The boy who was sold into slavery for a silver coin
Mesrop Boyajian recounts his experience in the Armenian Genocide
By J.D. LasicaJoyce Poirot is the only offspring of Mesrop Boyajian, the boy who was sold into slavery for a silver coin.
Boyajian seldom talked about his experience, so it was not until adulthood that Poirot understood her father’s place in the massacres. But she knew, from her early years in Detroit, that there was something about her heritage that set her apart.
“I knew it from the secret language we spoke at home and the way my grandmother dressed me,” she says. “I knew it when I’d open my lunch box in kindergarten. Everybody else would have bologna on Wonder Bread. I’d open mine, and a couple of kuftas (meatballs) or lahmajoun (meat pies), smelling of garlic, would roll out.”
Poirot, 51, rests on a sofa in her downtown condominium. She is a top academic administrator at the University of California, Davis, overseeing a statewide continuing-education program.
“My first awareness of Armenians being discriminated against came after our family moved to Fresno when I was 11,” she says. “In Detroit, an Armenian was just another minority. But in Fresno, we were looked down upon.
“A few years later I came across a photograph of a sign in Fig Garden, an exclusive area of Fresno. It said, ‘No Negroes, No Jews, No Mexicans, No Armenians.’ And I thought, wow, this is for real.”
As a young adult she became estranged from her culture because of the way in which women have been treated in traditional Armenian households. But Poirot has now made peace with her roots.
“About 10 years ago I began realizing there was a part of me I didn’t know,” she explains.
In 1983 she traveled to Yerevan, capital of Soviet Armenia. There she came upon the monument called Dzidzernagabert, or Fortress of Sparrows. It is dedicated to the victims of the Armenian tragedy.
Poirot recalls: “The first time I came up to it, I was with my (now former) husband. I thought, ‘This is no tourist site; this is something I want to be alone with.’ Suddenly and unexpectedly I felt part of that distant experience.
“Later, when the sun was setting, I went back alone. I was just overcome, wracked with pain and grief and tears. I felt connected with it, with the martyrs, with my past. I felt there’s no escaping it — it’s in me. There’s no more denying that I carry pieces of the trauma.”
There is a long silence, and then: “I think I finally came to terms with it by accepting it.”
POIROT’S FATHER, Mesrop Boyajian, ambles over to the television in his apartment, flicks it off, and settles into his favorite chair. “It’s not a pleasant thing to talk about, being sold as a slave,” he says, “so I very seldom talk about it.”
— Mesrop Boyajian
Boyajian is 80 years old. He has smooth features, good, strong hands that once worked the vineyards, and a lilting, almost boyish voice. A patch of white hair shoots up from his head.
Looking back on his stolen youth, he lets out a hollow sigh and says, “It feels like I’ve lost something. Something of myself.”
Of course, things might have been worse, he points out. “Perhaps I was lucky to have been sold. Otherwise, who knows what would have happened? I understood later that most of those kids who were not sold died in the desert.”
For Boyajian, freedom carried a $40 price tag. When he was 16, his brothers sent him the money to join them in the United States. Mesrop had no trouble getting permission to leave from his Syrian owners, who were grateful for 10 years of good work.
He entrusted the $40 with a Near East Relief missionary, who arranged for an Arab guide to smuggle him and 10 other Armenian children across the Turkish border to Aleppo, Syria. From there, he made his way to New York in 1925.
Boyajian spent 21 years in the U.S. Army, serving in World War II, when he won a Purple Heart, and in Korea. He lived for years in the Bay Area before settling in Sacramento.
“I have seen many many things in my time,” Boyajian says philosophically. “Men are capable of great evil.”
He is asked: Will the world see another genocide?
“Another genocide? No, I don’t think so. We’ve learned a great deal.” He pauses. “Don’t you think?”
Mesrop Boyajian sat down for several interviews with J.D. Lasica. He died on Oct. 16, 1995.