Once upon a time, the world knew

Later this month — April 24 — Armenians around the world will pause to mourn the 1.5 million of our ancestors who were systematically annihilated by the Ottoman Empire in one of the 20th century’s first genocides. Under the violence and fog of the First World War, three out of every four Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed. And while Americans of a certain age (mine) can recall their mothers encouraging them to clean their plates by imploring, “Think of the starving Armenians!” for most of the country the Genocide is largely forgotten. It is, as my narrator Laura Petrosian calls it in “The Sandcastle Girls,” my 2012 novel about the cataclysm, “the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.”

Once upon a time, however, everyone knew. There were bestselling books and memoirs. There were movies. There was an endless stream of newspaper articles, many on the front pages of the largest papers in the country.

And there were people like Burlington, Vermont’s Ellen Weston Catlin sharing the story.

I learned about Ellen Catlin from my friend, George Aghjayan. George lives just outside of Boston, but when he is not rooting for his beloved Patriots, he is researching a history we share — a history most Armenians in our Diaspora share.

Catlin was born in 1883 and grew up on Pearl Street. She graduated from Burlington High School and the University of Vermont, where — according to the yearbook – she was a soprano in the Ladies’ Glee Club. In one UVM yearbook photo, she has wide, beautiful eyes, an elegant sundial for a nose, and a swan’s neck she has hidden demurely behind a high collar. On Sept. 13, 1908, a “red-letter day in Burlington,” according to the “Missionary Herald,” she received her commission at First Church on College Street to join a group of missionary teachers. She was off to a part of the Ottoman Empire called Kharpert, where she would be teaching English at Euphrates College.

Although Kharpert and Van today are inside Turkey, they’re part of the cradle of Armenian civilization. How extensive was the ethnic cleansing there? According to Ottoman census figures, there were roughly 204,000 Armenians living in the province of Kharpert in 1915; by 1922, there would be only 35,000. And in Van? The Armenian population was obliterated, falling from 197,000 in 1915 to 500 in 1922. Soon after that 1922 census was taken, there would be almost no Armenians living in either province.photo-2

Unlike some Western missionaries, Catlin would not witness the worst of the slaughter: She sailed home to Burlington in 1913 because her health was failing and her father was ill. But she would return to Turkey in 1919, after the First World War, and continue her work as a missionary there and in Palestine through the mid-1920s. She wrote a small book, “Suggestions for Armenian Students of English.” (Just for the record, I could use a small book, “Suggestions for English Students of Armenian.”)

As Aghjayan told me, “I think it’s fair to say that the five years she spent working with the Armenians of Kharpert had a lasting impression on her — so much so that when her health was better and the opportunity presented itself, she returned.”

At least one of her surviving letters is an indication both of this country’s awareness of the start of the Genocide and the dangers faced by the Armenians. In the late spring of 1915, she expressed her fears in a letter to James Barton — originally from Charlotte — the head of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston. She wrote about the way Turkish soldiers and Kharpert city officials had destroyed the United States seal at Euphrates College (where Barton had once been President) and ransacked the furniture and desks. She wondered whether Armenians were in need of “American protection.”

I can only speculate what it was like for her to be here in America when the news got far worse: When the Armenians were being slaughtered where they lived or marched into the searing Syrian desert to die. What must she have felt when she read that the Armenian faculty at Euphrates College had been arrested, and many killed? When the college was taken over by the Ottoman Army? It is likely that she was even more aghast and more horrified than most Americans. After all, she had lived and worked there. She had friends among the Armenian community. In my mind, I can see her speaking out at churches in Burlington. Sharing her devastation with anyone who would listen.

And today? Today Euphrates College is gone. Last May, George Aghjayan and I walked the earth where it once stood. Like so much of the civilization that marked Western Armenia, the ground there is either barren or the antiquities have been replaced by modern buildings.

George Aghjayan (left), Chris Bohjalian (fourth from right), and other Armenian-Americans near Kharpert.
George Aghjayan (left), Chris Bohjalian (fourth from right), and other Armenian-Americans near Kharpert.

So the college is but a memory – along with the Armenian world that once existed there.

Once upon a time, however, thanks to the likes of Ellen Catlin, the world knew.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on April 6, 2014. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives on April 22.)light in the ruins pb

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.