Syracuse University Magazine

Sacred Justice

Sacred Justice

In revealing a long-hidden family secret, an alumna author sheds light on her grandfather’s influential role in the covert operation to assassinate the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide

By Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy

For the first six years of my life, my parents, brother, and I lived in my maternal grandparents’ house near Elmwood Park in Syracuse. The six of us were crammed into a small early 20th-century frame house with a front porch and tiny back study that served as my bedroom with an enticingly flat roof outside its window that looked out onto our grape arbor, fruit trees, and strawberry patch where my grandmother caught the thieving bunny she spanked and sent on its way.

Aaron SachakianAaron Sachaklian, my grandfather, spent most of his days in the red leather chair near the wooden radio he listened to every day, silently smoking his Camels with shaking fingers, perhaps from undiagnosed Parkinson’s that would, years later, steal my mother’s smile and cause her shuffling gait. But when I was a young child, this quiet man who wore a three-piece suit nearly every day of his life, bounced me on his foreleg, carried me through the doorways on his shoulders like a coronated queen, and took me outside at dusk to survey the peach, pear, and apple trees beyond our back door. When my grandmother, Eliza, and I made our weekly trip to Abajian Cleaners three blocks down on South Avenue, I was the one to carry his wool coat, hugging it to my chest, saying, “I love my medz-hairig (grandfather). I wish he would live forever.” My grandfather lived to 84, the last few years in mental and visual darkness, his eyesight failing, his prodigious brain’s neurons deadened from a series of strokes. Thinking me his wife as a young woman, he called me Eliza, took my hand in his, stroked it, and held it to his cheek. No one in our family knew until close to 25 years after his death in 1964 that my grandfather was the financial and logistical leader of the covert operation—known as Operation Nemesis—to assassinate the architects of the Armenian Genocide.

All four of my grandparents were survivors of the Armenian massacres that occurred before the genocide of 1915. My paternal grandmother ran from her home with her infant daughter to the American mission to escape the Turks’ scimitars, knives, and shovels, while her husband fled his workplace in town to hide in the woods, escaping on a freighter bound for the United States. They were separated for more than 10 years. My maternal grandmother, Eliza, and her family survived two atrocities: They hid on their roof to evade the Hamidian massacres of 1894-96 in which up to 300,000 Armenians were killed, and survived the Adana massacres of 1909 that killed 30,000 by fighting back when the Turks held their town, Dortyol, under siege. My maternal grandfather, Aaron Sachaklian, narrowly escaped death during the massacres of 1894-96 while making his way out of Turkey to the United States. In 1908, after the Constitution was restored briefly allowing travel, he returned to Turkey to see his family. While there, the 1909 massacres in Adana erupted, and Aaron, now a U.S. citizen, implored the foreign consul officials to intercede with the Turks and lift the Dortyol siege, and foreign intervention saved the lives of the Armenians in Dortyol. Eliza’s brother, Mihran, one of the resistance leaders, was imprisoned for his bravery in sneaking past Turkish guns to break up the dam the Turks built in the creek that supplied the town’s water, saving citizens’ lives. When asked why he resisted, he said, “Even a dumb animal will try to protect itself. You attacked us and we resorted to arms to protect ourselves.” As my grandmother wrote in her memoirs, “They silenced him with their beatings.” My grandmother said her mother washed her son’s bloody underwear sent home by his jailors with her tears. When my grandmother exhorted me to eat every last pea on my plate, saying, “remember the starving Armenians,” it had more than rhetorical power. I was raised on my grandmother’s stories of resistance, but my grandfather never spoke of those days, and I, unconsciously respecting his silence, never asked.

These massacres prefigured the Armenian Genocide of 1915-23 that so shocked the world that a charity was formed in 1915, under the leadership of James L. Barton and Cleveland H. Dodge, to provide humanitarian relief. First known as The American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief and later renamed the American Committee for Relief in the Near East, this charity created refugee camps, orphanages, hospitals, and vocational training programs that saved the lives of 132,000 orphans from Yerevan and Constantinople to Damascus and Beirut. In 1930, the organization, renamed the Near East Foundation, expanded its reach to include North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the larger Middle East. Then, in 2010, the foundation moved its headquarters to Syracuse, where it has partnered with Syracuse University to engage students and faculty in international development work.

My family would have been proud and happy to learn of this partnership. Aaron Sachaklian, one of the first CPAs in Connecticut, moved to Syracuse in 1919 to work for the accounting firm Hopstein, Olney & Company and lived there the rest of his life. His three children graduated from Syracuse University, and his youngest daughter, my mother, Arpena Mesrobian, who also earned a master’s degree from the Maxwell School in 1993, became the director of Syracuse University Press. My brother, William Mesrobian ’67, and I are SU graduates, and I earned my doctorate in the humanities from SU in 1980.  

Discovering the Operation Nemesis Letters
In 1990 after my grandmother died, my family found a large collection of letters in my grandfather’s upstairs study, the room I slept in as a child. The letters were written by Armen Garo, Shahan Natalie, Soghomon Tehlirian, and others involved in Operation Nemesis. My grandfather had never spoken of Nemesis to anyone in his family, including his wife. My mother, knowing immediately what she had discovered, took the letters to her house. Her mother’s memoirs were safely stored in her second-floor study, but these letters, perhaps seen as too radioactive to be allowed upstairs, sat in boxes on the damp cement floor in her basement, their contents carefully catalogued and summarized (for which I am thankful to this day), waiting for the next flood to wipe out the faint ink. By the time I pulled the letters out of the basement, some were still damp, others were dry but with running ink, and others thankfully had escaped the water unscathed. I opened up their wet or crackling pages one by one with shaking hands and laid the damp ones on the kitchen table to dry in the sunlight they had not seen in close to 88 years.

The voices of these extraordinary men demonstrated poignantly and powerfully the danger, complexity, and importance of this work. The three leaders were Armen Garo, the soul of Nemesis, Armenian ambassador to the United States; Shahan Natalie, the heart, the humanist, poet, and actor, whose intensity and fervor are imprinted onto every page he wrote; and Aaron Sachaklian, the head, the careful, cerebral anchor who figured out how to fund and organize this massive effort. Also in his file I found the list, in Shahan Natalie’s handwriting, of 100 Turkish perpetrators of the genocide and nearly 65 photographs of them—a few actual portraits and most clipped from newspapers. These photographs were sent to the assassins in the field to ensure that the targets were accurately identified. The prime directive for Operation Nemesis—which was followed to the letter—was injure no innocent people. What motivated these men, some of whom had families, to assume such risk?

Seeking Justice
Between 1915 and 1923 about a million and a half Armenians were slaughtered by the Turks, hundreds of thousands more were destitute and starving, and the lucky few who had found passage out of Turkey were struggling to survive in new lands with as yet unknown languages and terrain. Then on the night of November 2-3, 1918, Talaat Pasha and other Ottoman leaders responsible for the genocide escaped from Turkey on a torpedo boat across the Black Sea. They had been convicted in Turkish tribunals of capital crimes for their leadership roles in the Armenian Genocide, but the political will to extradite them was lacking. It is against this backdrop that we place the work of Operation Nemesis. These Armenians could not go on with their post-genocide lives without seeking justice for the deaths of their family, friends, and community members, especially when it became clear that the perpetrators remained free to continue their genocidal actions.

The three leaders of Operation Nemesis were well educated, spoke multiple languages, and were single-minded in their dedication to their mission. The field operators were survivors, relatives, and/or friends of those who had perished and had experience either fighting in the Causacus with Armenian military leaders or acting as underground couriers and escorts for fleeing Armenians. The work they engaged in had benefits and costs: The work of Nemesis was virtually the only justice the Armenians have had in the nearly 100 years since the genocide. The costs are equally definitive: While the letters demonstrate the strength, resilience, and dedication necessary for these men to succeed in their mission, also clear is the emotional and psychological pain and stress they endured every day, in silence, for many years speaking of their efforts only to each other. In a letter dated March 17, 1921, two days after the assassination of Talaat Pasha, Armen Garo wrote: “The situation in the homeland is hopeless as far as the famine is concerned…. During these heavy days when our people again are convulsing in the claws of death…Shahan’s success is the only consoling event.”

I could understand my mother’s reticence regarding what to do with these Nemesis materials. My grandfather was the quiet, careful patriarch of the Armenian community, the last person one would associate with Operation Nemesis. I was also fascinated by exactly that point: How did it happen that my gentle grandfather was a leader of a plot to assassinate anyone, even these mass murderers? His most intense punishment when I misbehaved as a child was a stern look or a squeeze of my arm. How could his family know nothing? His small children had played under the dining room table where these men met and planned. But, of course, silence was crucial. To give some idea of the secrecy involved, one of the letters is in code: It reads like gibberish, but when a cut-out template is placed on top of the letter, the actual message, written by Soghomon Tehlirian, who killed Talaat Pasha, is revealed.  The letter was written to Hamo Paraghamian, the agent assigned to facilitate Tehlirian’s mission. I remember Hamo, a close family friend, as a huge, jolly Santa Claus figure who scooped up young children in his arms, myself included, and played jokes on them—not one I would have guessed to move large sums of money to assassins. In his coded letter Tehlirian states that he will wait in Geneva until he receives his assignment. These men were determined to succeed in their mission, and succeed they did. Between 1920 and 1922 at least eight Turkish leaders and three Armenian traitors were killed. The men of Operation Nemesis saw this as “a sacred work of justice” as Shahan Natalie described it.

The most important  “work of justice” was Tehlirian’s assassination of Talaat Pasha, the primary architect of the genocide, on March 15, 1921, on a Berlin street. Immediately after Tehlirian’s arrest, the police began looking for accomplices, but none were found, and the defense attorney was able to sustain the fiction that this was not a premeditated murder. The Germans did little to dislodge this concept, given their possible culpability in the genocide.

Tehlirian was aided by a large network of talented members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), a political organization formed in 1890 to advocate for reform against human rights abuses in Turkey. Armenians were third-class citizens, subject to high taxes, repeated massacres, loss of their homes, sexual assaults of their women, and lack of recourse in the courts. My grandfather, Aaron, had met with Simon Zavarian, an ARF founder, when he went back to Turkey in 1909. They traveled through the countryside together, talking at length about what could be done to help their countrymen, and Aaron remained an ARF member his entire life.

A key component of the plan to assassinate Talaat Pasha in Berlin was the public trial that resulted in a verdict of not guilty, on grounds of mental impairment. Tehlirian had lost virtually his entire family in the deportations and massacres and suffered from epileptic faints and what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder, so the defense could portray him as the wounded man he was. However, the murder was indeed planned, and the case provided an opportunity for the Armenians to try the Turkish government in open court for the monumental crime that we now call by the term “genocide,” coined in 1944 by Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin after learning of the near annihilation of the Armenians. The justice of the verdict appeared important beyond the Armenians: Tehlirian had achieved a kind of rock-star status, as shown in a letter describing the moment the verdict of not guilty was read. The courtroom exploded in applause: “German, woman and girl like a torrent are running toward the cage where Soghomon [Tehlirian] is and crying, joyous, hugging each other…. Some people are kissing his hand, some his forehead...former landlady is crying; you’d think that she was his mother….” The printed trial transcripts sold many copies.

A few short years after the genocide, the intense media coverage that occurred during World War I that referred to the “starving Armenians” ended as quickly as it had begun. The Republic of Armenia was not granted a mandate for statehood from the United States, and Armenia became sucked into Soviet Russia, not emerging as an independent state until 1991. The Turkish government paid no price for the near-annihilation of an ethnic group; indeed, Turkey’s geopolitical position in the Middle East and the oil fields of Mosul had the Allies scrambling to curry favor. As British Prime Minister David Lloyd George said in 1920, “Oil outweighed the blood of Armenians,” and the Armenians and their fate fell into obscurity. When I was a child no one had heard of Armenia. I have been asked if I am Jewish, Italian, Spanish, east Indian, Native American, Lebanese, even Irish, the last from a sweet, elderly woman who, when I asked her why she thought I was Irish, replied, “Well, dear, you are small, like those leprechauns.” When I told people I am Armenian I often heard, “Is that somewhere near Romania?” When Armenians first immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, they were told to check “oriental” or “other” when asked for their race.

A Continuing Threat
Today, parts of the Middle East continue to be under extreme threat, especially in Iraq and Syria where many descendants of the Armenians who escaped the genocide are again under siege from Muslim extremists, and genocides still occur in the world in spite of the promise of “never again.” However, some progress toward recognition of the Armenian Genocide has been made: Forty-three states in the United States have recognized it, as has most of Europe, even if the U.S. government cannot quite bring itself to use the term “genocide.” Equally important, 100 years later, Turkish society is shifting—the June 7, 2015 election brought three Armenians to the Turkish Parliament, and now some Turks are asking important questions about what happened in 1915. In the past, just to speak of the Armenian Genocide was to risk imprisonment. The Kurds and the Armenians are burying old hurts and supporting human rights. But the biggest change has been the re-emergence in 1991 of an independent Armenia. Though poor and isolated, it is a democracy making slow but steady economic progress, with support from a grateful diaspora.

My grandfather is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, down the street from Syracuse University. A picture of his tombstone and the location of the cemetery are posted on a Nemesis website. I am not sure he would approve of the publicity. He served the church he helped build as its financial manager for many years; he and his wife provided homes for many displaced Armenian families after World War II; he wrote countless letters to governments, churches, and prominent leaders on behalf of his people and penned a play that was performed in Syracuse. But his most difficult, dangerous, and significant work no one, not even his family, knew about until after his death. At the end of his life my grandmother heard him say, “I could have done more.” «

Marian Mesrobian MacCurdyThis article is based on Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy’s book, Sacred Justice: The Voices and Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2015). A retired professor and chair of the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, Mesrobian MacCurdy ’66, G’72, G’80 is currently visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and blogs for the Huffington Post. She is also the co-editor of Writing and Healing: Toward an Informed Practice (NCTE, 2000) and the author of The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma (UMass Amherst, 2007).



Aaron_Garo_Zaven.jpg

In a photo taken in Boston, Aaron Sachaklian (right) poses with (from left) Varharsh Barsigian, a member of the Armenian Central Committee of America, the organization that housed Operation Nemesis; Zaven Nalbandian, a close friend of the Sachaklian family and member of the Nemesis Finance Committee; and Armen Garo, an Operation Nemesis leader.

All photos (except where noted) and letter are courtesy of Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy, author of Sacred Justice: The Voices and Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis (Transaction, 2015)



AaronElizaChildren.jpg

Aaron Sachaklian and his wife, Eliza, with their three children (from left: Arpena, Stella, and Harry) in their first Syracuse home, where they lived after moving from Boston. The photo was taken around 1920, when Operation Nemesis was underway.



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In an October 30, 1921, letter written to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Central Committee in Boston, Soghomon Tehlirian, who had killed Talaat Pasha in Berlin that March, states in oblique terms that other ARF operatives are actively pursuing targets. In London at the time, he was using the alias Saro Melikian, and writes that he may have trouble getting a visa to stay in England and asks that money be sent to him via a church there.



SoghomonTehlirian.jpg

Soghomon Tehlirian (left) assassinated Talaat Pasha on a Berlin Street on March 15, 1921. Operation Nemesis leaders considered it "a sacred work of justice." Talaat, the Ottoman prime minister, had escaped Turkey in 1918 after being convicted in a tribunal of capital crimes for his role in the Armenian Genocide.

Courtesy of Project SAVE



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A photo of this image was found among the papers in Aaron Sachaklian's home. Taken in the garden of Ibrahim Pasha, a Turkish leader, the photo includes many of the genocide perpetrators who were on the Armenians' hit list, including Ottoman Prime Minister Talaat Pasha (seated third from the left). Photos were sent to operatives so they could accurately identify their targets.



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