Saturday, July 11, 2015

Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide which saw the systematic murder of 1.5 million Armenian Christians in Turkey. At the beginning of World War I there were approximately two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish population never fully accepted the Armenian Christians in their country. There had been repeated attacks against them in previous years and the Ottoman government considered them a security threat. As a result the government which was controlled by three members of the Committee of Union and Progress called the Young Turks made a decision to eliminate the entire Armenian Christian population. The plan was to eliminate the leaders of the Armenian community first and then to systematically murder all the men. This plan began in 1915 and continued until 1923. The western nations of America, Britain and France protested against the massacres but in reality the international community did little to stop it. Despite the fact that there were many witnesses to the genocide as well as much documented evidence, Turkey has never admitted to committing genocide. Forgotten Fire tells the story of one young boy who witnesses the extermination of almost all his family.

In 1915, twelve year old Vahan Kenderian was the youngest child of a wealthy Armenian lawyer living in Bitlis, a province in Turkey. Vahan had three older brothers, Diran, Tavel and Sisak and two older sisters, Armenouhi and Oskina. His father was well respected by Armenians and Turks alike, who often came to Vahan's home to consult with his father. Bitlis did not have many Turks in 1915 but Vahan had heard about the massacre of Armenians by Turks years before in Adana. Vahan was really not concerned about this. He was a typical twelve year old from a well to do family, full of confidence that he would one day be a man of influence like his father.His father however thought Vahan to be lacking in character and discipline.

One day in the early spring of 1915, two gendarmes came to the house informing Vahan's father that he was wanted at the government buildings. Although his mother tried not to appear alarmed, the police summoning Sarkis Kenderian seemed ominous. He does not return and the in the days following his disappearance, strange things began to happen. Vahan saw bloodied and bruised men led away by the gendarmes. The shops began closing, Oskina and Armenouhi heard screams coming from the prison, Diran heard gunshots from the center of town and Tavel had heard that the homes of several Armenians had been burned to the ground. Armenian homes were searched for guns, churches were ransacked and priests accused of being traitors. Vahan and his family began to realize that the Armenian community was being attacked by the Turks.

Vahan's father's younger brother, Uncle Mumpreh is also taken away, being considered a revolutionary. Soon women and children, survivors of a massacre in Van where the men were murdered and their homes burned by the Turkish army begin arriving in Bitlis. Vahan and his family heard stories about Selim Bey, the governor VAn who had murdered thousands of Armenians. Karnigh their horseman committed suicide when he learned that his entire family had been murdered.  Soon hundreds of people, men women and children, the very young and the very old are seen streaming out of the city. Uncle Mumpreh is returned home a completely changed man. He filled three bags with poison and gave them to Vahan's mother and his two sisters telling them that if anything happens they are to take the poison in the bags. The next day soldiers arrive at the house and after terrorizing the family, murdering Divan and Tavel. Their murders forever change Vahan's family; his mother stares outside the window at the garden where her two sons lie buried, Oskina begins wearing their father's shirts, his grandmother reads the Bible and Sisak sits by his brother's graves, while Armenouhi rarely leaves her bedroom. A week later the soldiers returned, questioned Vahan's family and then take them to Goryan's Inn where they are locked in a room.

On the walk to Goryan's Inn, Vahan notices that everyone is gone, the houses are empty, the shops closed, the streets dirty.Vahan, his brother Sisak, his mother Meera, his grandmother and his two sisters Oskina and Armenouhi are kept locked in a room with other Armenian captives. At night the soldiers come to take the girls to rape them and when Armenouhi sees that this will be her fate she takes the poison and dies. Eventually all the remaining captives from the inn are marched towards Diarbekir, where Vahan and his family see hundreds of corpses along the road.  Eventually they arrive at the River Tigris which is filled with floating corpses. When the soldiers kill fifty of the Armenians, including his grandmother, on the banks of the Tigris, and later begin killing the boys, Vahan's mother insists that he and his brother escape during the night. Both Vahan and Sisak manage to do and so begins Vahan's long struggle to survive.


Forgotten Fire is based on the true story of Adam Bagdasarian's great-uncle during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Bagdasarian's uncle, Vahridj Kenderian made a tape of his experiences during the genocide shortly before his death in America. Kenderian was able to emigrate to America, married and lived in New Jersey where he had his own business as a photoengraver. His life, according to the author was a happy one. Bagdasarian spent ten years writing Forgotten Fire as he found information at that time on the Armenian Genocide was somewhat limited. However, in the years leading up to the 100th anniversary of the genocide, much information is now available online. In addition, the murder of 1.5 million Armenian Christians was recently referred to as "genocide" by Pope Francis.

Bagdasarian chose the title, Forgotten Fire, as a reference to the tenacity and strength that adversity can develop within a person. In an interview from Random House he states,
"The Hitler quote at the beginning of the book is meant to convey that the Armenian genocide was a forgotten chapter in world history, and also show the connection between the genocide of the Armenians and the later genocide of the Jews. In other words, if we forget the past, we imperil our future. The “fire” part of the title refers to the part where Vahan’s father tells his children that steel is made strong by fire. The experiences in the book represent Vahan’s fire, the fire for all Armenians–the fire of adversity that either consumes us or makes us stronger. So “Forgotten Fire” stands for this fire of adversity for the Armenian people that was forgotten by the world." And in fact, loss and the ability to cope with adversity are strong themes in the novel.

Vahan is a remarkably resilient young boy who changes drastically from the boy he was before the genocide. Before the genocide, Vahan believed that "character and discipline were consolation prizes given to the meek, the unadventurous, and the unlucky." Vahan believed that time and destiny would bring him the blessings of a good life. "I knew that time and destiny were my allies, the twin magicians of my fate: Time would transform me into the tallest, strongest man in Bitlis, and destiny would transform me into one of the wealthiest, most admired men in Turkey." Ironically, Vahan is taken into Ara Sarkisian's home, an Armenian who at one time had been "a strongman in his village, performing feats of strength on the street for money." At seventy-four years of age however, time has taken this strength and he wisely tells Vahan to work for things that are more permanent than beauty and strength. " 'Time takes everything, Vahan. But your heart, your character, your faith, do not belong to time. So build your home here,' he said, touching his chest. 'And make that home strong, make that home beautiful. Then you will always be safe, and you will never be along.' "

By the end of his journey out of Armenia and to Constantinople, Vahan sees the importance of discipline and character. He is determined to learn as much as he can so he can become more for his family and for himself. The adversity has forged a steel inside him "that made it possible for me to get out of that bed and pretend I was myself; it was the steel that helped me study when all the other boys had gone to sleep." He comes to know "that character and discipline are the steel that fortify" life and that they will ultimately bring blessings that counter the "pain and disillusionment" of life.

Forgotten Fire spares young readers none of the atrocities committed during the Armenian genocide; the cold blooded murder of innocent people, the disappearance of Armenian leaders and intelligentsia, the burning alive of Armenians in their homes, the rape of young girls,mothers and the elderly, the death marches and the annihilation of entire families. The details are not graphic but simply stated in a way that is realistic. As a twelve year old boy, Vahan often had no idea at the time what was really happening. For example, when Uncle Mumpreh gives bags of poison to the women in the family, Vahan doesn't understand what the "trouble" might be.

Vahan Kenderian was an immature twelve year old boy who took for granted his family and the security of his home. At the beginning of the book he stated, "I walked with the confidence of a boy who has grown up in luxury and knows that he will always be comfortable, always well fed, always warm in winter and cool in summer." By the time Vahan has survived several years on the run and ends up in a girls orphanage in Sivas with nothing but the tattered clothes on his back, he "wanted a home and a family more than anything in the world." He knows "that there was probably no such place and no such people" as his home is gone and his family murdered.

Forgotten Fire is highly recommended to those who enjoy historical fiction. Vahan's strong narrative and the compelling story of a boy trying to survive under horrific conditions will engage readers completely. Bagdasarian has included a map detailing Vahan's journey and provides both a Foreword to set the historical background and an Epilogue that states what became of Vahan. Sadly one hundred years later, little seems to have changes with regard to genocide in this part of the world. The massacres of Yazidis and Christians in Syria and Iraq by militant Islamists seems to demonstrate we have not learned yet from history. This only makes Forgotten Fire all the more relevant in educating young readers in the lessons history can teach.

For more information on the Armenian Genocide please check out the Armenian National Institute's website.

Book Details:

Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian
New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.     2000
272 pp.

No comments: