Voices from the Archive

In the Throes of the Armenian Genocide, His Mother Protected Him and Saved More Than a Hundred Others

Sam Kadorian

Wed, 04/20/2022 - 1:21pm
Sam Khachadurian, on the right, with this parents, Vartanush and Garabed, and his little brother
Sam Khachadurian, on the right, with this parents, Vartanush and Garabed, and his little brother

When Sam Kadorian was a child, Ottoman soldiers would conduct drills in a field near his home in Mezre (modern-day Elazığ, Turkey), adjacent to the fortress town of Kharpert. Sam would stand close by, mimicking their drills.

Just months later, it was Ottoman soldiers like these that forced Sam, his parents, his aunt, and three younger siblings to march into the desert, along with the rest of the Armenian residents of Mezre. His father was executed and his aunt and siblings starved to death in prison. Only Sam and his mother would survive, thanks to her ingenuity, determination, and the kindness of a Swiss doctor.

Between 1915 and 1923, amid the rise of Turkish nationalism and the chaos of World War I, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed through systematic massacres and death marches in what is now recognized as the first modern instance of genocide.

The government of Turkey continues to deny that genocide occurred. In 2021 Joseph Biden became the first U.S. president to declare that the murder and deportation of Armenians was a genocide.

April 24, the day in 1915 that the Ottoman government first arrested, deported and then executed approximately 200 Armenian leaders in Constantinople (Istanbul), is observed as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

Throughout Sam Kadorian’s life, he often told his story and worked on behalf of the Armenian community. He recorded two audio testimonies for the Richard G. Hovannisian Armenian Genocide Oral History Collection—in 1977 and 1996—and in 1980 filmed a video testimony with the Armenian Film Foundation (AFF). The three testimonies are now contained in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, which over the years has partnered with both organizations to archive and index more than 1,400 testimonies and hundreds of documents connected to the Armenian Genocide. Some 600 testimonies are indexed and available in the Visual History Archive.

The Terror Begins

Sam Khachadurian (later changed to Kadorian) was born in 1907 in Husenig (now Ulukent), a village just outside of Kharpert. He was the oldest child of Garabed, a master cabinetmaker, and Vartanush (née Boyajian), a teacher who could speak, read, and write in Armenian, German and Turkish. Both his parents had been orphaned in massacres in 1895.

Garabed fought with the Ottoman Army on the Russian front in World War I, but managed to bribe his way back to his wife and four small children. He then moved his family from Husenig to nearby Mezre and began building storefronts and apartments for himself and his two brothers, who at the time were working in the United States.

Only one of the planned apartments had been completed when the terror began early in the spring of 1915.

First, Ottoman authorities demanded that Armenians surrender whatever weapons they had. Vartanush took the precaution of stashing jewelry and cash with the superintendent of a German orphanage in Mezre.

Sam believes it was late April when town criers arrived and announced that all Armenians were being relocated. The town’s residents piled their belongings onto donkeys and were marched some 100 kilometers toward Malatya. When they arrived, Sam, who was 7, and his three younger siblings were sent with his mother and great aunt to an encampment for women and children. That night, they heard gunshots and explosions. Later, a 15-year-old Armenian boy who had escaped told them that all the men had been killed, their bodies dumped into the Euphrates River.

Then, Ottoman gendarmes forced the women and children to march another 200 kilometers toward Urfa, at the edge of the Syrian desert. Many starved to death on the march. Ottoman soldiers stole jewelry and valuables, and raped women and girls. Some women and children were taken as slaves or brides.  Stragglers were shot or beaten.

Then, one night, Sam was rounded up.

“On the shores of the Euphrates River, they piled all of us boys from five to ten years old in a pile and the gendarmes started with their swords, poking into the pile. I was lucky enough to be under the pile, and just the saber blade, the point, nicked me on the cheek,” Sam recalled in his testimony, pointing to the scar, a shiny crater that stretched from the bag under his eye to the edge of his gray mustache.

The boys were left for dead, but that night Sam's mother came searching for him and pulled him out from under the pile of bodies.

The march continued past Urfa, into the desert and Sam's baby sister died. Vartanush was able to bribe a gendarme and escape back north to Urfa.

Refuge In a Swiss Hospital

In Urfa, Vartanush sought out Dr. Jakob Künzler, a Swiss doctor who directed a hospital. She asked him to contact the German orphanage in Mezre to receive payment. Künzler hired Vartanush to work at the hospital and found housing for the family.

When the Armenians in Urfa heard about the fate of the men of Mezre, they mobilized a resistance in their neighborhood, a segregated section of the city surrounded by ancient walls. But, after a few weeks, the Turks smashed through the walls with heavy canons acquired from the German army, and Sam and his family, along the other remaining Armenians in Mezre, were again deported to the desert.

And again, Vartanush was able to bribe the guards and escape the desert, but this time the family was arrested as soon as they arrived back to Urfa. They were thrown into a dungeon prison, with no beds, barely any food, and not even an outhouse. From the prison window, Sam watched cartloads of corpses be driven into the desert every day.

Sam’s aunt, his brother and his sister starved to death in the prison.

Little by little, Dr. Künzler slipped Vartanush money with which to fund another bribe, and, after nine months, Sam and his mother made their escape. It took them the entire night to crawl the short distance, along a steep incline through a Turkish cemetery, to the Swiss hospital,. At some points, Vartanush grabbed the back of Sam’s neck with her teeth, pulling him forward as she crawled. They arrived hands and knees bloodied.

Sam was hospitalized for 2 or 3 months to regain weight and strength.

Saving Others, And Themselves

Dr. Künzler hired Vartanush to work in his home, and she and Sam lived with “Mama and Papa Künzler.” Sam took on the identity of the doctor’s son and joined Künzler’s three daughters and a family next door to study geography, math, and science, along with German, French, English, Arabic, and Turkish. Sam had his own donkey and a dog that followed him wherever he went.

One day, Sam saw his mother pinned against a wall by Turkish gendarmes at the local police station. They demanded to know if she was working to save Armenians. She swore to them, in Turkish, that she wasn’t involved. In Armenian, she mumbled repentance to God for telling a lie.

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Working with Dr. Künzler, Vartanush had been visiting villages around Urfa to arrange for Armenians to escape to Aleppo, Syria, where the Armenian community were able to live in relative peace. Sam believes his mother helped rescue more than 100 people. Jakob and Elizabeth Künzler were later recognized for having transferred an estimated 8,000 Armenian orphans to Syria and Lebanon.

In 1918, Sam and his mother themselves stowed away on a train to Aleppo, where Vartanush became the head nurse at a French orphanage and Sam lived in a Catholic boarding school.

After WWI ended, neighbors from Mezre wrote to Vartanush telling her it was safe to return.

"And my mother wrote to them, saying, ‘What am I going to do in my empty four walls? What is left there?’” Sam said.

Vartanush had a brother who lived in Watertown, Massachusetts, and Garabed’s two brothers were in Chicago. In April 1920, Sam and his mother, along with a woman Vartanush had saved and several orphans she was sponsoring, set sail for America. Sam celebrated his 13th birthday—with his first taste of ice cream—in the middle of the Atlantic.

A New Life

The family came through Ellis Island and eventually moved to Chicago, where Vartanush remarried and Sam graduated from Fenger High School in 1928. During and after high school, he worked dozens of jobs and developed a love of photography. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at the start of World War II and was sent to a base in Iceland, where he ran the photo lab.

In 1948 he married Mary Taylorson (changed from Tertzakian) and their son Gregory was born in 1952. In 1960, Sam and his family moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. Mary died of cancer in 1962 and Vartanush, then living in Fresno, died in 1965. Sam continued raising Gregory on his own, working for Technicolor in Hollywood studios.

Sam retired and became an active leader at the St. Peter’s Armenian Church in Van Nuys and   served as an unofficial spokesman for Armenian Genocide remembrance and recognition. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was featured in several documentaries and was honored by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. He also met with California Governor George Deukmejian, who himself had lost family in the Armenian Genocide.

Jakob Künzler died in 1949. His book, “In the Land of Blood and Tears: Mesopotamia during the World War (1914-1918)” was first published in 1921 and was reissued in 2007. His daughter, Martha Künzler, visited Sam in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

Sam Kadorian died in 2005 and is survived by his son Gregory and grandchildren Brian and Melissa.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.