Looking into a mirror and making sure her hair looked just so, Yevnigue Salibian didn’t notice me as I was taking her picture. It took a few seconds, but when she finally realized I had documented her act of vanity, she smiled coyly.
I got a picture of that too.
The reason for her primping was as understandable as it was historic: The 100-year-old survivor of the Armenian Genocide was about to give testimony that will eventually make its way into the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, where it will be preserved for future generations.
To say her mind is still sharp is to miss the point. She peppered me with questions with the speed of a prosecutor:
“What’s your name?” she asked. “Josh,” I replied as I shook her hand. “Josh or Joshua?” she practically demanded. “There’s a Joshua in the Bible, you know.”
It went on like that for a few minutes until we started talking about what happened to her when she was a little girl. She was too young to remember the start of the genocide, but her memory of what happened in the early 1920s when her family was forced to flee their village are vivid enough to make her voice tremble with rage and tears fill her eyes. But a century hasn’t answered questions that have plagued her ever since. What would prompt somebody to hunt her loved ones just because they were Armenian?
“Why? Why?” she asked.
Of course, she knew I had no answer for her. In the short time I’ve worked at the Institute, I’ve had the honor of meeting several survivors from different genocides, and I’ve watched dozens of testimonies in the Visual History Archive. And the more I learn, the less I understand what people are capable of doing to each other.
But despite a past that has haunted her for nearly 100 years, Mrs. Salibian is filled with joy and laughter. Deeply religious, she has put her fate into the hands of God.
It was an incredible privilege to meet Mrs. Salibian. She’s one of the few remaining pieces of a past that is hardly imaginable now, even though genocides continue. But she is a witness to history and now her story will never be silenced.