When the Voiceless Speak: Self-Narratives of Two Genocide Survivors

This article is based on two interviews that the Zoryan Institute conducted in the mid-1980s with my great-grand parents, Kevork and Gülizar Kayserlian, both survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Relying on this audiovisual material, I describe their life experiences, including their survival from deportations and massacres, and then analyze the overall (self-)narrative through which they frame their life stories. “In what ways did they respond to their existence in a post-Genocidal setting?” “What are the dominant themes that emerge [in the interviews], and do they differ?” “What are the various factors that shape their self-understanding?” are some of the questions that I will be addressing.

While the interviews are not publicly accessible, I will try to bring out the central themes around which the Kayserlians’ self-narratives revolve. For Kevork, I argue that two main threads emerge throughout his account, the first being the significance of survival in a world where traditional supporting structures had rapidly collapsed. The second is his emphasis on the re-discovery of his “Armenianness” and its importance in a context where the direct identity of a population was attacked and threatened. Unlike Kevork, however, Gülizar’s experience was drastically different, and thus the leitmotif behind her story revolves around resignation, despair and oftentimes tacit reconciliation. Therefore, despite being natives of the same village (Tomarza, Kayseri in modern day Turkey), the divergence of their life trajectories accounts for the differences in their responses to the Genocide and its aftermath. As Miller and Touryan observed, the child who saw his parents killed, or the mother whose infant or child died in her arms during the deportations, carries a heavier psychological burden than someone who experienced relatively little trauma during his or her childhood.[1] Although this is not an endeavor to “quantify” the degree of suffering each experienced, it is important to understand their responses within and throughout the factual information they provide or omit.

Methodologies, Background and Context:

Both interviews were conducted in 1985 as part of the Zoryan Institute’s Oral History Project for Genocide survivors.[2]   In 1983, the Institute undertook a major oral history program aimed at documenting on videotape the memoirs of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. The initiative began when it became evident that time was running out for the generation of Armenians who had witnessed those events. Furthermore, this was a period that witnessed the proliferation of memoirs from Genocide survivors themselves as well as the increase in the number of collective oral history projects undertaken by different institutions, organization and individuals.[3]

A few factors explain this “boom.”  As Alistair Thomson argues in his work on the paradigm transformations in oral history, the extraordinary growth and diversification of communication media has contributed to the growth and impact of commemorative practices, while also generating dominant cultural memories that both articulate and silence people’s life stories. Moreover, Thomson adds that memory and testimony have become critical constituents of a more general “witnessing fever” in the late 20th century, in which “bearing witness” is a “mode of ethico-political practice.”[4] This helps us understand the international zeitgeist of the time, a period in which oral history projects for similarly oppressed peoples, such as the Palestinians in the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba, were underway.[5]

While “lived histories” in the form of oral histories and testimonies could provide the necessary experiential data to respond to some of the above-mentioned queries, they are often dismissed as subjective. The persistent bias in favor of “objective” archival evidence is undergirded by the assumption that scholarly authority—as defined by a Western historical tradition—is grounded in textual references rather than the spoken word. Nevertheless, the performative strategies in which history appears is more an active process for constructing meaning than a passive depository of facts, clearly recording another history. Thus, they inscribe the means by which individual biography becomes social text, and public past.[6] Therefore, it is in this context that I unfold the “social text” that underlies each one of the two narratives.

One should also bear in mind that the early 1980s were also a period when scholars “re-discovered” the Armenian Genocide and engaged in a process of documentation and analysis. Political conjunctures shed light on the situation: In modern Armenian history, the year 1965 was a turning point as thousands of Armenians burst open into the streets of Yerevan, in Soviet Armenia, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Genocide, defying thus the cultural and even the political hegemony of the Soviet center. Thus, 1965 marked what is often referred to as the politicization of the memory of the Genocide, and a watershed in contemporary Armenian political thought.[7] After that date, there was renewed interest in collecting survivor testimonies. The documentation of survivor experiences was also reflected in the academic “debates” about the occurrence of Genocide against the persistent denial of the Turkish government. Early Armenian Genocide scholars had the laborious task of “narrativizing” its history and presenting it to international courts as a counter-measure to the denial campaigns of the consecutive Turkish authorities and many American scholars.[8]

Regardless of the improving quality and increasing quantity of recent research on the Armenian Genocide, these scholars were instrumental in preparing the “narrative-ground” upon which the later literature was based. Moreover, scholarship and genocide recognition campaigns came against a background of Armenian militant activism in the late 1970s and 1980s. Armenian assassinations of Turkish diplomats were efforts to raise awareness about the Genocide and the consistent silencing by the Republic of Turkey. Therefore, the oral history projects were inextricable from the context of extreme politicization, as providing the necessary data and material for the scholarly work that was underway. Therefore, the value of this fractured reminiscence lies in its ability to enact a doubling of witness, transmitting not only historical details but also the shattering effects that this history has had on the lives of those who have lived it.[9] Moreover, the interview is simultaneously a process of identification. The survivors acquired the social identity of survivors because society now recognized them as such, and oral history projects were instrumental in this respect.[10]

Finally, a few words on the recording process. The interviews were both conducted in Armenian, in Washington DC, in 1985. The interviewer was an Iranian-Armenian speaking the Eastern Armenian dialect, whereas the Kayserlians responded in the Western one, with often archaic forms of mixed Armeno-Turkish. Although there was a list of set questions that the interviewer addressed to both, the narration was rather on a free flow basis. Inquiries regarding date of birth, place, family size, etc. remain constant for both, yet each one of them emphasized, remembered or even omitted certain information at will.

Kevork or/and Ali Kayserlian (1909?-1985)

Kevork Kayserlian was born in Tomarza, Gesaria in 1908. His story presents us with a case of “double oppression” and thus makes the task of “retrieving” his voice even more difficult. Not only was he a survivor/victim of a genocide, a phenomenon that violently transformed his social, cultural and political reality, but as an illiterate man with no schooling, his interview was the only “real” record where he was given the opportunity to retell his personal history in the aftermath of the trauma. Thus, to use Philippe Lejeune’s expression, the interview is the “autobiography of those who do not write.”[11] Although his account is full of fascinating information about Ottoman-Armenian rural life (and particularly their village), inter- and intra-communal relations before 1915 (comprising an overall time length of around two and half hours), I will focus on the details that relate to the larger argument. As mentioned above, Kevork’s narrative revolves around two dominant and interconnected themes, the first being the significance of survival in a world where traditional supporting structures had rapidly collapsed. The second, was his emphasis on the re-discovery of his “Armenianness,” its importance in a context where the direct identity of his people was attacked and threatened.

A quick summary of Kevork’s life during and after the Genocide would be helpful. In the interview he claims that his family was deported in the fall of 1914 (although this remains dubious) and not in 1915. After walking for some weeks and months, his caravan was attacked by Circassian, Bedouin and Kurdish irregulars who plundered their belongings, killed many of the deportees on the road, and abducted many of the Armenian women and children. Kevork and his sister were among those who were eventually sold into Kurdish households. Yet, they were separated, as his sister, whom he never saw again, was taken away by a Kurdish chief as a bride. Kevork was eventually Islamized and received a new Muslim name, Ali. He was traded back and forth among Kurdish tribes and lived with them for more than a decade, after which he escaped to the Iranian-Turkish border. It was there that he met an Assyrian family who proposed Kevork a marriage with the wealthy woman of the household. Despite his new “wife,” Kevork managed to flee to Syria in the late 1920s, where he re-married, this time to an Armenian, Gülizar Khdeshian-Kayserlian. The couple moved to Beirut, where they stayed until their final emigration to Racine, Wisconsin in 1976. The interview covers his life story all the way to his new home in the United States.

Far from evoking mechanical responses, the events of 1915 are always recollected within an individual framework of interpretation that is conditioned by many factors not the least of which is each survivor’s moral and spiritual struggle to comprehend the injustice of the Genocide.[12] In other words, each survivor has a unique way of “making sense” of his/her reality in the aftermath of this traumatic experience. Kevork’s case can be identified as one of outrage, anger and even revenge/restitution. For him, there was a deep loss of the personal—religious (Christian) and ethnic (Armenian)—identity, which accounted for his persistent struggle for survival in an environment which he saw as unfriendly, threatening and even “uncivilized/barbaric.”

Kevork deals with the injustice and pain of the Genocide by regularly venting his feelings about those who perpetrated the crime. It is in this context that we should understand his constant resentment against the Turks (but surprisingly, not against the Kurds). Throughout the interview, he often utters expressions or words that demonstrate his unwillingness to ever “cope” with the Turkish element again. This is clearly articulated in his negative response to the interviewer’s question whether he has a desire to go back to his native village one day. Although there are no signs of clear “ethnic” hatred, his facial expressions and tone suggest a disdaining attitude toward the Turks. His description of them as mere “peasants” (and “not even millowners”) in the early stages of the interview sets the stage for his discussion of the “othering” processes among Turks and Armenians. This point is further emphasized with Kevork’s discussion of the tax and landowning system in Gesaria. Upon the interviewer’s inquiry about the ownership of rural lands, Kevork’s cynical response that “of course everything was owned by the Turk my dear!” corroborates this point further.

Wedding photo of Kevork and Gulizar Kayserlian in 1930, Damascus.
Gülizar Kayserlian, in 1985, a snapshot from the Zoryan Interview.
Kevork Kayserlian, in 1985, a snapshot from the Zoryan interview.

The language that he (un)consciously employs serves to further explicate this aspect. Survivors from his generation often referred to their native village as “Mer Yergiruh” (Our Country) or “Mer Tomarzan” (“Our Tomarza” in Kevork’s case), suggesting a strong possessive terminology that further highlights the social cleavages that he saw among the Armenians [“We”] and the Turks [“Them”]. The undertone of this resentment against the Turks brings about the element of constant struggle and fight for life, a theme that dominates his self-narrative. As a child who was abducted by Kurdish tribes and had to spend the next decade wandering on the Anatolian mountains, he matured in a world where the will to survive often dictated the available means. Thus, understood in these terms, it is not surprising that Kevork feels at ease when discussing theft and the looting he partook in to overcome his dire situation. Thus, his feelings of utter loneliness in a threatening setting and abandonment marked him for life.

His escape attempts from one chieftain to another (often successful, but sometimes ending in failure and subsequent beatings) speaks to the experience of those orphaned children who had to be aggressive and clever to survive. This meant taking risks that could easily have led to death and making choices that gave them control over circumstances. Such an example comes up when Kevork tells the story of how he managed to shoot and harm his Kurdish chief, after which he fled and spent the next year roaming around the mountains looking for food and shelter. In an environment where his traditional socio-cultural support structures (family, religious and communal institutions, etc.) had collapsed, and had been supplanted by the law of the jungle, the will to survive became a strong marker of his identity.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of the “will to live” is a useful tool to interpret Kevork’s story and make sense out of it. Schopenhauer believed that the supreme principle of the universe is apprehensible through introspection, and that we can understand the world as various manifestations of this general principle. For Schopenhauer, this is not the principle of self-consciousness and rationally-infused will but rather what he simply calls “Will”: a mindless, aimless, non-rational impulse at the foundation of our instinctual drives, and at the foundational being of everything.[13]

To transpose this to Kevork’s case, his non-rational impulse often manifested through plunder, killing, beating—rendering violence a righteous mechanism of human life and basic survival. It is no wonder then that he devotes most of the time to discuss his life among the Kurds, the hardships he had to bear and the ways he tried to overcome his suffering. In such a setting, we witness the vulgar instrumentalization of human relations, whereby the will to live and survive supersedes other forms of connections. In other words, the impulsive drives that Schopenhauer talks about refashions Kevork’s world in a way that values such as “wrong” or “right” simply did not exist.

Schopenhauer’s concept may also explain Kevork’s cynicism toward religion. As he frequently mentions in the interview, he lost his faith in God throughout the Genocide and became a skeptic. This is a pattern that Miller and Touryan identified among other survivors as well and call it the problem of theodicy. Stated philosophically, the problem of theodicy is this: How can God who is all-powerful, loving, and just allow evil to occur?[14] He was troubled by “God’s silence” and felt that God had deserted them [the Armenians]. Moreover, Kevork had difficulty reconciling that abandonment with the Christian heritage of the Armenian people. His invocation “Where was God?” [Our er Asdvadz] recurs a few times throughout the interview. Partially explaining the cynicism with which Kevork approaches questions of right and justice.

The constant reiteration that “might is right” or his belief in the rule of the powerful, a worldview most probably shaped throughout his years among the Kurdish tribes, forms the second dominant feature of Kevork’s oral account. His “anecdotes of survival” are interconnected with his loss of personal and particularly Armenian-Christian identity. He thus became stuck in a grey zone, where he was neither perceived to be fully Muslim by the Kurds, who often called him “gavour” (infidel) or easily identified him as the “Other” despite his Islamization, nor was he able to speak Armenian among his compatriots after his “salvation.” As a former Ottoman citizen, the Armenian Church and Christianity were instrumental in the formation of his self-identity. Therefore, Christianity, with its institutions, which had previously sustained his decimated community, was one of the primary social structures to which Kevork could have turned if he wanted to re-integrate himself in the nascent Armenian diaspora of the Middle East. Therefore, he was able to regain his lost language (Armenian) and faith [despite his self-depiction as “irreligious”] only after he managed to cross into French-controlled Syria in the 1920s and join the Armenian political parties, where speaking Turkish was forbidden. The conspicuous result of this successful “re-Armenization” was the fact that the interview was conducted fully in Armenian, though he was completely Kurdophone in his adolescence. Thus, he vociferously reasserts his Armenian identity through an emphasis on the significance of language, faith and reintegration into his community.

The transition of the narrative from a more or less passive or instinctual survival to a proactive reaffirmation of identity may be explained by another philosophical concept. More than Schopenhauer’s “will to live,” I believe Nietzsche’s “will to power” does more justice to Kevork’s shift from passivity to a deliberate restatement of his Armenian identity. The “will to power” doctrine—elaborated on Schopenhauer’s less assertive notion—claims that everything that exists rests fundamentally on an underlying basis of “power-centers,” whose activity and interactions are explained by a principle that they pursue the expansion of their power.[15] Once we adopt a Nietzschean framework, it becomes easier to understand Kevork’s constant reiteration that right and justice were dispensed solely by the strong. Thus, seen against this background, we can argue that, for Kevork, survival was not simply a matter of luck (regardless of the fact that his life was spared by the abducting Kurds) but rather necessitated a personal initiative. This is a subtle reformulation of the law of the jungle, whereby not only does the strong survive but also reasserts himself. For many survivors, affiliation with political parties in the aftermath of the Genocide became a way to redress this injustice through political activism. In this respect, Kevork’s joining the Armenian political parties in Syria, as he elaborately describes in the interview, empowered him with an organizational repertoire through which he interpreted his “service to the nation” in the post-Genocide era.

Notwithstanding the absence of any talk about revenge, a careful engagement with his narrative demonstrates that, after he succeeded in surviving and reasserting his Armenianness, he channeled his outrage into a political expression. Therefore, he articulated his “expansion of power” through a reassertion of his Armenian identity. In other words, not only did he survive the traumatic experience, but also overcame his “subjugation” through a proactive attempt of leaving that environment and returning to his community.

Gülizar Kayserlian (1911-1995): Moving On

In contrast to Kevork’s vociferous declaration of the power to survive and the will to live as an Armenian, his wife Gülizar’s story and her overall narrative were drastically different. The primary theme around which her story revolves was one of resignation, despair and oftentimes tacit reconciliation. As mentioned earlier, she had a “less” traumatic experience of the Genocide, and thus the factors that shaped her response in the interview and her narrative differ from her husband’s.

Here is a quick summary of her life. Gülizar was born in Tomarza, too, in 1911. Unlike the deportees in Kevork’s caravan, they were not really attacked by irregulars, although death by starvation and exhaustion was ubiquitous. She makes the important point that, unlike her husband, they were not subjected to massacres or slaughter but were rather starved throughout the journey, until they made it to Aleppo and later to Damascus, where they encamped. Throughout this arduous march, she lost some family members but was fortunate enough to remain alive with her mother, grandmother, sister and uncle. Understanding the fact that she had some kind of a supporting structure (her family)—albeit decimated—is essential for analyzing her narrative. After the Armistice of Mudros in 1918, which concluded the Ottoman surrender, Gülizar’s family moved to Adana, which was under Entente control, but later had to evacuate the city when the French retreated in the early 1920s, and Kemalist forces took over. After her family crossed back into Syria (Aleppo and Damascus), she met Kevork, got married in 1930, and eventually moved to Beirut, before her final arrival to Wisconsin in 1976.

After giving brief information about her life in Tomarza and some of her family members, Gülizar’s narrative mostly focuses on the arduous deportation marches, the frantic search for a piece of bread and a safe shelter in Syria. She appears melancholic and despairing over the Genocide, not even showing any explicit signs of an internal struggle with the event. There is no change in her tone and she appears affectless when talking about the family members she lost on the way because of famine, exhaustion or disease. Unlike Kevork, her passivity was not a moment of reconciliation but rather, she seemed consumed by what Armenians call houzoum—a deep feeling of sorrow and sadness. Her constant reiteration that “those were bad days, but thank God, we are much better now” is just one feature of that sorrow.

The spirit of this conversation was that “these things” had happened, they were in the past, and nothing could be done about them in the present. This does not mean that she was uninterested in the Genocide but seems to lack any active sense of confrontation with the tragedy she had experienced. Her emphasis on family members and relations is manifested through brief anecdotes, where she retells how she was reunited with her father in Aleppo, who was an Ottoman soldier and had miraculously survived. In an interesting twist of fate, it was none other than Kevork’s father who had rescued him. Although Kevork never saw his father again, Gülizar’s story brings about the “beautiful”—the reunion of families—in a post-war setting tainted by the horrors of the conflict, deportations and famine.

Fortunate enough to evade massacres or slaughter, her dehumanization came in the form of starvation, disease and constant search for safe shelter in Aleppo, Damascus and, later on, in Beirut. Thus, it is plausible that her feeling of despair, melancholy and resignation were rooted in the degradation and the humiliation she experienced during the deportations. Starvation made her family bonds stronger, as each one of the members had to share his/her food with the others, or they all had to work together to receive some sort of nourishment. In this respect, children tried to do their part in the contribution to their family’s welfare. Describing how beautiful Adana was and how they had to leave that consolation on the eve of the French evacuation of the city, Gülizar seemed overwhelmed by her sense of despair of a life that was shattered. Physically, she embodied the pain of her memories, and psychologically, she seemed to lack the emotional strength to rise above her past.

Therefore, her narrative is marked by despondency, and a certain flatness of emotions, positive or negative, when reflecting on the past. Unlike Kevork, Gülizar did not experience an identity loss and, in this respect, takes her Armenianness for granted, as no particular emphasis is put on the language and culture. Her humble and introverted behavior during the interview is a vivid example that speaks to a reconciliation with a past that was long gone. It is no wonder then that her discussion was much shorter, as she ended the interview with a sigh uttering “işte [here you are], this much about Tomarza and the deportation…

An engagement with the discourses of the self, as manifested throughout the interviews, shows us that it is actually possible to recover the voices of the “silenced” or the “mute” and that these voices do not repeat the same ideas, that each of them is specific and reflects individual experiences. In this respect, the examples of Kevork and Gülizar Kayserlian are but small glimpses into the inner world of Genocide survivors, who concocted their self-narratives based on the experiences each had during those fateful years. Therefore, this article was an attempt to retrieve two divergent voices by explicating the ways in which their (hi)stories became an active process of constructing meanings. Embedded within the larger social, cultural and political phenomena that marked the 20th century, the Kayserlians’ representation of their lives in the aftermath of the Genocide provides us a window into the experiences of identity formation and transformation.


1. Donald E. Miller, and Lorna Touryan-Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide (UC Press, 1993): 161.
2. For the description of Zoryan Institute’s oral history initiative see:
3. For an overview of the major oral history projects on Armenian survivors see
4. Alistair Thomson, “Four Paradigms Transformations in Oral History,” in The Oral History Review 34/1 (Winter-Spring, 2007): 59.
5. See the special issue “Uncovering Palestinian Memory: A Role for Oral History,” Al-Majdal 32 (Winter 2006-2007).
6. Diana K. Allan, “The Role of Oral History in Archiving Nakba,” in Al-Majdal 32 (Winter 2006-2007): 11.
7. Dadrian “Major Patterns of Social and Cultural Changes of Soviet Armenians,” in American Philosophical Society 65: 375-379 (1965).
8. Vahakn N. Dadrian, “An Oral Testimony and a Written Analysis of the Sociological Factors Involved in the Armenian Genocide before an American Congressional Panel, along with the Submission of a Set of Policy Recommendations.” in Hearings on Genocide, 94th Congress, Second Session Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office 6-21 (1976); Ed. Gerard Libaridian, A Crime of Silence: The Armenian Genocide: The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (Third World Books, 1985).
9. Allan, The Role of Oral History, 11.
10. Annette Wieviorka, “The Witness in History,” in Poetics Today 27:2 (Summer 2006): 391.
11. Philip Lejeune, On Autobiography (University of Minnesota Press, 1989): 185.
12. Miller, and Touryan, Survivors, 158.
13. Wicks, Robert, “Arthur Schopenhauer”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/schopenhauer/>.
14. Miller, and Touryan, Survivors, 177.
15. Anderson, R. Lanier, “Friedrich Nietzsche”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/nietzsche/>.

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