knit Armenian community of Beirut, the Pilikian name was not unfamiliar. I knew the name before my teens. A family relative worked as a pharmacy technician at the Pilikian Pharmacy in West Beirut. Every now and then he would give me a ride on his bicycle on his way to or from the pharmacy. I met my wife in a building the Pilikian family owned in Mar Mikhael neighborhood of Beirut. Her brother was my pharmacy school classmate. Their family had rented a flat on the first floor that had a balcony overlooking the busy street below.
Recently, Prof. Khatchatur Pilikian, upon my request, forwarded for me an electronic copy of his father’s memoir, through Dr. Dikran Abrahamian. The memoir is 249 pages long and is hand-written. He wrote it in a span of a quarter-of-a-century (July 25, 1960, to Nov. 25, 1985). Israel Vahan Pilikian lived a long and productive life. He was born on June 21, 1902, and passed away in London at 95 on April 26, 1997. According to Prof. Pilikian, his father gave a testimonial at the Armenian Genocide commemoration in London just a day before his death.
Israel (Vahan) Pilikian was born to a hardworking, driven father who provided well for his family. He was 12 or 13 when he, along with his family, was driven for extermination. He had harrowing experiences. I would like to ask the readers to excuse me for noting the way he lost his sister, mother, and father in that order when still in his teens so as to express the nature of his trauma and to justify the title of this article--that his odyssey was a triumphant overcoming over adversity. He noted over and over again that they had become desensitized and had lost grip of the reality happening to them. The family gave their young daughter, Israel’s youngest sister, away to give her a chance for survival when death, they thought, was imminent. The reality of the separation, however, soon set in and they frantically began to look for the person to whose trust they had placed their daughter so as to reclaim her, but to no avail.
Israel Vahan Pilikian’s mother became “tongue-tied” after she and he were attacked and, at knifepoint, were forced to surrender the remaining gold coins they had wrapped around their bodies. She never spoke henceforth and remained in despair and would helplessly gaze at her children until her death that came not long after. These horrible experiences rendered their once-vibrant father a recluse. On that fateful day, the young Pilikian dreamt that his father, sleeping on the floor along with the rest of his remaining family and other surviving relatives, was asking for water. He woke up and hurried to bring him a cup of water only to be confronted by the group's elders who told him that his father had just taken his last breath and was dead.
It’s under such circumstances that Israel Vahan Pilikian, his brother, and sister embarked on their lives. Israel Pilikian’s life, much like that of many of his generation as survivors of the Genocide, was in the end, one of good overcoming evil, one of hope rather than hopelessness. These are not legacies to be taken lightly. Thankfully, his children are highly appreciative of the legacy that has been handed to them.
For a young boy whose schooling ended abruptly, Israel writes very well. He makes every effort to make his memoirs accurately depict his experiences. He does not shy away from mentioning that he does not remember a date or the name of a place or how long a march lasted. His memoirs resonated well with me especially when I read the passage where the family met its father anew after a forced separation in a town called Ereyli in the province of Konya, a town my father-in-law would often mention because he was born there.