Selected Reviews > selected reviews > The Gazette (1997)

Grandfather honoured in act of remembrance
By Elaine Kalman Naves

Eyewitness account of massacre recorded
The Gazette, Montreal, Saturday, October 4, 1997: Books i3

Smyrna, a coastal city on the Aegean as old Troy, has been one of the major centres of Asia Minor for millennia. Today, under the name of Izmir, it belongs to Turkey, but at various times in its 5,000-year history it has had Greek, Macedonian and Roman masters. According to local tradition, Homer was born in its environs; it was also one of the earliest seats of Christianity.

More recently, a tragedy of vast proportions has strained the city's name. In her book, an Armenian Doctor in Turkey, Dora Sakayan presents an eyewitness account of the 75-year-old catastrophe in which several members of her family perished along with 30,000 Greek and Armenian Christians at the hands of Turkish nationalist forces,

Sakayan, a professor of Germanic studies at McGill, was born 9 years after the Smyrna massacre. For the past four years, she has been toiling on an eye-witness account of the event recorded in a diary written in beautiful Armenian script by her grandfather. An Armenian Doctor in Turkey, subtitled Garabed Hatcherian:; My Smyrna Ordeal of 1922, is a fine example example of survivor literature and family history contextualized with scholarly notes, family trees, maps and photographs.

Dora Sakayan has a passionate sense of mission. When, five years ago, she learned of the diary's existence in Argentina, she immediately expressed an interest in transcribing it. "At first I could not read the journal except through a veil of tears, with my heart aching at the suffering of my grandfather, my mother and the other members of my mother's family had endured," she writes in the book's introduction.

Neither could she contain her tears when she and I conversed on her flower-filled downtown balcony about the labour of love that she lavished on the diary. For once she had read the carefully-prepared document that her grandfather wrote shortly after he fled with his family to Greece in September 1922, she realized that it had a historical value far beyond its preciousness as a family relic. Forming her own company, Arod Books, she self-published the book in Armenian in 1995, then translated an expanded version of it into English that she has recently released.

Apologizing for her emotionalism, Sakayan dashed the tears from her eyes as she explained the special bitterness that is a legacy of the descendants of the Armenian survivors of the Turkish massacres that occurred between 1895 and 1923. "Each of us carries a burden.... My mother was sick all her life. Till her last day she would remember her grandmother, her uncles..... Each time the Turks were denying what happened, she would say, 'where is my grandmother? Where is my uncle? Where are my cousins? Who killed them if it never happened?'"

The Smyrna massacre took place seven years after the great disaster of 1915 when more than 1,5 million Armenians were murdered or starved as they were expelled from Turkey. That event is now viewed as the first genocide of the 20th century. Adolf Hitler is said to have taken the world's silence in the face of the attrocity as an auspicious sign for success of his projected Final Solution for the Jews.

Sakayan's grandfather would bear the emotional scars of survivor guilt for the rest of his life. He escaped from Smyrna with his wife and five children while it was still possible to get out, but the rest of his family was not so lucky. "Ten people from his family were left behind (in Smyrna) and were massacred. (My grandfather's) father, his brother and his family. (My grandmother's) mother, her brother and the family. Ten people."

Sakayan's reason for including a wide assortment of family pictures as well as some photographs of Armenian public life in Smyrna was to refute "the perpetual denial on the part of the Turks. They will never acknowledge what they did to us. If we had an opponent who would acknowledge and somehow try to rectify - even though there is no rectification - what they had done, it wouldn't be so hard to take. I put all the pictures in to show the world that this is a real family story. Here we are, we still exist." Not just exist, but achieve. For in many respects Sakayan's is also an extraordinary success story.

"Every Armenian can tell you a long story," she smiled as she served coffee and delicious Armenian butter and nut cookies.

Born in Salonica, Greece, in 1931, she was educated in german both there and in Vienna where her family moved when she was 12. In 1946 they went to Armenia, which then belonged to the USSR ("I cannot say we went back, even my parents cannot say "back". My parents were born in Asia Minor, which was Turkey.") She obtained her doctorate in Moscow and subsequently returned to Armenia where she taught at the University of Yerevan for 20 years, 10 of them as head of a huge department of foreign languages.

She speaks English with a Middle-European accent that is hard to place, for good reason. "I speak German, modern Greek, Armenian, Russian, French, Turkish, of course. And of course I learned Bulgarian and some Swedish and some Spanish. After two, three languages (the facility) comes."

Since her arrival to Montreal in 1975 she has taught at McGIll.

She has written many scholarly books, but nothing has given her as much satisfaction as has An Armenian Doctor in Turkey. She laughs heartily as she says, "it became for me perhaps the culmination of my intellectual activity." But then she became serious again. "I had to work on it nights... and when I was deciphering my grandfather's handwriting, writing about these things, I was thinking (How could a nation let itself be so ravaged and mistreated, and how could another nation get away with genocide? How could we continue, how could we survive after all this?" It is a miracle.)

The strength of her book lies in its understatement and simplicity. Like all survivor accounts, it stands in for thousands of unwritten stories. By resurrecting Dr. Hatcherian's diary, Sakayan evokes not only a world of suffering and loss, but a struggle and rebirth. She has crafted a loving tribute to her cherished grandfather and to her people.

Photo Insets: Garabed Hatcherian; Sakayan - labour of love. Letters to the editor are welcome and can be sent by writing to:

NOTE: This article followed a book launching at Chapter's Books in Montreal's downtown location (1171 Ste. Catherine Street West, Montreal, Quebec, H3B 1K4) on Friday October 3, 1997; The book may be purchased by calling the store at (514) 849-8825 or by emailing

Recent Updates

Press Release 2012:
Book launch of Western Armenian for the English-speaking World, A Contrastive Approach in Yerevan State University, Armenia.

Press Release 2012:
Dora Sakayan awarded Honorary Doctorate Degree at Yerevan State University, Armenia.

Press Release 2010:
World premier launch of Theodik's HUSHARTSAN's first bilingual (Turkish-Armenian) edition in Montreal.