Kojaian family letters from Efkere/Kayseri to America
‘My Dear Son Garabed, I Read Your Letter. I Cried, I Laughed: Kojaian Family Letters from Efkere/Kayseri to America (1912-1919)’ edited by Jonathan Varjabedian and H. Şükrü Ilıcak (Histor Press, 428 pages, €34)
In 2001 the family of Garabed Kojaian found a cache of old letters in a small tin box in his Detroit home. Kojaian had died 25 years earlier and the box had been almost entirely forgotten until it was rediscovered. The letters were mysterious, written in the Armenian script and using a highly dialectal form of Turkish.
Born in the mid-1890s in Efkere, a village northeast of Kayseri in modern-day Turkey, Garabed emigrated to the U.S. in the years before the First World War. He was followed by his father Harutian, a blacksmith, in 1913. The letters found in the box almost all dated to before the war, written and sent by the family members and neighbors they left behind in Efkere. Their translation was eventually taken on by academic Şükrü Ilıcak, a Harvard University student at the time.
What emerged from the painstaking deciphering process was remarkable: A vivid portrait of a village in Anatolia that no longer officially exists and was barely documented even at the time. “Here it was, perfectly preserved, with its residents seemingly talking to us a century later,” writes editor Jonathan Varjabedian, Garabed’s grandson, in the introduction to “My Dear Son Garabed.” The book beautifully presents 88 of the letters in English and Turkish, alongside images of the original letters and photos of various villagers.
Back when the letters were written Efkere was a village of around 500 Armenian and 50 Turkish households. It was a time when Armenians from villages across Anatolia were migrating to the U.S., while maintaining close bonds with those they left behind. Most of the letters Garabed and Harutian received from Anatolia came from the former’s mother Hyganush and his brother Misag, as well as fellow villagers. Many of the concerns they expressed are quotidian and prosaic.
Particularly striking is the lack of reference to political or social events that would build to so brutally shake the region within years. Correspondence instead focuses on weddings, births, deaths, illnesses, the price of groceries and village gossip. The letters are also full of formal, standard stock phrases, used even when Hyganush writes to her husband Harutian. “Gracious and affectionate Harutian Agha Kojaian, I extend my special greetings and inquire after your wellbeing. If you would like to know how we are, we have no worries and we pray for you. Also, Miss Verkine kisses your gentle hand,” reads a typical opening.
The lack of political engagement in the letters feels very natural. But inevitably we witness the village being gradually dragged into events larger and more incomprehensible than daily village concerns. There are hinted references to the Balkan Wars (1912-13), when the authorities start drafting soldiers from among Efkere’s locals. “The Ottoman state is fighting a tremendous war on four fronts. In Serbia, Montenegro, etc.,” writes Harutian at one point before joining his son in the U.S. This process intensifies with the start of the First World War, when economic hardships mount and the draft intensifies. As for the deportations and massacres of 1915, there is barely a hint before the letters are abruptly cut off in spring 1915.
“My Dear Son Garabed” brings together letters sent to Garabed and Harutian between 1912 and 1919. Eighty-six were written between June 1912 and May 1915, while the last two were written in 1919. Those final letters are quietly devastating, telling us indirectly that their entire family has been killed, including all the people whose letters we have been reading up to now. In subsequent years Garabed and Harutian would continue to live in Detroit, while traces of the world they left behind in Anatolia gradually disappeared.
* Click here to view the website Jonathan Varjabedian has created piecing together the history of Efkere.