The story of Haji Khalil…my brush with Anne Frank

Anne Frank coverWhen I first read The Diary of Anne Frank, I couldn’t help but place myself in Anne’s shoes because her story, while so relatable to me as a young teenager, was also incredibly haunting and tragic.  I could relate to her awkwardness around romance and friendships, to her sometimes easy and at other times trying relationships with her mother and sister, and her love of Hollywood.  My awe of her also made me wonder about what it must have felt like to be an outcast, to have to go into hiding, to take such great lengths to survive only to end up dying in a concentration camp mere weeks before liberation and just shy of a sixteenth birthday.

I have read and reread the book over the years and each time, I sadly laugh at her antics, my heart swells when she finds companionship with Peter (the son of the other family in hiding), I grow tense and uneasy with every close call of discovery and then I’m horrified when I reach her final entry – the following line in particular:

“I’m what a romantic movie is to a profound thinker – a mere diversion, a comic interlude, something that is soon forgotten: not bad, but not particularly good either.”

Somehow her story always seemed unfinished.  Each time I’ve read the book I’ve looked for missed clues or hidden passages as my mind simply can’t accept such an abrupt end to this enigmatic yet relatable person.

Despite her teenage angst and feelings of insignificance (who, after all, hasn’t experienced the same during their teenage years?) Anne Frank is one of the most recognizable “survivors” of the Holocaust, even though she, herself perished.  Her story has left an indelible impression on millions, but for me, I’ve always felt a connection to her optimism and faith in the face of real adversity.  As an Armenian and a descendant of genocide survivors still hoping for justice, I can relate to that optimism…that faith.  But as a teenager, little did I realize that my connection to Anne would be greater than I could have ever imagined…

When the Armenian Genocide began in 1915, one of the earliest measures by Ottoman Turkish authorities was to collect the men in all of the villages and kill them.  Notable politicians, businessmen, and the intelligentsia were rounded up and murdered – including my great-grandfather who was hung in front of his pregnant wife and four children.  His only crime was that he was a successful Armenian businessman living in Ourfa, a province in Ottoman Turkey which was nearly homogenously Armenian.

While my great-grandfather had likely not foreseen his brutal death, he had made the necessary preparations should the family be faced with any unforeseen danger.  His plan hinged on the willingness, courage and integrity of his Turkish business partner, Haji Khalil.  Haji Khalil had promised my great-grandfather that he would take care of the family in the face of disaster and when disaster struck, he stayed true to his word and housed seven members of my family, including Azniv, my maternal grandmother, in the upper storey of his house for a year, unbeknownst to Ottoman authorities.

Haji Khalil cared for my family’s basic human needs by providing food once a night (which would have to last until the next day) and allowing them to bathe by arranging for his two wives and servants to be absent from the house once a week.  When two of my relatives passed away, Haji Khalil even buried them in secret.  Despite the immense potential risk to his own well-being, and that of his own family, Haji Khalil made good on a promise that he had made to my great-grandfather, an Armenian, and thanks to him, I am here today.

When I learned of the Armenian Genocide, I was quite young.  The documented photos of the atrocities were extremely disturbing but the images that my mind would conjure based on the words I would read about this dark and horrifying period of my people, were even worse; the slashing of pregnant womens’ bellies, young Armenian girls throwing themselves and their children in the Euphrates to escape rape, mutilation and captivity, the slow starvation on the death marches.  Speak to any Armenian today, and they will have a story for you.

Armenian Genocide Children

My paternal grandmother’s story is more typical.  Her father had been killed like most of the other men in her village.  Ottoman Turkish authorities then came to evacuate my grandmother’s family and when my great-grandmother stopped them from entering her home, they killed her.  Luckily, my great-aunt had been visiting that day and she grabbed my grandmother, her older sister, her newborn baby brother and fled from the back door of the house, unbeknownst to the authorities.  During the marches, the Turkish soldiers became aware of the gold that my great-aunt had hidden in her clothes so they attacked her and as a result, it became my grandmother’s job to carry her newborn brother.  At one point, Esther, my grandmother, had carried the body of her dead baby brother for two days during the death marches in the mountains from Erzerum to Marash in Turkey not realizing that he had died from malnutrition.  It was a group of older women that informed her that he had passed and at just four or five years old, the same age as my youngest son in junior kindergarten, she buried her baby brother on the side of the road under twigs and some rocks.  She was not as fortunate as Azniv – there was no Haji Khalil to save her family.

On the one hand I’ve always felt anger that my ancestors were subjected to such immense and cruel suffering simply because they were different – as Armenians, the lives of my ancestors had no value.  That the Ottoman Turks could commit such a horrific act, such a crime against humanity, genocide, vilified them to me.  On the other hand, there is the story of Haji Khalil.  A righteous Turk, without whom, my own mother would not be here today – for that matter, neither would I.  I owe him my life.  This dichotomy has always been challenging but it has allowed me to stay strong, to demand justice and to have hope and faith that the people of a nation with a dark past, are capable of taking steps towards recognizing and taking responsibility for past faults and allowing two nations to move forward.

While Anne Frank’s father’s business partner had been like a Haji Khalil to Anne and her family, her salvation would not come and her life would end in tragedy.  Unlike Anne, my grandmother and her family were not discovered and instead, the efforts of Haji Khalil allowed her to avoid death marches and concentration camps. Unlike Anne, the efforts of Haji Khalil allowed my grandmother to have a sixteenth birthday and to have a full and complete life surrounded by her mother, her children and grandchildren; she was able to pass along stories and traditions herself rather than through a diary.  My grandmother passed away 10 years ago, in April 2005, just shy of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.  On this centenary, I think she would be proud that my own faith and optimism are still intact as I do my own part in seeking more Haji Khalils…

Anne-Franks-Diary1

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Humanity…never ceases to amaze

Champagne?  Don’t mind if I do…ooh, it’s Cristal!!!  Of course!  Only the best for my uncle’s 65th birthday! I can’t believe it!  This party is totally high class:  great band, great food, fabulous looking people and just look at my dress!  I’m wearing the most gorgeous black and white ballgown – it’s enormous!  Fantastic!  Magical!  Ooh, and now I have a mask on.  It’s a masquerade ball, oh how elegant!  And my hair is so long and gorgeous and shiny.  My lips are ruby red.  I never want this to end…

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.  “Mommy, I cold.  I wanna eat something.  I wanna change.”  These were the words of my 3 year old this morning…at 5:25 am!!  A whole hour before my alarm was supposed to go off!  And poof…there went the dream.  I jumped out of bed and started walking with my eyes closed.  Sensing my clumsiness, he held my fingers with his little hand and guided me to his room…at which point I was really debating a detour to the bathroom given my sense of urgency!  But he’s one of the loves of my life, trusts me implicitly, loves me unconditionally, and I would never let him down.  So on I went.

This was a morning like every other – preceded by a typical Wednesday night (Survivor night!)  Tired mom, comes home from work, rushes to get kids fed and ready for swimming classes.  Then back home, bathe them, feed them again (I swear they are machines), read one a bedtime story and then the other, then run downstairs for some QT with my cutie!  Forget that I haven’t had dinner – a handful of almonds, the rest of that half-eaten Aero bar and some fruit gummies will suffice.

In any case, after my “rude awakening” this morning, I was treated with the gift of walking to the subway by myself and the luxury of buying a latte before hopping on the train – no kids to take to school, no bags to pack and no lunches to make!  Had I won the lottery???  Yes sir!

And there I was, latte in hand, watching Twilight: Breaking Dawn on my iPhone (for the fourth or fifth time) when suddenly I started to feel like I lost my breath.  My head started to get very, very warm – my body actually felt like it was on fire.  I put my hand on my chest and it felt very cold and clammy.  My legs felt like they couldn’t support me – I felt dizzy – I couldn’t think – what was I going to do?  With what strength I could muster, I squeezed my way off the extremely overcrowded train and as I was walking, I started to feel tingles and like my surroundings were just fading away…

Luckily I made it to a bench and put my head between my knees.  And the next thing I remember was being so grateful for the humanity of the two women on either side of me.  There I was, a complete stranger (albeit well dressed in my cute little summer dress, faux snake skin ballet flats, and gold hoop earrings) looking ready to be sick or pass out; perhaps a great inconvenience or a complete lunatic.  And in my most vulnerable state, these two women didn’t appear at all worried about who I was or what I might do to them.  They didn’t think about whether or not they knew me, trusted me or whether they could get something from me.  They just wanted to help.  They just wanted to make sure I was ok.

All I could think of while I tried to regroup and pull myself together to get back on the train was how I could repay their kindness…and how I regret not asking for their names.

It’s times like these that really make me feel grateful.  That help me to forget about all the craziness in our world today:  from pressure cooker bombs, to injustices, and perpetual inequality.  It also helps me to forget about the little things – if only I was 7 pounds lighter, if only my butt/arms/legs/stomach were more toned, if only I didn’t have soooo many greys (I do a good job of hiding this fact…most days).  And it makes me feel connected outside of my immediate circle.  It makes me feel like we’re all part of one big whole – which although has some ugly bits, is full of greatness too.

Whoever you were, the girl in the cute summer dress with the faux snakeskin ballet flats and gold hoops that almost fainted at the Bloor Street subway stop thanks you.  Thank you for the reminder.  I know that because of your kindness, your humanity, I was able to have a moment of weakness in a safe environment.  And thanks to you, tonight, when I put my head down after a long day at work and after chasing my two boys around, I can continue my dream at the masquerade ball, unscathed.