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  • Genine Babakian

Paying Tribute to the Strangers in My Attic on Armenian Genocide Day

What do I do with the strangers in my attic? The mustachioed men in three-piece suits, staring earnestly into the future? The women with long skirts and cinched waists, some bonneted, others with laborious upsweeps?

What do I do with the boxes of photographs collected over a century? Of people dead for nearly as long. Taken at a time when a photograph was an event. These black and white images – far from the carefree selfies of today – are oversized group pictures or elegantly posed studio portraits. Like this photo of my grandmother’s cousin Araxie, posing next to a wooden pedestal, her left hand resting on a book.

Mounted on somber-colored cardboard, these photos feel like solid, serious artifacts, inspiring reflection whenever I take them out of the plastic crates in my attic where they live. Staring at these strangers, I search for the slightest hint of the familiar. In one crowded ballroom photo—the Armenian Students Association 1950 banquet—I spy my father, looking hopelessly young and handsome in his white jacket and bow tie. He is seated next to a woman with hair cascading past her bare shoulders. Maybe ten tables away I spot my mother. Young and beautiful. Within a few months my parents would start dating.

There are many such large group photos, with literally hundreds of people smiling for the camera. Taken in the days of pre-drone technology, I imagine a photographer teetering on a ladder, capturing even the miniscule images from the back of the room. Whatever did people do with these photos, before they were stashed in my attic? I unroll one that is particularly crackly, with small tears around its border. The quality is not nearly as crisp as the others, the image faded. Here’s one I can throw out, I tell myself. But then I read the inscription in the bottom left corner: Farewell Reception for First Group of Repatriates, October 29, 1947, Hotel Diplomat, NYC.

They look so happy, this ballroom full of Armenians who had RSVPed “Yes” to Joseph Stalin’s invitation to “return” to their motherland and become citizens of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic – one of the 15 republics that made up the USSR. There was a brief period in the late 1940s when that window was open, inspiring more than 100,000 Armenians to leave the homes they had made for themselves in the U.S., France and the Middle East to become Soviet citizens. It did not end well for many of them, who were caught up in the political terror of the time. Thousands of returning Armenians were exiled and ended up in labor camps. I look at the photo and wonder how many of these smiling faces ended up as victims of Stalin’s terror. Then I roll it up again and place it carefully back in the bin.

As I lift each photograph out of the box, I turn the weighty cardboard over, hoping for a hint of the subject’s identity. One clue is the stamp of the photographer’s studio. Sumbulian & Sons in Boston, the Drucker Hilbert Company in New York. If the studio name is in the familiar looping script of an alphabet I cannot read, that means my grandparents – Ottoman Armenians – carried these pictures with them when they fled Turkey in the early 20th century.

This distinction may not help identify the subjects, but at least I know they made it out of Turkey alive. In 1915, the Ottoman Empire massacred over a million Armenians in what is widely recognized as the first genocide of the 20th century.

Armenians around the world commemorate these atrocities every year on April 24—the day in 1915 when the Ottoman government in Constantinople (now Istanbul) rounded up hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and murdered them. This day marks the beginning of the genocide, before it fanned out to the provinces where my relatives were. The slaughter was about to begin.

I suppose that makes 1915 a watershed for the photos in my attic. If they are from the “before” times, I look at these elegant strangers and wonder: what happened to you?

If they, too, were victims of the genocide, it is likely that any living soul who might recognize them is long gone. In moments of cold-blooded clarity, I am tempted to dump these boxes and evict the strangers from my attic. Yet not knowing their fate makes it harder for me to dispose of them. What if they had perished in 1915? Being tossed into the recycling bin, unremembered, seems like a second, ignominious end.

I pull out another group portrait mounted on battered black cardboard that resembles a funereal border. This one is taken in Sivas, Turkey. All women, dressed in long skirts and high collars. I search this crowd of primly dressed strangers, ready for the disappointment of not recognizing a soul. But then I spot her, standing in the back. I do not identify her at first. I am simply drawn to the most beautiful face in the crowd. But then I see. The length of her nose. The shape of her cheekbones. She is much younger than the Nonny I knew, but my grandmother stands out in a crowd. She wasn’t just beautiful. She had grace. Like her name, which in translation means Emmanuel Grace.

As the last survivor of her family, many of the strangers in my attic are from my Nonny’s archive. Sometimes I call upon her, as I am sifting through these photos. “Come on, Nonny. Help me out here,” I whisper out loud, as I pick up another photo, turning it over for a clue. Now and then I am rewarded with a glimpse of her pre-arthritic handwriting. Like the 18 words she scribbled on the back of Araxie’s portrait:

“My cousin Araxie, who jumped in the river with her mother and younger sister during the Genocide, 1915.”

This caption stuns me. I read it twice, and then flip the photo back over. I cannot stop looking at Araxie and imagining her last moments on earth.

I cannot help Araxie, but there is something I can do for her. I can get her out of the attic. Into a frame. Give her pride of place on the mantel. More than 100 years after she took her own life, she will be remembered.

But for the remaining strangers in my attic, the question still remains: Whatsoever shall I do with you?

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