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Personal Stories of Genocide Survival

Haighganoosh Serverian—her story

Haighganoosh Fendekian Serverian lived in Valley Stream, Long Island. Once a week back in the 1970s, she drove into Manhattan for the Senior Citizen luncheon, which is where I first met her.

She was eager for me to come see the photographs she had. So I took the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan and walked from the station to her home to spend the day.

As we sat at the kitchen table going through her box of photos, Haighganoosh told me her family’s story. She had no photographs of them in Tokat, Historic Armenia of the Ottoman Empire. I certainly understood the improbability of escaping genocide with family photographs in hand, but she did have many photos of family and friends throughout the Diaspora. My conversation with Haighganoosh gave me insight into understanding how we Armenians could start putting the pieces of our history and heritage back together again by listening to each other’s stories.

Her mother died at age 29 after three years of sickness related to seeing her own parents and siblings’ families dragged away on the death march, while she was spared because her husband’s skills were needed by the Turks. After her death, Haighganoosh’s father was able to plan their escape from Tokat. Haighganoosh, at 14, took on the mother role for her sisters and brothers, a responsibility she cherished. The family headed west, aiming for America. From Marseille, they went on to Paris, but by then it was 1923, and the U.S. quota for Armenians had changed. Only one in their family could go. Haighganoosh’s father assigned her to take the one boat ticket he had, and marry the man he had arranged to meet her at the dock in Providence, Rhode Island.

She told me of her fears. She had never been anywhere alone. She didn’t know how to speak for herself because daughters didn’t. “I very shy,” she said, ‘and listen too much.” Furthermore, she had absolutely no experience beyond the confines of home life and now had no mother to help and advise her. She did not want to leave her sisters and brothers.

Haighganoosh Serverian 37-78

But she dared not disobey her father. He assured her that the rest of the family would soon follow. As she looked in her box for more photos, she told me she was married the day she arrived in America and pulled out her wedding photo. “Oh,” I said, reacting immediately, “You mean you brought your wedding dress with you in your suitcase?” “Oh, no, no, no” she said. “That not how it happen.” The rest of her story is about a man, her husband, who had an innate sense about how two strangers would develop a life-long relationship.

So, a forlorn Haighganoosh sailed for America on a huge ship full of other young women going to meet and marry the men whose photographs they held close to their hearts. They asked where her photo was. She hadn’t wanted one. They asked her, “How will you recognize him?” She didn’t have an answer and told me, “I very quiet, I don’t say nothing. They tell me, ‘You very different, but it will turn out all right.’

When Haighganoosh Fendekian stepped off the ship, two men await her: her proposed husband and a priest. The priest took charge and asked her if she agreed to marry this man, Hovaguin ‘Harry’ Serverian, explaining that she did have a choice—either yes or no. She admitted to me that, of course, she understood what would happen if she said ‘yes,’ but if she said ‘no,’ what would that mean? Back on the boat?

But that wasn’t the real problem, she confided. She had no voice. She was scared, confused, lonely, and speechless. She couldn’t even look these men in the face. So she remained silent with her head down. They kept asking, and she kept her silence. Finally, the priest had an idea. He explained, “We understand your situation. How about this? When I ask you the question again, your silence will mean ‘yes;’ if you speak, that will mean ‘no.’ That worked, and Haighganoosh and Hovaguin were united in marriage.

Hovaguin, a house painter, and later owner of a variety store, lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a two-hour train ride south from Providence. Haighganoosh continued her story by telling me of the proposal her new husband made to her on the train ride to her new home with her husband’s family. Acknowledging they did not know each other, Hovaguin exposed his pure and decent heart. He said, “We will not be husband and wife until we get to know each other. In a week we can have a real church wedding.” She said, “He was kind and more understanding than I could have imagined, and I began to speak.”

Her wedding dress and the photograph were his special gifts to her. And thus began their 40 years together creating a family with three children. Sadly, I never met Hovaguin. He had died 15 years before I visited Haighganoosh.