Granddaughters of Armenian Genocide survivors share stories of resilience

Saturday, April 24 marks the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. 

There are a handful of genocide survivors still alive to share their stories, but their incredible stories of resilience will continue to be shared by their children and grandchildren. 

For comedic actress and writer Lory Tatoulian performing and making people laugh is in her DNA. She credits her late grandmother’s creative spirit.

"You know, sometimes genetics plays a part in it. I have that same love and passion for the theater, for performing, for telling stories. I feel her spirit before I go up on stage," said Lory Tatoulian, comedic actress and comedy writer.

Tatoulian’s deep bond with her grandparents will never fade. Both her mother’s and father’s side were Armenian Genocide survivors. Tatoulian says while most survivors didn’t want to talk about the horrors of what they had witnessed, her grandparents did.

"My grandparents lived with us, so their story, what they went through was very much intertwined; it was very much a part of growing up," said Tatoulian.

"It was just in the air. The trauma that they went through definitely was intergenerational and very much a part of the fabric of our life. For me personally, their story of survival has inspired me to create and write and really embrace life and just be so thankful for the life that you know, we have now," said Tatoulian.

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Thankful for today, yet never forgetting what her family endured to survive. Her mother’s father Immanuel Kopoushian was just 8 years old when he witnessed the unimaginable.

"He saw his whole family killed in front of him and his mother said play dead so that they don't kill you. So my grandfather at the age of eight acted like he was dead in a pile of corpses. He was laying there for many days," said Tatoulian.

He was found alive by Arab Bedouins. They rescued him and gave him the name "Shukri." He lived with this Bedouin tribe for 18 years. He got married. Had a family. And the years passed.

"In his mind, he thought that every Armenian in the world had been exterminated. That there were no Armenians left on earth because that is what he witnessed," said Tatoulian.

"In 1933, there was a big effort to try to find lost Armenians in the desert. My grandfather was found when he was an adult and he was taken to Lebanon. He miraculously found a cousin and he reconnected with some of his surviving family members," said Tatoulian.

He never went back. He got married in Lebanon and had six children. Eventually, his family migrated to the United States. Tatoulian said toward the end of his life his memories became even more vivid.

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Her grandfather passed away in 1986, at the age of 86.

Tatoulian’s grandmother’s story was featured in the documentary "Women of 1915."

Aguline Tatoulian was born in 1900 in the town of Hadjin. 

"She was a student in Istanbul and when she heard that these exterminations were happening in her city, she wanted to go back to be with her family. She also saw her entire family slaughtered. Her fiancé was also killed," said Tatoulian.

Aguline went from living her dream of studying music theater and the arts, to living a nightmare.

"At this time, they were taking the Armenian girls to harems or raping them and she didn't want that to happen to her, so she took her deceased fiancé's army fatigues. There was a resistance army that was formed. She took his gun, she shaved her hair and she fought in resistance for nine months. She was the only woman," said Tatoulian.

From the film, Women of 1915:

"Aguline fights heroically, but by the end of 1920, Hadjin is occupied by Turkish forces. Of the 6,000 inhabitants of Hadjin, only a few hundred survive. Aguilne Tatoulian was among the survivors."

Aguline got married and raised five children. After taking teaching positions and directing theatrical plays in different countries, she finally settled in Pasadena. 

"She loved America, she thought it was the greatest land, and it was a stark contrast to what she had gone through. I remember she would write thank you letters to President Reagan — thank you for being the greatest President, thank you for this country," said Tatoulian.

"She actually got to meet Ronald Reagan because she was honored as a genocide survivor right before she died. It was like a dream come true for her," said Tatoulian.

Aguline also passed away in 1986, at the age of 87.

"She had a bullet in her left ribcage up until the day of her death. On her death bed, she said the only request that I have is I do not want to be buried with this Turkish bullet," said Tatoulian.

Her wish was fulfilled. 

"It is completely serendipitous how we ended up living here and having this view. I almost feel like this view is a microcosm of my identity. It's the Armenian Genocide Memorial with the backdrop of LA in the background. The Memorial is so beautiful to me, the way it stands so tall and proud when I look at it, it's like how I described my grandmother. It is empowering. It is survival. It is resilience," said Tatoulian.

Women of 1915 is a documentary about the stories of heroic women and their relentless spirit.

It is streaming on Amazon Prime.