Mitch and I were children of the Great Depression.
We were also children whose fathers were born in the Ottoman Empire, in the same mountainous village of Keghi; my father, Boghos, a shepherd in his youth and Mitch’s dad, Kaspar, an intellect whose love of books at an early age would be passed on to the children.
The Mooradians and the Kehetians’ lives were miraculously spared during a series of genocidal massacres Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s reign perpetrated in the late 19th Century, claiming the lives of more than 600,000 Christian Armenians. Our grandparents knew that there would be subsequent assaults upon the Armenian Christians and decided to ship their eldest sons off to friends and relatives in North America.
Boghos, my dad, wound up with an uncle in Guelph, Canada; Kaspar, at sixteen, traveled to Detroit and was greeted at the station by a cousin.
Ironically, our mothers were raised and lived in Erezum, where they witnessed the horrific extermination of their family, friends and neighbors by the nationalist Young Turks, who declared that they would solve “The Armenian Question” by wiping the Armenians off the face of the earth.
My mother Dzovinar, (Sophie) was orphaned and somehow managed to get to Marseilles, France, eventually immigrating to Canada, while Mitch’s mother, Arousiag, reached the same port and eventually made her way to the United States and to Detroit.
Apparently suffering from “survivor’s guilt”, most Armenian genocide survivors would not talk about their experiences during what historians would call the First Genocide of the 20th Century. “I am blessed with four beautiful children and a good husband and a roof above our heads,” my mother would tell us when asked about her past. “What has happened, has happened and no one, not even God can change.” When anyone in need, pain or hunger, came to our doorstep, they were greeted, invited in, and provided with shelter and food.
More than one hundred years after the genocide, the Armenians still seek justice. Although Blaise Pascal put forth, “Time heals pain and quarrels.” I agree with Rose Kennedy’s understanding, “It has been said that time heals all wounds. I don’t agree. The wounds remain.” And most Armenians would stand with her.
The Kehetians and the Mooradians were neighbors. We rented homes on Cottrell Street.
Eight days before I was born – July 31, 1928 – a presidential candidate, Herbert Hoover, in accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for the candidacy to become the 31st President of the United States noted, “We in American today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever in the history of the nation.” Not a bad time to make a landing in the United States, I would say.
But Mitch had a crash landing on the day of his birth.
On October 20, 1930, he arrived in the midst of the Great Depression, with millions of Americans joining millions of Europeans looking for work. About a year previously (October 24, 1929) the world’s economy had shut down. Wall Street crumbled, then crashed and 2.6 billion dollars in stocks were traded, the euphoria of buying ended and selling became impossible. As one reporter’s account of the panic noted, “It is hard to quantify the losses but they are estimated to be in the billions of dollars…frightened investors ordered their brokers to sell at whatever the price, and the stock market crashed….this is a day that will go down in history as Black Thursday.”
With Hoover at the helm, some doubted that capitalism would survive and many joined those in the increasing bread lines who believed that communism offered a solution to solving their problems. The conflict between the two philosophic theories of economy and governance would dominate and divide the world into the 21st Century.
My father lost everything – three coffee houses he owned on Solvay. Mitch’s father, who had enlisted in the United States Army in hopes of being sent to fight the Turks, had returned home as a veteran. They would be at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
My father chose Lenin and communism as savior and the road to salvation for the working class. Mitch’s father supported the Democratic Republic of Armenia and Armenian Military Commander Andranik Ozanian, supporting an independent Armenia.
I was ordered into the living room one day and told by my father that I was never, ever again to speak or play with Mitch Kehetian or associate in any way with that family.
As an obedient son, I nodded my head.
Mitch became my closest friend from that day forward. I left for Soviet Armenia in November of 1947 and during that time, we did not talk or write for thirteen years.
On August 5, 1960, reporters were standing among a crowd of curious spectators, awaiting my arrival from the Soviet Union. My father barred anyone from going into the house on Crawford Street as I rushed up the front steps to reunite with my family.
My brother Robert apparently was interviewed by a reporter, from the Detroit News and, the following day, the News’ headline streamed across the front page: “Detroiter Ends 13-Year `Lark’ in the Soviet Union.”
That afternoon I had a phone call from a reporter at The Detroit Times. I did not recognize the voice and told the caller, who asked if he could come over to talk to me about my experiences in the Soviet Union, that I was sorry, but I was tired and wasn’t available.
“The Tom Mooradian I grew up with was never too tried to do anything…’
“Who is this?” I asked.
“It’s Mitch, you idiot…you can talk to The News and not me – are you an imposter?”
“Mitch…Mitch…Mitch…I missed you. Is the Sweet Shoppe still there?”
“Yes. See you there within the hour.”
Read the full “Mitch and Me” series:
Mitch and Me: A Posthumous Tribute to a Childhood Friend
Mitch and Me: The Years of the Great Depression
Mitch and Me: Iconic Moments of Friendship
Mitch and Me: Challenges in a New World
Mitch and Me: Explaining the Inexplicable
Mitch and Me: A Divergence
Mitch and Me: The Final Chapter to an Epic Life
Mitch and Me: The “Contract” is Null & Void
Tom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess. Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!