"His polished, sometimes even poetic prose evokes a sense of curiosity and lament. In response to his family’s silence—and to the silence of a whole people still shellshocked by their grim treatment—Kalajian has become a professional storyteller and an excellent one at that." Kirkus Reviews

Friday, July 18, 2014

My father was born in a house I've never seen. Will it ever be mine?

I want my house back.

Forget that I’ve never seen it and have no idea what the address is, much less what it looks like. It’s my house, damn it, and I want it.

This is not a snap decision. I started thinking about this over 40 years ago, when my father told me he was sure Turkey would never acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. I asked how he could be so certain.

“Because they’d have to give me my house back,” he said. “They would have to give all the Armenians their houses back.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of my father owning any house except the one where we lived in New Jersey. I understood immediately he was talking about his father’s house in Diyarbakir. It had most likely been in the family for generations.

My father was three years old when his family was forced out of their home and his mother murdered. He was probably 60 when we had that conversation, but the house most likely still stood somewhere within the city’s ancient walls and it most definitely belonged to his parents’ only child by any civilized code of law.

I’d put all this aside until a few years ago when my friend Art Heise shared his own experience with a lost family home in a far-off place that had been wracked by war and genocide.

He and his family were evicted by the Red Army at the end of World War II when Art was barely school age. They were lucky to escape East Germany, but his parents were never able to return to their house.

When the Communists finally cleared out nearly a half century later, Art returned to claim the family home only to discover it had been home to another family before the war – a Jewish family.

Art’s research confirmed that the previous owners were murdered by the Nazis. It also revealed something even more shocking to him: His father had been a member of the Nazi Party. He could not proceed with his claim without delving even deeper to find out if his father had used his influence to force this helpless family out of their home.

The result was a fascinating, difficult and even painful journey of family discovery that became all the more challenging and meaningful when Art tracked down the other family’s heir and persuaded her to join his quest.

At its core was a daunting reality: Art would lose all claim to the home if he uncovered evidence of his father’s complicity. Worse, he would live with the knowledge. I know Art, so I know the courage he showed in going forward.  

J. Arthur Heise and Melanie Kuhr both overcame suspicion, distrust and history to make a successful joint claim to the house, and then shared the profit when they sold it. They also wrote a book about their unlikely partnership, Das Haus.

From Art’s perspective, the circumstances of his house odyssey are a strange reversal of the Armenian predicament. But his decency and his determination are heartening to anyone who hopes for the best in human behavior.

I wonder if I’d discover the same qualities in the Turks or Kurds who most likely live in my father’s house?


I want to believe it is possible, just as I want to believe my father was wrong. 

Dad is gone now so his house is just as surely mine. I will make my claim if the day ever comes when justice extends to Armenians. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Straw Dolls: A film that deserves to be made about a story that needs to be told


I got an interesting email the other day from an independent film maker who's trying to raise money to tell a story about the Armenian Genocide.

What interested me most about Jon Milano's project is that he isn't Armenian.


Jon Milano
Milano, an independent director based in Los Angeles, is a graduate student at Chapman University. He explained his interest this way:

"I grew up in Oradell, New Jersey. My closest and dearest friends were Armenian, so I became aware at a young age of the magnitude of the Genocide and since then I have always wanted to make a film about the subject. 

"My friend Yervant's grandmother was a survivor. He had told me her story when we were growing up and it has stuck with me since. I came to him and told his family I wanted to make a movie about her and her journey. We also brought in some other stories from survivors and incorporated them into her story. Our research began about six years ago, combing archives and meeting grandchildren and children of survivors."

The result of this research is Straw Dolls, which tells the story of a girl named Lucine. As a survivor living in latter-day California, Lucine relates the story of her parents' murder and the journey of survival in which she set out with nothing more than the straw doll her mother had made for her.

The events and people her character describes are all based on true stories told by other survivors. "The film is one of the first narrative movies about the Genocide that isn't a documentary," Milano said. 

Milano's immediate goal is to raise enough money to make a short film that will serve as a showcase to garner support for a feature-length version.

I know just enough about the film industry to be impressed by Milano's ambition.

As in print publishing, changes in technology have made film-making more affordable and accessible than in the days of the big studios but a well-told story is still a challenge—particularly one set in another time and place.

That challenge is certainly compounded when the underlying story is one that so many have tried very hard to ignore or deny.

So bravo to Milano, who is hoping to raise money through crowd funding. Do you know about crowd funding? All I know is that gutsy people who believe in their ideas can pitch them to the world via the Internet. If all goes well the crowd responds with contributions.

Milano's first round of solicitation is over but he's still seeking support. 

Intrigued? Check out Milano's video and extended proposal