Ben S. Benjamin - The Story of a Survivor
Posted: Monday, September 18, 2000 at 03:10 PM CT
The period during the persecutions and massacres (1917-18) of the Assyrians by the Turks, and our escape from our homeland and through many refugee camps (1918-20), and our immigrant journey to the United States (1921-22), is told here in a very condensed version. After 62 years, it is somewhat difficult to recall all the day to day suffering endured by the Assyrians, especially when all this took place, it occurred over a period of 3 years (1917-21). My story of the war years is mostly concerned with the hardships of our own family and the period when I was separated from my family during the massacre at San Qal'eh (Shahin dezh) and thereafter.
BEN S. BENJAMIN
During the period between 1914-18, Turkey, which was an ally of Germany, had its troops stationed both in the Balkan States in the west and at the Russian-lranian border in the north and east. The Russian army was holding its positions against Turkey in the Caucasian mountains on the north and at the Turkish-Iranian border on the east, but when the Russian army withdrew from the war zone in this area due to Lenin's Revolution, its army stationed in the Caucasus was no longer there to protect the Assyrian and Armenian minorities. The Turks, who had a hatred of all Christianity, had been kept under pressure by the Russian Army. In the absence of Russian power in the area, however, the Turkish Army, under the leadership of the famous General Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who later was named Kemal Ataturk (father of Turkey), and his close associate Enver Pasha, had some time to reconsolidate their positions on the two eastern borders.
In the meantime, the Kurdish bandit Simko, also considered by his people to be their leader, was secretly working with both the Turkish and Iranian governments for the annihilation of the Assyrians. Simko's hope was that by annihilating the Assyrians he would get an autonomous rule for his people, who lived in both Turkey and Iran.
Simko requested a summit meeting with His Beatitude Mar Shimon (St. Simon), who was at the time both top religious leader of the Orthodox Church and political leader of the Assyrians. Mar Shimon accepted Simka's invitation, and took an entourage after approximately 100 well armed men with him, because Simko was known to be untrustworthy.
As the carriage carrying Mar Shimon reached Simko headquarters, he was graciously greeted by Simko's guards. As Mar Shimon approached the interior of Simko's inner quarters, the Kurdish leader received him like a servant bowing before his master. The two leaders' discussions were most amicable. One of Mar Shimon's men had observed the shadows of some men on the very large roof of the headquarters, not realizing that there were actually several hundred of Simko's armed men hiding on the rooftop and all around the buildings. When Simko bade Mar Shimon au revoir, no sooner had Mar Shimon and his entouroge stepped outside of the yard, than a barrage of gunfire opened simultaneously from all directions, killing the religious leader and 90 of his men. Of the ten men who escaped, 6 were wounded. This act by a vicious Moslem leader was to seal the fate of the Assyrians. The Turks first attacked the Assyrians living in the mountain area of eastern Turkey. (This was also the area where my wife Lois' parents originally came from.)
As mountainers began to flee across the border into Iran, the Assyrian irregular army, under the Assyrian General Agha Petros, was successful in slowing down the advance of the welI trained and equipped Turkish army. Unfortunately, the Assyrian army military equipment was made up of arms from three different sources; rifles manufactured in France, Germany and Russia, which meant that there were three bullet types, and not enough ammunition reserve for any one of them.
Word came from the war zone admonishing the civilian population to leave their towns and villages and head toward Hamadan and Kermanshah, which was a long distance. The mass evacuation began immediately. My Uncle Paul was one of the soldiers who brought the warning. Later he was caught and executed by the Turks. My youngest uncle, Peter, was taken prisoner by the Turks. My grandmother, Hanna, discovered the location where Peter was held. She proceeded to go and see him. As she approached the small Turkish contingent, she was stopped by the guards. When she forced herself against them, she was knocked down to the ground and bayonetted to death by one of the guards. Not much later my mother and aunt found that their brother, Uncle Peter, had been choked to death by his captors.
The Assyrian's front line forces, despite the Turkish Army's alarming superiority in manpower, ammunition and logistics, succeeded in keeping the Turks at the border, allowing the Assyrian civilian population time to flee from the city of Urmia and the surrounding towns and villages. At the same time, my parents began their preparation to escape from what ultimately resulted in the great Turkish massacre of the Assyrians. My father, mother, older sister, younger brother, younger sister and I took whatever possessions our parents were able to load on a wagon, plus two horses, two mules and one water buffalo, leaving all other worldly possessions and home behind. I was ten years old.
As we proceeded south and could no longer see the site of our village of Ardeshai, we began to see thousands of other Assyrians who had left their homes and towns. In addition to my father, mother, older sister Martha, younger brother William and younger sister Julia; my older married sister Soraya, her husband and infant son, Jonathan, were also alongside with us. Apparently there must have been someone many miles ahead directing or mapping the way, because there were no visible roads to follow.
Not too many days after our departure, my married sister Soraya's infant son died. Due to the advancing Turks, some miles to the rear of the civilians, there was no time for burial, so my sister and her husband tied the corpse of their infant son on horseback, with the hope that there would be a rest period during our escape, in order for them to bury him underground.
The expected peaceful period never materialized. I shall never forget how the entire family, including some friends, after hearing the sounds of Turkish cannon fire in the distance, pleaded with Soraya and her husband and finally persuaded them to leave the young boy's corpse on the side of the road. He was finally wrapped in a blanket and placed under a rock.
Some soldiers came from the rear, where the Turks had been advancing, and recruited more able-bodied men to go back and try to hold back the advancing Turks. A few days later, word came that the Turks were held in check and many prisoners had been taken by the Assyrians. After eight or ten days of constant journey by wagons, horses and foot, the people were told that they could now rest for the night. In the meanwhile, something had happened to the wheel of our wagon and my father had abandoned it behind us. The thousands of men, women and children rested all night in the open spaces near the Iranian town of Shahin Dezh (Sain Qal'eh).
As the morning light began to burst from tbe horizon, the rested population were warned to get up and leave, as the Turks were advancing and within hours the camp would be attacked. As small as I was, I will never forget the panic and the pandemonium amongst the people. In a matter of minutes after the warning, the cannon shells began exploding in the midst of the crowds. My dad had strapped me on the back of the water buffalo, as I had come down with malaria.
In the excitement, before my dad realized, the animal had taken me away and headed for a small river just outside of where camping was for the night. In its approach to the (Zarineh) river, the thirsty animal jumped from the river bank into the river with me strapped to his back. As the animal was drinking water and swimming, he crossed to the opposite side of the river. He got up to land, which was about the same level as the level of river height. The animal kept shaking his body, apparently in order to shake off the excess water or water drops, and in doing so the straps which held me to his back loosened and I fell off and to the ground. The animal started to run away along the dry edge of the river, howling and screaming.
As the people left the camp, perhaps a half mile away from the spot where I had fallen, my aunt had seen a water buffalo with loose straps an its back, and showed it to my father. The area where the animal was spotted was shallow, my father had gone on horseback across the river, but nowhere could he find any trace of me. He took the animal again and crossed the river, joining the migration of the people. He had told my mother that he was sure that their son, Ben, was drowned in the river and he could not discover the body.
I must have fallen asleep immediately after falling down, because I woke up thinking it was early morning, but the sun, instead of rising, was setting. Then I realized that I must have slept all day. As I looked around me, I saw something a short distance from me that looked like a bridge. I got up and walked toward it and as I approached it, I saw it was a broken wooden bridge with small rocks, the tops of which were exposed above the shallow water under the bridge. I sat under the bridge for cover and as the evening was approaching, I heard someone calling, "Son, are you Assyrian?" In my crying voice, I answered, "Yes, I am Assyrian." This was an old woman with two smaller children than I, and an older girl. After bitter crying, I asked her about my father and mother. She said she didn't know who they were. She put her arms around me and started crying, telling me that her son and his wife had been killed, and the three kids with her were her grandchildren. We all slept under that bridge that night.
The next morning we woke up and washed our hands and faces and the old woman had a white sheet with which she let me wipe my wet hands and face. Suddenly across the river we saw some soldiers. The soldiers waved and signalled us to come to them. We all slowly crossed over the shallow water along the underneath of the broken bridge, carefully holding on to the posts of the bridge. As we approached these men with our clothes wet to our knees, we saw that they were Turkish soldiers. They asked the old woman who we were and what we were doing there. In Turkish, the woman told them that we were Assyrians, and were left behind. At that point, one of the soldiers picked up the woman's older granddaughter and put her in the arms of a soldier who was still mounted on his horse. At the time I didn't know why the young girl was struggling so hard to get herself out of the arms of the mounted soldier. Suddenly the soldier threw her down to the ground, and with a bayonet attached to the muzzle of his rifle, he said "Why you 'gavor kopak oglee' (you infidel s.o.b.)" and stabbed her to death.
The old woman was screaming and pulling her hair and her grandchildren were crying. I stood there and froze, shaking like I was freezing to death. Suddenly something happened to me. I felt as if someone came from behind and pulled a piece of my skin, the width of a three quarter inch surgical tape, right from the top of my head in the back all the way down my back and both legs. One of the other oldiers pointed his rifle at me and said, "Let us kill all these Christian gavors (infidels)." My God was there with me, because another soldier leaned over and pulled the soldier's muzzle away, saying, "Don't waste any bullets on these. Let us leave them to die from starvation." As the soldiers left, they were only a short distance away from us when suddenly we heard cannon shells bombarding the hillside.
It must have been hours before we dared to leave the spot where the Turkish soldiers left us. As we reached the top of the hill, we realized the Turks had camped there the day before. We saw many dead soldiers and much equipment left behind. At the time we didn't know that the Assyrian General Agha Petros and his men, when capturing some of the Turkish troops, had also taken some military equipment, which included cannons mounted on horse-drawn caissons. Due to distances and also weakness in their army, the Turks had pulled back their Divisions. General Agha Petros had cut off this last contingent of Turks in the area. The cannon bombardment we had heard was from the Assyrians who were using the captured Turkish equipment in their final annihilation of the last remnants of the Turkish Army; an army that massacred thousands of helpless Assyrian men, women and chiIdren only because their fanatic religious leaders and their Islamic doctrine justifies the call for a holy war and any non-believers in Islam are enemies of Islam.
We were able to follow the road direction only by seeing the number of dead on the road and the personal belongings left behind, together with abandoned wagons, horses and many other animals. One sight I saw, among many others, was a dead mother, with a swollen stomach due to exposure, with her small infant child sucking her breast for milk. The old woman with the grandchildren was God sent to me, because for days before reaching Bijar, she would go to search for food in the abandoned wagons and many times she would bring and feed us lavasha (thin sheets of bread). Dry as it was, with the stale bread and water, we survived.
We must have been just outside of the city of Bijar when we saw several men coming toward us. When we got real close to them, I started to cry. One of them, dressed in Russian Cossack coat and fur hat, said in Turkish, "Don't cry Oglan (son), we're not going to hurt you. These are Ingiliz Askerler (English soldiers)." Despite his consoling words, this did not alleviate my grief until the old woman came and hugged me and told me it was all right, we were safe.
The man who spoke Turkish was neither Turkish nor English, but the rest of them turned out to be English Commanding Officers and others, about 10 to 15 of them total. They had 5 or 6 unmanned but saddled horses. I must have been too weak, because one of them picked me up and put me on the front of his own saddle and the woman and her grandchildren were put in some sort of small army wagon.
We were taken some distance until we reached their headquarters, where there were several other soldiers and a doctor. Before long I was being fed and given some medication with water. The water was bitter as hell and I could hardly drink it, but the doctor insisted. Later I found out it was powdered quinine in water, given to combat my malaria. After a day or so, I no longer saw the old kind woman and her grandchildren.
I found out this spot where the British were camping was about 60 kilometers southwest of the city of Hamadan. This small unit af British Commanding Officers was sent ahead, and it was to have been followed by the British Armed Forces. They were to support General Agha Petros' forces to prevent the Turkish advance which resulted in the great massacre. But this small British Commanding Unit was headed back to Baghdad. Upon reaching the tail end of the refugee line, the refugees kept asking their interpreter, who was not English, "Where are the English soldatti (soldiers)? Where are the English soldatti (soldiers)?" Their interpreter, in an apologetic way, shrugged his shoulders as if to say, we don't know.
A short while later, the Turkish interpreter asked me if I understood Turkish, and I answered, very little. Then he said, "You see there, those are all your people and you are to go where they are, because we are returning to Baghdad." Left alone, I walked toward the people who were camped at what turned out to be the outskirts of the Iranian city of Qasr-e-Shirin, which is located very near to the border of Iraq. It appeared as though there were thousands of them in the open space, but I saw not one face that was familiar to me. I stayed there that afternoon and night. The conversation I heard was mostly about lost people and separated families. In the mid-morning I heard people say they had to leave. As some began to leave, I followed them. I became quite ill and a kindly man saw me unable to walk. He picked me up and put me in his wagon with three or four other children, who were much younger than I.
I don't recall the time it took to reach a town by the name of Khanaqin. It couldn't have been too far because we got there in a short time. Khanaqin was just inside of the Iraqi border. We stopped not too far from the town and the man told me that he heard there were some people from my town of Ardeshai. He reached over and took me off his wagon and told me to go among the crowd which had reached there the day before. I must have had a high temperature and was unable to walk with much confidence. All of a sudden I saw a boy. He was my cousin Jack. I hollered, "Yaco! Yaco! (Jack! Jack!) He ran away as if he feared me. Yaco was one year younger than I, but weak as I was, suffering from malaria, I was in no condition to run after him. I saw him in the distance talking to a woman and he was pointing towards me. As I got nearer to the crowd, suddenly this woman started running toward me, crying and screaming. It was my mother. She grabbed me and took me in her arms, kissed me and cried bitterly, and kept calling my father, "Shlemon! Shlemon! Shlemon!"
My father was busy with another man, with whom he was to share a young lamb for meat. As my father turned toward my mother in answer to her call, he saw me, and with the butcher knife still in his hand he raised both hands together with his head to the sky and screamed, "O my God! O God! O my God! O God!" With the butcher knife in his hand he rushed and grabbed me away from my mother and hugged and kissed me, asking me, "Ben! Where have you been all this time?" Before I had a chance to answer him, he said that a woman from our town hod told them not to worry, "Your son is dead. Be thankful that he doesn't have to suffer this misery." She had told them that when she and her husband were on the road seeing all the dead people, she had noticed a young dead boy who was run over by a horse-drawn army caisson. She knew it was their son Ben, because she tumed his face up to see if it was him. My father, being a devout Christian, which he was, had said a prayer.
When I finally got some composure, I asked where were Martha, William and Julia, and my mother said, "Look." Martha was standing, William and Julia were sleeping. I asked, "Why are they sleeping?" My mother said, "They are not well." Soon thereafter, my brother William, who was 2 years my junior, woke up and my dad said, "William! William, look who is here." William just looked and said, in a very weak voice, "Beenne". The next morning William never woke up. He had died. Both he and Julia were suffering from malaria. My father and another man took William's corpse a distance away, dug under a rock, covered him with a cloth, and buried him. Two days later my sister Julia, who was 5 years old, died in the same manner as William, and she was buried in a like manner.
My father had been given some quinine for William and Julia by the medical team working with the sick. When I finally got too sick with fever and chills (definite signs of malaria), he started me on quinine 3 times a day and before going to bed. While we stayed at this camp which was out in the open with only some trees, just outside of Khanaqin, there were thousands of others who were also scattered all over the vast open land waiting the outcome of their undetermined fate. Official word came that the British High Command had ordered a permanent camp set up just outside of the city of Ba'Quba, not too far from Baghdad, Iraq. The final move to Camp Ba'Quba was no surprise to anyone, as the people were looking forward to it.
When we got to the camp, there they were-- large army tents accommodating 60 persons to each tent. I don't recall the number of tents to a section (there were a large number in a section). There were 30 sections, our section was No. 22. Every known illness and sickness known to humans was there; malaria, typhoid, malnutrition, just to name a few. A large tent was set up for a clinic. Prior to the arrival of the refugees, an extensive sanitation complex had been set up.
After staying at Camp Ba'Quba for quite a long period of time, some af the refugees decided to go back to their homes and villages in Azerbaijan. The British Government was not in favor of such a move by the refugees, so it was necessary for those who wished to return to their homeland to sign a release showing that the signatories, upon leaving Camp Ba'Quba, were at the same time releasing the British Government and its High Command of all responsibility for their safety and welfare. My father signed the release on behalf of the family and himself. Among other memorabilia, I have an exact copy of the original release my father signed with the British.
Immediately, we left for Baghdad. From there we were placed on army buses, and headed for Mosul. My father and some other men set up a temporary camp in Mindan, right on the edge of the Tigris River. During our stay there, one day my father took me with him to Mosul, which was not too far from Mindan. It was during this trip, after he got through with whatever business he had to transact, that he said, "Son, would you like to go and see the ruins of Ninevah, just across from Mosul?" I knew nothing of Nineveh, and I said, "Yes, Baba (father)." It was no more than 2 or 3 kilometers away. I was in awe of the acres and acres of massive ruins, and the small portions of ancient wall still remaining. I looked up at my father and noticed tears coming down, and I asked if he was crying and why. With a choking tone in his voice, he picked me up and said, "Son, thousands of years ago, this was the capital city of our people." He put me down and we returned to Mindan.
Within a short period of time, the people at the camp decided to send a small armed group of able-bodied men to go over the mountain terrain and see if there was a passage through the mountains to the border of Iran. Mosul is approximately 600 kilometers north of Baghdad, and the distance to Turkey, Iraq and Iran was very close, just over the mountains. The distance to Lake Urmia was not too far from there. The small armed group of men left and, much to their chagrin, they were met by a fierce tribe of Kurds. The Kurds knew the terrain and they outnumbered the small Assyrian group. After some exchange of rifle fire, only a few of the group survived. One of my first cousins came back alive and he had the corpse of another relative strapped on the back of his saddle. It was then that my father decided we should go back to Baghdad.
I was too small to know all the secrets of my family, but I recall, when we left Ardeshai, my mother used to put a heavy vest-like jacket on me. But when I got sick, just before I was separated from them at Sain-e-Qaleh, they took the vest off. When we were in Ba'Quba Camp, I found out that my father, mother and sister Martha also had similar vests, and that long before we left home in Ardeshai, my mother had sewn Iranian gold money in the lining of all our vests and the saddles of the mules. I remember my father making several trips to Baghdad while we were at the Ba'Quba Camp. He had been taking small amounts of gold and depositing it with a Chaldean man who was introduced to my dad by a friend.
Upon our return to Baghdad, my father received a letter from my oldest brother Pera, who had been sent to the United States to further his education. In his letter, Pera told my father that to try to go back to our home-land just for the purpose of being near the vineyards, farmland and other property which our family owned, was inadvisable, because the Islamic countries would never be safe for Christianity. After a great deal of deliberation, and having given serious consideration to Pera's letter, my father went to the American Consulate in Baghdad and applied for an immigration visa to the United States.
We left Baghdad on the river boat named " Majida" to the port of Basra at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It took 4 days and nights. After waiting a few days at the port, we got passage on the British cargo liner "Castalia".
Obituary: Ben S. Benjamin
Ben S. Benjamin, 91, of Arlington Heights and formerly of Chicago died Jan. 26 in Claremont Rehabilitation and Living Center in Buffalo Grove. Mr. Benjamin was born in Ardeshai, Iran, and immigrated to the United States in 1921, said his daughter, Barbara L. Glass. He retired in 1977 as owner and operator of the former Benjamin Decorators, a Chicago painting contractor that he founded in 1940. He was the painting contractor in charge of redecorating the former LaSalle Hotel in Chicago after the 1946 fire there that killed 61 people. Mr. Benjamin was a member of the board of Ravenswood Presbyterian Church in Chicago from the 1940s through the 1960s and served as chairman of its building committee in the early 1950s. Other survivors include his wife, Lois; two sons, William H. and Thomas; four grandchildren; and three great-grandsons. Services will be at 7 p.m. Friday in First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, 302 N. Dunton Ave., Arlington Heights.