Margaret Ahnert discusses The Knock at the Door: A Journey Through the Darkness of the Armenian Genocide.
In 1915, Armenian Christians in Turkey were forced to convert to Islam, barred from speaking their language, and often driven out of their homes as the Turkish army embarked on a widespread campaign of intimidation and murder. More than one million Armenians lost their lives in what came to be known as the first horrendous genocide of the twentieth century.
Margaret Ajemian Ahnert provides a skillful retelling of her mother's traumatic battle to survive as a young girl coming of age in this period of brutality and hatred. At 15, Ahnert's mother was separated from her foster family during a forced march away from her birth town of Amasia, narrowly avoided kidnapping, faced unspeakable horrors at the hands of soldiers, and was forcibly married to an abusive Turkish wagon driver. From her room in an Armenian old age home in Queens, NY and with Margaret as her scribe, Ester recounts in vivid detail the years-long journey from her once-happy life in Amasia to the shores of America. In retelling her 98-year-old mother's story - the good times and the bad - Ahnert also plumbs the depths of their own relationship- Cody's Books
Margaret Ahnert was born in New York City. Growing up, she listened to her motherâ€™s stories about her own childhood during the Armenian genocide in Turkey. She has an MFA from Goucher College and a BA from Goddard College, and is a graduate of the Barnes Foundation. She has pursued a variety of careers: producing television documentaries, lecturing as a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and teaching art appreciation through the Art Goes to School program in elementary schools. Ahnert holds a 100-ton master captain's license and is an avid hunter and fisherwoman. The Knock at the Door is her first book.
This personal account interviews two narratives in alternating chapters, Ahnert's mothers Ester'sfirsthand description of coming-of-age during, and miraculously surviving, the Turkish sponsorArmenian Genocide of 1915, and her own reflections on her connection to the distant world of her 98year old mother. Together their stories realize an intimate but accessible terms the vagaries of historicalmemory and her mother's determination to tell the truth. Margaret Ahnert was born in New York City.She grew up listening to her mother's stories and she pursued a variety of careers. She has producedTV documentaries, she is been a docent in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the PhiladelphiaMuseum of Art, and she taught art appreciation in the schools and she is a huntress and a fisherwoman.We will see if we hear about that. Please welcome Margret Ahnert.Thank you and to me it's amazing that the hunter-fisherwoman got more applause than anything else. Italways does. Sure we get that out of the way. Yes, I am a fisherwoman, yes I am a hunter with captainlicense, and yes I am a huntress and a fisherwoman. Now, if you say, think about those questions aboutthat later, I will answer those first, just as I got this out of the way. And here tonight our, look god it'sdaylight out here, I feel like its new. But I am here to tell you about my mother Ester. My mother Esterwas an amazing woman, she lived her life when she came to this country in the today and tried toforget what she lived through. And what she lived through was the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Shewas 15 at the time so she could remember very clearly what happened to her. And "The Knock at theDoor" is a very symbolic name, there was a knock at her door, her family's door and they said leavenow. So, there are been there are many books written about this story and many books written aboutthe holocaust, then there are people who deny the holocaust happened and there are people who denythat the Armenian Genocide happen. So I am here to tell you, not as a historian, not as a scholar, just totell you a first person of narrative of this tale of my mother. And what happened to her.She didn't tell me these stories immediately, but growing up, my first my first foray into this storywas when I was six. And I went to school and some kids pushed me around, they say, we hate you, wehate you. Why do you hate me I said, because you are an Armenian? Why do you hate me because I aman Armenian? Well, our parents make us eat all our spinach because of the starving Armenians. Well,you know, more people remember the starving Armenians and I didn't know what they were talkingabout. I surely was also starving. My mother was a great cook. We had a great food, I had I had niceclothes and I I had never thought I was starving, so this started at six. It I didn't hear more about it tillI was 18 and someone said to me, Margaret you should read "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh". So thatsort of the the bible of the first graders who want to read about the genocide, they pick up this book.And I read it and I was very very moved by it because there was a family in that book, called theBagradian family, and my mother talked to about a family Bagradian family, that saved her. I thought,ah! Could they be related? And it was at that point in my life that I really pursued my mother for herstories. I was relentless and she would say a little and that would be the end of it - and go away.So I say this now quickly and digress. If you have an elderly parent, you have an elderly relative, youhave an elderly neighbor talk to them and get their stories and they compels me but you might findyourself the author of a book whatever the stories are, and wherever that at leads you but that's Iwasn't thinking about a book at that time I was thinking about a family member. I wanted you know, Iwanted to know, so years went by and through those years I worked hard in my life and I put mother'sstories down, when I got to finish up my masters degree at Goucher College, I this was my thesis andI really refined it and I worked on it very hard my mother then was 98. My mother said and told me thesame stories at 98 that she told me when she was 54, and I thought and in my undergraduate work, Iremember reading that memory is an amazing thing. You remember the truth because the truth stayswith you and my mother's story is hard truth and it didn't it never deviated I couldn't get more truthfrom her and I never got less truth from her.The stories were always the same, always. I tried to getmore what would then what happened, that's all I know.So it's very interesting and that's all I know is what in this book what she remembered and what shetold me and she remembered it over all her whole life time. So she was 15 when they came andknocked on her door. I think I read a little chapter here that or a piece of something here that may helpbeyond to understand how I came to this. I thought to myself as I read and I researched, what was therest of the world doing at this time didn't anyone know what they told, was anyone reporting what theysaw. So I went to the library and I read the headlines in the New York Times August 18th 1915Armenians sent to perish in desert. August 27th Turks depopulate towns of Armenian, September 17thmission board tell the Turkish horrors correspondences confirmed the reports of the wiping out ofArmenians, was this the genocide it wouldn't being called that in 1915 as the word had not yet enteredthe lexicon that wouldn't happen till after Hitler's planned extermination of the Jews. What exactlydoes the word mean anywhere I wonder so they pulled the dictionary from the shelf, genocide: thedeliberate and systematic extermination of a nation, racial, political or cultural group. If this was notgenocide in 1915 what was it deliberate and systematic were the keywords for me.Today's scholar category with the modern side and the Turkish government denies that it was agenocide it wasn't act of war a result of 1915 of the World War I in 1917, they have a life stories totell. I can only tell you to read Tanner Akcam's book. Tanner Akcam he wrote 'A Shameful Act'. Inhis book Tanner historically philosophically and scholarly proves it was genocide. My book doesn't dothat. Interestingly now publishers weekly who gave that who gave me a very nice review said mybook should be and accompaniment to Tanner Akcam, and Tanner it is a friend and I I emailed himand said hey Tanner may be we should go on a book to work together. His book is he has telegrams. Hehas Turkish reports out of the files. He spend a year in prison because he dare to say there was thatarmy mean genocide. He has a death threat on his life. In January of this year Hrant Dink an Armenianjournalist in Turkey in Istanbul was murdered on the streets, shot plain away and when I spoke toTanner I said are you going to the funeral. He said yes Margaret ah! Tanner are you crazy to have abodyguard? He said yes. Now your book comes out Margaret, you'll need one too meet Jim.So, here we are. I am very safe here in Berkeley; I feel safe. But I did have a problem in New York onMay 1st. I had been lecturing at Florida Universities and Pennsylvania Universities and large groups ofpeople, I never had a problem. So, like Mary Poppins, I pranced myself off to New York City. And Ihave my first May 1st, Barnes & Noble paper, anyway I am a Barnes & Noble Upper East Side, inthe audience is former Governor Robert Morgenthau, the grandson of Henry Morgenthau who was theAmbassador to Turkey in 1915, is in the audience, and some near and dear friends. And I setup to themicrophone as I am now and suddenly five men from the audience in strategically placed differentplaces, stand up, pass out pamphlets and had a new one and I looked at it. It's said Margaret Ahnert,you are a lair. It was no genocide. So I quickly handed it back to. I don't know what else it said becausethat's the first thing that I saw. And it was very frightening. So the Governor was sitting in his front seatand screaming and honoring was going on and at the corner of my eye in the side of the room, I seethe noble people call the police and they hand cuff this men and took them off. And while that washappening, I must tell you I don't know where I got the courage. I have to think my mother was withme. Because in my heart, I was scared but I stood there, just like this. I guess I was frozen. I am notsure what I was. But the Governor asked me questions; then I answered his question as nothing washappening in the room.So it was incredible because it gave no credence to this outburst. I mean, I can look back on that nowand seem very intellectual about it. At the moment, it was the only thing I could do was talk to him andI did that. So, that worked. The good news is the New York Times pricked that up and it made a frontpage column two columns. It was in the Turkish News Papers, the French News Papers and a friendtraveling in Spain she said, "Margaret, I would hadn't read an American News Paper in the threeweeks. I got on this train in Spain and I bought the International Herald Tribune, and there you are onthe front page." So so I guess a bad thing turned into a good thing. But I must tell you that night Iwent back to little hotel room and I fell into my knees and I was scared. And I said to my mother, "Oh,my god, I have got children, grand-children; what am I doing? I wrote a book about my family. I didn'tthink it would become controversial. And its not it's a mother-daughter story. When you read thisbook, you will relate to it if you are Italian, Jewish, German, Swedish, anybody can relate to this, if youhave a neighbor who is an elderly lady. Because most of his book. 90 percent of his book is ourconversations about last year of her life in the shower room clipping here toe nails, plucking backinghairs from her face. Those are tender tender wonderful moments that I shared with my family Ithought. Then suddenly somebody said, "Wow, we want to publish this book." So now it's public. But that's what it's about.Along with it is what she told me happened to her in her life. I will read you a passage here aboutwhat happened to her when they knocked at the door. Aksor the deportation word every one in townwas whispering. What did it mean? What would it be like? There was no time to think. With Papagone, we were on our own. Vartouhi quickly tied to canvas over our open wagon filled with food andblankets. She hitched a single cow to pull it, and we fled, joining the caravan of wagons leavingAmasia in my haste, I left my tank well coat hanging behind the door. I had never thought, I wouldsee that coat again. We were only half hour out the town, when a group of Kurds charged down fromthe mountains and attacked the first group at the front of the caravan. Then the Zaptiehs startedgrumbling. Someone in the group said they were there to protect us from the Kurds. This was a liebecause these soldiers attacked us along with the Kurds, swinging their curve swords in the air, overtheir heads, screaming and shouting curses. They rode their horses straight into the slow moving crowdof the people. I slipped to the ground, around me people were screaming, some were crushed underwagon wheels, others were bleeding from various parts of their bodies. One horse stamped on a womannext to me, and I heard the loud cracking of her bones breaking. It was like the sound of grandmacracking walnuts, only louder. Another man near me was stuck under a broken wagon wheel, he washolding on to a women's hand, her head was missing those who were not killed on the first charge wererobed and beaten. Then the soldiers came for the girls. The prettiest ones were taken first, I watched assoldiers lifted some of the girls by their hair, and threw them over the backs of their horses and rode away."Asvadzeem!" cried a Grandmom, she pushed me down in the wagon, scratched my face with a sharprock and rubbed row garlic and mud into the creases. Grandmom always carried garlic in her pocket tokeep away the evil eye. Then with a satisfied tone in her voice she said, there this will fester andweeping, you will look ugly. Quickly put on these baggy clothes, and the soldiers won't want you.After the attack it was very quite, we moved slowly with the rest of the group. Around us the silencehung heavy like thick fog. By morning my face was itching and oozing with white pus. I grabbedVartouhi's to a small hand mirror. Who was this creature staring back at me? I turned away withdisgust at the sight of my face. The same face that many had said, was a pretty face. I looked like amonster. No one looked at me. Grandma was pleased with her handiwork.That was only one of several. Now, chapter eight is a kind of a blood and gore chapter. So it isn't allthat, so I don't want to you all to just go away and say well god, I don't want to read about anotherholocaust, I don't want to read about another horrible situation because my mother Ester was funny.She was witty. And she had a tremendous positive attitude. She was practicing yoga, she didn't knowit. she took a deep breath, she say to me, now take a deep breath, suck in your air and like if you weredown - went with my mother, she could knock you over. And she filled her lungs with air. And thenhold it well you know, and then she said, when you don't think you could hold it another second, holdit four more seconds. And I the nurse I said to the nurse I said, can you imagine this, she said,Margaret, your mother is been practicing yoga, breathing all her life. Now did that help her throughthis? I don't know. She lived to be 98, I do know that. And she was healthy. So positive thinking, herprojection of forget bad times, she once said to me Margaret, and the fear the fear and hatred filterdown. I have a little story in here about my little grand daughter. Oh I would like to play that one foryou because I think you would like it.Anyway, it's about how fear like genes filters down. My mother told me these stories, she was okay.She went forward, then she told me these stories I feared Turks. I remember the time I got in a taxi witha taxi driver and in New York in New York that of self defense, you always look at the name on thetaxi, if you have ever lived in New York. You never get a taxi without checking a name out. And Ilooked when I looked at names and the we had an Armenian sounding name with an I-A-N I wouldsay, are you an Armenian. And if they said, yes. Oh where your parents are from? Or what country, wetalk about food and music and all will be very delight. One time I said, "Are you an Armenian?" andthe Turk the cab driver turned and said, "No, I am Turkish. Are you Armenian?" And I froze Ifroze. I couldn't tell him I was Armenian I was scared. so I said oh no I am not Armenian but I have anArmenian friend and she told me that names end in I-A-N and that's why I asked you if you ArmenianI was scared on this Turkish cab driver, why? So all the psychology courses in the world tell me thatterror like genes filters down, they filters down to my mother she didn't deliberately want this tohappen but it happened.I have a chapter in here about having dinner with a Turkish diplomatic and its kind of fun, I wont tellyou about it but and he was more than a Turkish diplomat at that time and he is currently living andand pretty prominent, so I eliminated his name from what his position was and I made him a Turkishdiplomat and he wanted to take me back to my mother's town in Amasia and its not safe to go backMargaret by yourself with an Armenian name on your passport. That why I took his name out, he willbe in big trouble today if anyone know, he had said that anyway I will look him up and I also want totell you about a couple of emails I got and this is the good news after that May 1st incident in New YorkI got this wonderful email from Zirak Erdogan, hello there, I just read news that you had a problemwith some Turks at a book signing today. I am a Turkish guy living in Australia. I want you to knowthat there are lots of Turks and across who know what happened to Armenians. Our hearts go to youand your people but don't forget - not all the Turks are races, best wishes may those who died in thegenocide he used that word rest in peace. I am so grateful for this email and I will contact this man maybe go to Australia and give him a big hug because I know that there are many many Turkish peopleout there who feel the way this man does, and I am grateful for that.The other email I got was whom Tanner Ackam that I talked about earlier who wrote 'A Shameful Act'he said to get Ms Allison welcome to the club. Well Tanner has had death threats Tanner has has hispersonal body guard, Tanner is an amazing guy and he is written the ultimate ultimate story that yesit was that you just cant disputed after you read his book so I suggest to read his book. Anyway Iapologies I am writing and and I read the coverage about the event in New York so allow you wouldmake it joke welcome to the club. Okay, this is Allison and a lot of other personal staff in here but toget Ms Allison was so good. I was so happy we get that from Tanner because he knows he is Turkishand there are many Turkish people who are sympathetic. But I think they are overrun I don't knowwhat I think because I am not historian this is not what this book is about, this book is about me andmy mother and what she told me and what she lived here, what I lived through all this stuff in hereabout me like should not getting to be able to shave my hairy legs stuff you really never wanted toknow but its in here its in here my growing up intimate little mother daughter stories, my mother inthe shower in old age home very tender moments anyway, thank you for coming if you have anyquestions I am happy to answer to.