Selected Reviews > selected reviews > Yerevan State University (2007)

Lest We Forget
By Brigitte Schmid-Gugler

Dora Sakayan has deciphered the eye-witness account of Clara Sigrist-Hilty and her husband, who lived in Eastern Switzerland. The couple witnessed the deportations of Armenians between 1915 and 1918.

Like a young deer the 85-year-old Dora Sakayan hops off the train coming from Zürich. Later this evening, she will speak about her book, just published by Limmat-Verlag. The decision to hold the launch in Grabs was hers, and personal. “I want history to return to places where it started,” she declares. It happened in 1914. Originally from a bourgeois family, and by profession a nurse, Clara Hilty met her future husband, Fritz Sigrist, the brother of a close friend who had worked since 1910 on the construction of the Bagdad railway in southeast Turkey.

As we find out in the book, Fritz was courting the attractive and intelligent Clara, then 30 years old. However, she had her doubts about such a union, particularly regarding his job, which would require that she follow him to Turkey. Nevertheless, she ended up agreeing to the marriage. Immediately after their wedding, the couple travelled by train through a war-ravaged Europe, and then through Turkey, which had allied with Germany during the First World War. They settled in a little village named Keller (today Fevzipaşa), located near Aleppo, which in those years belonged to the Ottoman Empire.

She wrote what she saw with her own eyes

In Turkey Clara started a life suitable to her origins: she became a good homemaker, hostess and soon also a mother. From her house she had a view onto the vast plains leading up to the Amanus mountains, where soon after her arrival she would witness the deportations and killings of Armenians—a genocide that to this day is denied by the Turks. Clara, who had already started to keep a diary in 1914, continued more actively to fill the pages during her entire three-year stay in Turkey (1915-1918). Rudolph Sigrist-Clalüna, one of the couple’s four sons and author of a series of articles about the lives of his parents, passed on a substantial part of his parents’ writings to the Archive for Modern History at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH). Later on, one of the couple’s granddaughters delivered additional material to the archives, including an Armenian book whose author was saved by the Sigrists in 1916. The Armenian volume featured a hand-written dedication in German to Clara and Fritz Sigrist.

In 2002, the genocide scholar and linguist Dora Sakayan received a note from a Swiss friend, who had just read an article referring to these recordings in the Swiss newspaper Zürcher Tages-Anzeiger.

Her main topic: The Genocide

Sakayan, who has lived in Canada since 1975, has published many books on the topic of the Armenian Genocide. These include her edition of a diary written by her grandfather, who until 1922 worked as a physician in Smyrna, Turkey. Sakayan says: “The book has been translated into nine languages. It tells the story of a genocide perpetrated against the Greek and Armenian populations of Smyrna [today Ismir].” After the Smyrna catastrophe of 1922, Sakayan’s parents escaped to Salonica, Greece, where she was born. Later on, the family moved to Vienna, and finally repatriated to Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union. In Yerevan, Sakayan studied, got married, and became the mother of two daughters. She taught first at the Yerevan State University, and since 1975 at McGill University in Montreal.

It would take her another ten years — after receiving the note from her friend — to track down the rest of the Sigrist literary heritage in the 2012 Annual Report of the Archive of the Zürich ETH. She recounts: “I immediately got in touch with the Archive, and everything went smoothly.” Sakayan received the digitized documents from the ETH, and started right away to transcribe Clara’s diary. Soon she knew what she would do with the rich archival material: “A book, and it would appear first in German. I was very excited because all the recordings were a great discovery to me,” says Sakayan. “In her diary, Clara Sigrist wrote from an entirely unbiased perspective: she wrote about her everyday observations, the numerous visits, social events at her husband’s workplace, her trips and hikes, and the customs of the mainly Kurdish local population. At the beginning of her stay, Clara had very little information about the political situation in Turkey,” she continues.

A terrible, unfathomable horror

It was because of this unawareness that the young Swiss lady — though she expressed initial concern about the deportation processions passing through the valley — only gradually understood what was exactly happening. A terrible, unfathomable horror becomes increasingly clearer in her notes, and we can see her increasing realization of the nature of these events. At the same time, she knew they would be in great danger if they described the situation in Turkey in their letters, which were heavily censored. And even in her diary she had to be quite cautious. “Clara and Fritz were both very sensitive, humane people, who were suffering under the circumstances,” explains Sakayan, speaking with great admiration for the couple. “Putting themselves in danger, they helped Armenians who were working in great numbers on the construction of the Bagdad Railway, and who were subsequently deported and killed.” One of those Armenians was Haig Aramian. His parents were victims of a previous genocide perpetrated by the Turks against the Armenians in 1894–1896, an as an orphan he had been adopted by a Swiss lady when he was 10 years old. He later studied in Jerusalem and became a teacher in the school system of the Ottoman Empire. During the 1915 Genocide he was given an ultimatum: either renounce your Christian faith, or be deported. Aramian opted for the latter and joined the death marches. At some point, he escaped the deportation, changed his Armenian name and found a job at the Bagdad Railway; but even then he was persecuted by the authorities. It was the Sigrist-Hilty couple who hid him in their house, enabling him to escape certain death.

Discovering Aramian’s writings in the archives, Sakayan was able to translate pertinent parts and complete the Sigrist-Hilty saga. Her book is enriched by Wolfgang Gust’s introduction and numerous annotations. Once you have read it, you’ll treasure it for a long time.

Translated from German
Brigitte Schmid-Gugler
St. Galler Tageblatt
October 28, 2016

Recent Updates

Book Review 2016:
Review of [«They drive them into the desert»: Clara and Fritz Sigrist-Hilty as eyewitnesses of the Armenian Genocide 1915-1918 from -----.

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.