1915, Urmia, Geogh Tappa:
|Gail's note sent to my office in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.|
My name is Gail. I was conducting some research on my family and I discovered that your great-grandfather liberated my grandmother’s village, Geogh Tappa, in Urmia about 100 yrs. or so ago. … If you have some free time at lunch one day, I’d be happy to treat you to a coffee… Thank you for your time and attention and, certainly, thank you to your great-grandfather, without whom, apparently, I would not exist.
Interesting didn’t quite do this one justice. Cosmic euphoria. That’s what I felt when I read Gail’s note.
My great-grandfather, Harry Phineas Packard, was a physician who spent half his life working for a Presbyterian mission in what was then Persia, now Iran, from 1906–1946. I had heard stories about my great-grandfather and his son — my grandfather Hubert Sawyer Packard — rescuing thousands of civilians during the Assyrian Genocide, a series of massacres carried out by the Ottoman Empire and its militias that lasted from 1914–1924 alongside the Armenian and Pontic Greek Genocides. I always took the tales with a grain of salt, assuming they were more legend than fact. But there I was, confronted with a descendant of a person Harry had rescued, a ghost of the legend come to life. And she lived right down the road in Blue Bell of all places.
|Left to right: Harry P. Packard, Frank Packard (5), Malcolm Packard (2) infant Harold Packard, Frances B. Packard, and Hubert Packard (9) in a passport photo from 1913.|
I remember few specifics from our first conversation over coffee later that week, except that the story was too good to end in a Starbucks. Several days later I got a call from Gail. Her father insisted on hosting my wife and me for an Assyrian dinner.
When we arrived, Gail’s father, with a firm handshake and a broad grin, introduced himself as “Hub.” Short for Hubert.
Cosmic euphoria wrapped itself over and under me again. How could Gail’s Assyrian father share the same uncommon Anglo name as my grandfather?
Over a glass of Arak and a feast of pilaf, stuffed grape leaves and marinated mushrooms, I leaned in as Hub and Gail spun the tale of Asmar, the brave girl who fled genocide and built a life of love from rubble.
She was born in Geogh Tappa, a tiny Assyrian village in the northwest of modern-day Iran. It means “Blue Mountain,” named for the dark beryl ash that covered the hillside where for more than a thousand years Zoroastrians came to worship an eternal fire. Asmar remembered her home as a paradise, a village nestled on a fertile plain at the foot of the Zagros Mountains on the banks of Lake Urmia where each year flocks of flamingos painted the sky rose. Lush autumn grape vineyards and peach orchards turned to dust in the wake of sweltering summers. Glacial winters melted away when tender blossoms of red tulips lanced the frosted soil each spring.
Asmar was eleven years old when she watched her childhood paradise burn. It was 1915, the “Year of the Sword” as it is known now. The Great War of Europe that raged across the continent was spreading eastward, its monstrous tentacles creeping across the plains of Anatolia and over mountains into Persia. Asmar was too young to understand the looming threat of religious and ethnic violence, ignorant of American and Persian neutrality, unaware that the thousand fearsome Russian Cossack troops garrisoned in the nearby city of Urmia might be the only reason she and her loved ones still breathed. But now the Russians were gone, evacuating the region without warning. And an army marched on, raised by centuries of animosity on a mission to cleanse the land of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians.
It wasn’t long before the enemy came, armed with German Mauser rifles and scimitars. The brilliant gold bandoliers that crisscrossed warrior chests glinted in the sun as the blood red flag of the Ottoman Empire flew overhead.
The citizens of Geogh Tappa took refuge on the grounds of an old church atop a hill. The walls were high, and the door was thick and strong as iron, they said. But Asmar knew the truth. She knew by the looks on the faces of her elders. The billowing, frenetic puffs of nerve-rattled breath. The whispered, tearful talks between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters.
|Ruins of the old church and courtyard in Geogh Tappa.|
Asmar huddled in the bowels of the church with the rest of the women and children. Echoes of rifles cracked over the muffled screams of men and horses indistinguishable from one another. The odor of gunpowder, sweat and blood fused with wax and frankincense. Sleep came in fits and starts with day blending discordantly into night like a puzzle put together backwards.
When she awoke it was day again. The frequent volleys of rifle fire had slowed.
The village was running low on ammunition, some said. The men were exhausted, said others. It wouldn’t be long.
Sharp wails erupted from the courtyard below. The time had come, Asmar thought. The gates had been breached. The Ottomans were inside the walls.
But outside, a broad-shouldered American astride a stallion, the Ottoman flag and Stars-and-Stripes draped over its withers, trotted through the courtyard. The wails from the church became shouts of glee, “Halleluiah! Hakim sahib!” The Doctor has come.
The elders spoke at length with the American doctor behind closed doors. By dusk, the shooting had stopped. Three hundred rifles and six thousand rounds of ammunition lay in a heap outside the church doors. The Assyrians were to take nothing but their lives and the clothes on their back. Anything more and they would be executed. Asmar and the rest of the 2,500 villagers walked with baited breath, eyes straight ahead, flanked on both sides by a column of Ottoman militia holding rifles at port arms. Every now and then a set of rough hands grabbed a villager and patted them down, looking for contraband.
All those who could walk were free. But there were some who couldn’t. Asmar did not need to be told what would happen to them. As they marched toward Urmia, Asmar could hear the Ottoman militiamen fighting over their plunder like gray wolves over a carcass.
They sheltered behind the walls of the American Presbyterian Mission in nearby Urmia. Throughout that first night, the American doctor with his young son at his side went to the barricaded gates to speak in Kurdish and Turkish and cast away marauding Ottoman militias with threats of American military response. The villagers could not remain in Urmia forever.
Soon Asmar marched with the thousands of other bloodied, haggard refugees, following an old caravan route along half-frozen, muddy roads to Kermanshah, then to Hamadan. At some point, Asmar escaped to Marseille, France, where with the support of the Assyrian diaspora she found work in a factory separating the red beans from the white. That was life for Asmar, until one day in 1929. Asmar’s uncle Baba had found a suitor for his niece: a young Assyrian from Philadelphia, Absalom Yadgar, whose surname means “remembrance.”
Due to immigration quotas at the time, it was impossible for Asmar to marry Absalom in the U.S. So, the marriage was arranged in Havana, Cuba. The first day they met, Absalom placed a hand on Asmar’s leg and she slapped him. After all, she barely knew this man. But despite inauspicious beginnings, the two were well suited for one another. Absalom was lighthearted and playful, while Asmar was the tough one, steely and sometimes grousing. Absalom loved to travel, making frequent trips to visit other Assyrians in Connecticut, Illinois, California, and even back to Tehran. Asmar preferred to stay grounded at home with her children and grandchildren, likely weary of the constant traveling she did while running for her life. But both were loving, warm and hospitable, sharing a keen sense of humor that belied the suffering they experienced in their youth.
They settled in the Olney neighborhood. Their classic Philly row-home had hardwood floors and crystal doorknobs, high ceilings and many windows kept open to let the breeze carry the aroma of simmering dolmas, roasting lula kabob, and rich tea boiling in a samovar. At all times they kept a canary and a parakeet, a copy of the Assyrian Star magazine on the living room table, and Walter Cronkite on TV. Gone were the flamingos, the vineyards, the tulips. But in the backyard they cultivated a pristine garden with a grape arbor, lily of the valley, rose bushes, and a cornucopia of herbs and vegetables.
Asmar and Absalom had found their sanctuary, a place where they could practice their faith and raise a family without fear. They named their second son Hubert.
“How did Daddy get that name?” Gail asked her grandmother.
“Oh, he was a saint,” Asmar would say, her face rapt with emotion.
My grandfather Hubert would have been about twelve during the evacuation of Geogh Tappa, almost the same age as Asmar. Could he be the saint she spoke of? Had they been friends behind the walls of the mission in Urmia? The truth is lost to history. All we can do is dream that there was some kismet at work, some happy fate that brought our two families back together nearly a century later.
Like the tulips of Geogh Tappa, bursting through the icy soil in the shadows of endless mountains, Asmar clawed her way through the Year of the Sword and crossed oceans with hope as her only compass. From the ruins of Blue Mountain, Persia, to quaint Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, Asmar and her family survived genocide and proved beyond doubt, even in the darkest of times, hope and serendipity may rescue love from the grip of despair.