"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. 

1 comment:

  1. I've read "Das Haus" and it is true that it is an amazing story of how justice could be done for all concerned after so many years and so much forgetting.

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