Because they survived, I am alive

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There's something about a survivor that intrigues me.
When I read or hear or watch a story about someone defying the odds, I want to know something more. Like, how did they do it? What made them different?  Did they have a strategy?  Was it pure luck?  Divine intervention? I guess at the heart of the matter, I want to know if I could to do the same thing if I were faced with those same circumstances.

If you're a descendant of a survivor, even if you don't know all the details, there's Kourken_and_Malvine_Engagementsomething different about you. Denise Gentilini is the granddaughter of Kourken and Malvine Handjian, "My grandfather, Kourken, became an orphan at the age of eight.  His father was killed when the Armenian genocide started in central Turkey, in 1915, where he lived with his family. Along with his surviving family, he was sent on what would become the death march of men, women and children across the Syrian desert to concentration camps.  But a Turkish man had pity on this little boy.  He rescued him and placed him in an orphanage. He never saw his family again. My grandmother Malvine also lived in Turkey.  Her father was poisoned in the genocide and because she had too many siblings for her mother to handle, she was given away to another family to be raised by them. As surviving Armenians were deported from Turkey, both Kourken and Malvine wound up in a refugee camp in Greece where they found each other.  When she was 14 and he was 19 they married, and spent nearly 75 years together."

Denise_and_Lisa_1Gentilini says while she's known her history for decades, she chose this year to share what her family went through. "In April it will be the 100th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, and I wanted to tell the story in a different way.  So along with internationally celebrated singer songwriter Lisa Nemzo, we created I Am Alive, a dramatic musical that spans a nearly 75 year love story of my grandparents, celebrating the strength and resilience of the Armenian people. There have been plays and movies and marches, but I've never heard a musical.  I believe music is a universal language, so even those who don't know about this time in history might be interested because the music makes it accessible."

Gentilini, an emmy award winning composer, says I Am Alive, directed by Christy Montour-Larson, is a continuation of the work she's been doing in music for years. "As part of the We Are Voices project I've composed music for Children's Hospital on Autism, for the Iliff School of Theology for their Courage Award for Judy Shephard and for genocide awareness. I grew up with my grandparents nearby and always knew what they lived through and handed down to us was amazing. It made me want to be an activist and do something: to be the voice for the voiceless."

I, too, am a descendant of Armenian genocide survivors.  Both of my father's parents fled from Turkey around 1915 because of the genocide and ended up on the island of Cyprus. They came to the US in the 1960s and settled in Illinois with the rest of my dad's family. Because my father took a very different track as a missionary and married a Dane, our family lived overseas and then wound up in California.   During the summer, we would load up the station wagon and drive to the Chicago area to spend several weeks with my grandparents and aunts and uncles.

I recall how important it was for my grandfather to be in the garden, to plant trees that bore fruit, vines loaded with grapes, and different varieties of tomatoes.  I always assumed they reminded him of the old country. My grandmother would cook the most amazing Armenian dishes and was always busy, embroidering intricate works of lace or knitting/crocheting all sorts of scarves and hats. As they never mastered the English language, and I forgot the Armenian I learned as a child, we had almost no conversation together.

grandparentsBut I watched them as they went about their daily rituals, read books and magazines in Armenian, prepared and ate delicious meals, sat by the window, drank Turkish coffee. They never spoke of how many family members they lost in the genocide or the details of their escape. Ever. Only my aunts and uncles would share those stories with me.

What I remember most?  I never heard them complain.  They had been brutally uprooted from their homes as youngsters and relocated to another country, only to be uprooted again to live out the rest of their lives in a country where they didn't speak the language. The legacy of their survival was handed down to me in how they lived:  without complaint.

In his essay on the Survivor Personality, Al Siebert, PhD outlines why some people have a better chance of surviving when survival is necessary.  What stands out to me is how he describes the emotional commitment that person has to make to handle what is happening and find a way to succeed:

The best survivors spend almost no time, especially in emergencies, getting upset about what has been lost or feeling distressed about things going badly. Survivors avoid feeling like victims and focus on helping everyone survive. The survivor way of orientating to a crisis is to feel fully and totally responsible for making things work out well.


That's what I like most about Gentilini's upcoming musical.  Her grandparents aren't portrayed as victims, instead their life is celebrated.  Their personal and collective history empowered them and empowers those who come after them. If you'd like to participate in the effort to bring the premier presentation of  I Am Alive, to Denver on April 21st, please go to their kickstarter link to support them.

Survivors are a tough breed, damn lucky and create hope for those of us who follow. Maybe philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche got it right when he wrote, "what doesn’t kill  you makes you stronger."Lois’ Living Through It blogs are posted on Mondays and Thursdays. Join her Monday mornings around 8:45am on Good Day Colorado.



  • Heather Martin

    Thanks for sharing this. I am also here because some of my family survived. I am the daughter of Melkon Jenanyan who was lucky to heed the warning of officials that the violence would get worse and fled to Boston and eventually settled in Los Angeles. I am now finishing the book based on his life called “Reclaiming Konia.” I hope to publish by end of April on Amazon. You can stay in touch with me at or @reclaimingkonia.

  • Molly Sullivan

    I work for the Near East Foundation, which was formerly known as Near East Relief. I would be interested to know if any of the individuals mentioned in this story were affected by Near East Relief. We operated orphanages and relief centers throughout Turkey, Greece, Syria, Palestine, and Armenia. I would love to hear more!

  • Haig Haleblian

    Lois, We are survivors of survivors. We were taught well by example. Metsmamma and Metsbabba had class beyond class. They lived with us in a 900sf home for at least a year. I learned a lot in that year as an early teen. I miss their incredible sense of humor, love for each other, and of course….the food. Grandpa and Grandma would cry at times when they told their story. It’s a heartwrenching story. If everything went to hell in a handbasket in the US (it hasn’t quite yet), what would it be like to move to say Thailand and start over? Especially at our tender ages?

    • Lois Melkonian

      Well said, Haig. I am forever grateful for those who went before me, showing me all I am capable of doing.

  • miller

    Popular opinion today knows of only one set of deportations, more properly called forced migrations, in Anatolia, the deportation of the Armenians. There were in fact m Popular opinion today knows of only one set of deportations, more properly called forced migrations, in Anatolia, the deportation of the Armenians. There were in fact many forced migrations. For the Armenians, the worst forced migrations came when they accompanied their own armies in retreat. Starvation and disease killed great numbers of both, far more than fell to enemies’ bullets.

    It is true that the Ottomans had obvious reason to fear Armenians, and that forced migration was an age-old tool in Middle Eastern and Balkan conflicts. It is also true that while its troops were fighting the Russians and Armenians, the Ottoman Government could not and did not properly protect the Armenian migrants. Nevertheless, more than 200,000 of the deported Armenians reached Greater Syria and survived. Those who see the evil of genocide in the forced migrations of Armenians ignore the survival of so many of those who were deported. They also ignore the fact that the Armenians who were most under Ottoman control, those in Western cities such as Izmir, Istanbul, and Edirne, were neither deported nor molested, presumably because they were not a threat. If genocide is to be considered, however, then the murders of Turks and Kurds in 1915 and 1916 must be included in the calculation of blame. The Armenian molestations and massacres in Cilicia, deplored even by their French and British allies, must be judged. And the exile or death of two-thirds of the Turks of Erivan Province, the Armenian Republic, during the war must be remembered.(

    • Lois Melkonian

      You certainly have your opinion.I intentionally did not make an argument for ‘recognition,’ now did I? That’s not what this post was about. Maybe you missed it, it’s about being descendants of survivors and how that impacts our lives. I know what happened to my grandparents and their family members. And I wish you a wonderful afternoon.

  • miller


    ‘… The war with us was inevitable… We had not done all that was necessary for us to have done to evade war. We ought to have used peaceful language with the Turks…We had no information about the real strength of the Turks and relied on ours. This was the fundamental error. We were not afraid of war because we thought we could win… Our army was well fed and well armed and [clothed] but it did not fight. The troops were constantly retreating and deserting their positions ; they threw away their arms and dispersed in the villages. …In spite of the fact that the Armenians had better material and better support, their armies lost. ….. the advancing Turks fought only against the regular soldiers ; they did not carry the battle to the civilian sector. ….the Turkish soldiers were well-disciplined and that there had not been any massacres…’

    Source: The 1923 Bucharest Manifesto of Hovhannes Katchaznouni, the first PM of the Independent Armenian Republic, published by the Armenian Information Service Suite 7D, 471 Park Ave., New York 22 – 1955.

  • miller

    There has been no kind of court decision about what the Armenians call a ‘genocide’ nor has the Armenians ever applied to any court.
    Moreover, International Court of Justice or domestic courts are the only authorities reserved to prosecute and proclaim genocide according to the 1948 UN Convention. Therefore, the Armenian allegation of genocide lacks evidence and legal support.
    Have you ever wondered;
    Why are they afraid of simply applying to the International Court of Justice instead of spending huge amounts of money to make the propaganda of their thesis?

    Why are they afraid of discussing their thesis in historical joint commissions?

    Why did they not open their archives up till now, while the Turkish archives are open?

  • Harry

    Wonderful story. Many similarities with our family. We are also writing our grandparents memoirs. I believe that if we do not many pictures, and most of us do not, the next best thing in giving our presentations is to have appropriate music and that becomes the individual’s choice…
    Well done Good and mighty warrior.


    Just heard about it today, but looks like Kickstarter failed. Hope you’ll find money elsewhere. Finding the idea of a MUSICAL excellent, I wanted to encourage the project. Not that my minimalistic pledge would have made any difference I’m afraid. I’m an actor/director living in Paris (thought American) and have my own Armenian musical (actually a classical opera buffa; Tchouhadjian’s 19th century masterpiece GARINEH –a.k.a. Leblebiji Horhor Agha – translated into French) for which I am desperately trying to raise funds myself. I know it’s not easy. We already performed it 5 times and will perform it again in November this year. Still, trying to find sums to continue! So you can understand. But I think that even a symbolic participation is important to demonstrate a true solidarity between those of us in show business who fight, often against all odds, to bring ARMENIA into the mainstream. Wish you all the best for I AM ALIVE! Other than that, how can I help?

  • Adele Bedrossian

    Hi I also am a survivor my grand parents of both side lived in Adana and were forced to leave their homes and belongins My mother was born during deportation and lost her mother during the exiles
    She never knew her mother..
    As a child I lived in Lebanon
    After the civil war we left for Canada
    Unfortunately I only knew my grand father from my mother s side
    I am always touched and emotional when I read about people like you who tell our story in such a noble way.
    I don’t care if some ignorant persons deny what happened to our people.
    What is important is that. We continue transmitting our values ,our culture,our traditions and our language to the future generatin
    Thanks to you and to Ms Gentellini

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