The Ivazians

Ivy and Gregory Ivazian
Ivy and Gregory Ivazian

‘To spite them, I decided I gotta stay alive’

By J.D. Lasica

Aghasi “Ivy” Ivazian invites a visitor into his North Sacramento home with a sweep of his hand. In a back room, amid scrapbooks and photo albums, he tells his story animatedly.

He is 78 years old, perhaps — there is no way to be sure. He was born in the city of Van, the historic center of Armenian civilization. It was in Van that the first fighting between Turks and Armenians broke out in early April 1915, an episode that historians say led to the government’s decision to deport the Armenians into the desert.

The Ottoman authorities, according to historical accounts, demanded 4,000 Armenians for the war against Russia, but the Armenians held back. Says Ivazian: “We knew what they had done in other places. They barely put these people in the army, made them dig ditches. They shot them and buried them in the very ditches they dug.”

Turkish troops and irregular soldiers from Kurdish villages in the area, under the command of their German allies, launched a five-week assault on the outnumbered Armenians of Van.

Recalls Ivazian: “I was only 4 1/2, so my people used me as an errand boy, taking provisions like food, water, messages into the trenches. I remember the people being killed, the fires, the singing. After a month, the enemy retreated. It was just a miracle. We were drunk with happiness.”

Soon the Russian army advanced, including Armenians from the Russian side of the border. When the Russians withdrew six weeks later, tens of thousands of Armenians in the region, fearing a Turkish reprisal, joined the retreat.

Ivazian remembers: “During the retreat, at a river gorge called Bargry Galley, the Turks and Kurds laid a trap. They opened fire on our people. It was a holy mess. In the confusion, I got lost from my family. A Cossack on horseback grabbed me, put me on his back and took me.”

He wound up in an orphanage in Russian Armenia. To stay alive, he foraged through the fields for edible weeds and roots. “There were too many people and too little to eat. Not enough doctors — sickness, pestilence, cholera. I lost my three brothers there from sickness and starvation. I don’t know what happened to my sister. I’m the only one left from my family.”

His voice begins to sag, and darkness fills his eyes. “All that left a very deep impression on me — the cruelty, the suffering, the injustice. Why should I, having so many brothers and sisters, have to grow up like an orphan? No brothers, no sister, no father, no mother. That’s my lot.”

AFTER EIGHT YEARS in eastern Armenia, Ivazian made his way to France, and then to the United States in 1926. He’s been living in Sacramento since 1934.

For Ivazian, the grip of the past has never lost its hold.

“It became an obsession with me, that a nation wanted to kill me, to destroy me. That gave me the power to survive, to resist, to exist— just because the other guy wants to kill me. So to spite them, I decided I gotta stay alive, and I gotta have children, grandchildren. Now I’ve got about 17 in my clan, you see? That’s the best revenge I can take from the Turks. Yes, sir.”

Ivy’s revenge — better known as the Ivazian clan— gathers a few days later in a split-level ranch home a couple of miles from their father’s house.

There is Sergay Ivazian, 53, a senior inspector for Caltrans; Adrien, 50, a retired schoolteacher; David, 44, a program planner for Aerojet. And there is Gregory.

Gregory, 49, followed his father into the upholstery business; now he owns Ivazian’s on Folsom Boulevard. He is an angular man, like a Picasso sprung to life. He has thinning hair, a cigarette that juts from his mouth and a gold chain that dances under his shirt when he gestures, which is all the time.

“Growing up in the ’40s and ’50s,” he says, “we didn’t talk much about our ethnic heritage. Nobody knew what an Armenian was anyway. Even though we have an Armenian governor, it’s amazing how many people I run across in business who say, ‘What’s an Armenian?’ ”

The Ivazians say that to know an Armenian you must know his religion. They are proud that theirs was the world’s first Christian nation.

“It’s more than a religion,” says Gregory. “It’s our culture. It’s our history. There would be no Armenia without our church.” All four of Ivy’s children married non-Armenians, yet all four families attend St. James Apostolic, Sacramento’s lone Armenian church.

“It’s ironic,” Gregory says, pulling on a cigarette. “When the rest of the world was going through the Dark Ages, Armenia was thriving, with its architecture, its art, its literature and poetry, its music and science. That was our Voshgehtar, our golden age.

“But look what’s happened. In my father’s hometown, there were almost 1,000 churches, some going back to the fourth century. Today, those churches are used to store cattle. That hurts,” he says. “That’s my culture.”

IN THIS HOUSEHOLD, the Turkish government is spoken of in dark tones, and the U.S. government’s refusal to acknowledge the Armenians’ losses cuts deeply. (The State Department has opposed legislation to that end, fearing it would offend Turkey, a key NATO ally.)

“When my government sells its soul to the devil, something in me knots up,” says Adrien. “I grow absolutely livid when I see those articles and advertisements claiming the massacres never happened. For God’s sake, don’t let the Turkish government change history.”

Gregory breaks in. “The Armenian people have lived on that land since Noah’s Ark,” he says slowly, with passion. “In the Bible, our people (the Urartuans) are spoken of in Genesis, along with the Jews. So we’ve been there since the beginning of mankind. I want my birthright back. I want to choose whether to go back or not. I want restitution.”

Gregory rises from his seat, and his voice rises with him. “I know what injustice is, and I will not let my father’s plight go to the wind. And yes, I will pass the truth on to my children. And yes, if it takes 2,000 years for justice, in whatever form it comes, I hope to God that the descendants of my kids’ kids’ kids will someday see it.”

Series on the Armenian Genocide

The forgotten genocide

Martyrs Day: Witnesses to genocide

The Boyajians

Emmy Shahinian

Gov. George Deukmejian on the Armenian genocide

What historians say about the Armenian Genocide

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT