Astrid Aghajanian: Survivor of the Armenian genocide who narrowly escaped death

 

Astrid Aghajanian was one of the few remaining survivors of the Armenian genocide and was believed to be the last living in Britain. In 1915, when the Ottoman rulers began their systematic annihilation of the Armenians living in Anatolia, Astrid's father was shot and Astrid, her mother, grandmother and baby brother were deported and force- marched into the Deir ez-Zor desert.

On one occasion the Turkish officers asked the Armenian mothers to hand over their children, claiming they would be taken to an orphanage. Some mothers parted with their offspring, in the desperate hope they would be given a chance to survive. Astrid's mother, however, refused to let her daughter go. Some time later she and the other deportees heard terrible screaming; the soldiers were burning the children alive.

By this time, Astrid's grandmother and brother had perished in the harsh desert conditions. Determined to keep her daughter and herself alive, Astrid's mother decided to try to escape. One night she hid Astrid and herself under a pile of corpses, staying there until daylight until she was certain the soldiers had moved on. Mother and daughter then began to wander the desert alone. Found by a Bedouin tribesman, who then sold them to another, Astrid and her mother were taken to a Bedouin camp, where they now had shelter but continued to live in fear.

Eventual salvation came in the form of a soldier on horseback. A Turkish officer, he had come looking for survivors of the death convoys, intending to take them to safety. Fortunately for Astrid and her mother, he was true to his word and Astrid would always remember that, although the Turks had destroyed her family, it was thanks to a Turk that she and her mother were saved.

The officer took Astrid and her mother to the city of Deir ez-Zor, from where they managed to make their way to Aleppo. Here they had relatives and could finally begin picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.

Astrid Aghajanian had been born Helen Gaidzakian in 1913, in Albistan, Turkey. When her mother eventually remarried, Astrid's new stepfather changed her name from Helen to Astghig (the Armenian form of Astrid). The family moved from Aleppo to British Mandate Palastine in the early 1920s, living first in Haifa, then in Jerusalem, where Astrid's stepfather ran a printing press in the Armenian quarter. Astrid attended Schmidt's convent school for girls in the city, before the family returned to Haifa, where she became a teacher.

In 1942 Astrid married Gaspar Aghajanian and the couple had two daughters. The family moved from Haifa to Tiberias when Gaspar was appointed a judge and put in charge of the courts of Tiberias and Safad. In 1948, as fighting broke out between Arabs and Jews, the Aghajanians found themselves caught in the crossfire and had to abandon their home. Astrid and her daughters were sent in an armed convoy to Amman, where they were eventually joined by Gaspar.

Stateless for a year, the family applied for and were granted British citizenship and in 1949 they moved to Kyrenia, Cyprus. Gaspar found work at the nearby American monitoring station, while Astrid took care of the household and carried out volunteer work for the Red Cross. She also ran a successful kindergarten, nurturing the most timid children to become happy and confident. Fully intending to spend the rest of their lives on the island, Astrid and Gaspar had a house built to their own specifications, around which they created a wonderful garden.

The Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974, however, put paid to their plans for a peaceful retirement. Astrid and Gaspar sought refuge at the British base in Dhekelia and were eventually taken to England as refugees by the RAF. They had lost everything.

Now in their sixties, they were forced to start their lives from scratch once again. Gaspar returned to work and the couple eventually settled in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, where they lived until Gaspar's death in 2007.

The British High Comissioner for Cyprus had asked the Aghajanians to submit a claim for compensation for the loss of their house and possessions, which included items saved from the genocide six decades before. The claim was rejected by the Turkish authorities on the grounds that the couple were "of Armenian descent". The Aghajanians began a lengthy correspondence with Turkish, British and American authorities in the hope of some justice, but this came to nothing.

In 1997 Astrid was interviewed by Robert Fisk and her story appeared in an article in The Independent entitled "Shameful echo of a forgotten holocaust". This prompted the Imperial War Museum to contact Astrid, and both she and Gaspar were interviewed and recorded for the Museum's archives. Astrid's story is also mentioned in Fisk's book The Great War for Civilisation, and more recently, in 2010, Astrid was interviewed for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website. She was immensely proud to do this; she felt she was paying tribute to her mother, who had struggled so hard to save her.

Astrid was fond of comparing her turbulent life to that of spiders: "You may destroy the spider's home, but he will always build it again." Astrid will be remembered for her generous hospitality, her creativity, her indomitable spirit and above all for her incredible resilience in the face of adversity.

Justine Rapaccioli

Helen (Astghig/Astrid) Gaidzakian: born Albistan, Turkey 28 March 1913; married 1942 Gaspar Aghajanian (died 2007; two daughters); died Gloucester 11 May 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn