Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sofia Kontogeorge Kostos: The Orphans of Harpoot

(Huddled in the snow.) Photo: Armin T. Wegner

Epistle: To an Armenian Girl from Harpoot

“Ruth [with 500 Armenian orphans] arrived from Harpoot last week after two years' effort to escape from the Turkish interior, and expected to sail for America next month to join relatives.” — Special Cable to The Globe and Chicago Tribune, Beyrouth, Sept. 13, 1922

Dear dearest Ruth Manogian,

I pulled out an old newspaper clipping
from inside an envelope;
it crumbled to my touch.
As parched particles of paper fell
to the floor, I eyed the vintage headlines:

Heroine Aged 14
Saves 3 Lives
Armenian Orphan Girl Rescues Boys
September 13, 1922

As flakes of words kept dropping,
I pieced the bits together.
I gasped, Great effort killed her.
Ruth collapsed on the rock.
With trembling fingers, I held the fragile news;

I learned you were the oldest orphan,
one of 500 Armenian orphans
from Harpoot. With Amazonian might
you swam into the whirlpool
to rescue three young boys. You carried

them to safety onto a rock. You, my
angel girl collapsed on the same rock.
When the lifeboat reached you,
the doctor pronounced you,
dead from exhaustion.

By an unseen fate,
the same day, far away
-as you gasped your last breath
ancient Smyrna set ablaze by kerosene,
was choking her final hours.

Did your heart give out from
inconsolable longings for
your Mayrig and your Hayrig?
Were you longing to see them,
to hear them- your heart grieving

with a gnawing knowing
that you never would see them again?
Flooded with questions. So much for me
to understand- I searched the World Atlas
to find the unfamiliar cities-

Like cross-winds,
blowing from the Middle east,
new words whirled around me:
Beyrouth, Aintyleas, Harpoot and Smyrna.
Searching the Internet

for Orphans of Harpoot,
I learned of Turkish wolves rampaging
through the streets, ranting
"Kill all the orphans!"
I read of American missionaries

who helped 500 orphans escape
from the Turkish interior.
While the orphans waited to go
to America, two years went by.
Aintyleas' safe harbor:

the ship was expected,
to deliver them to the open arms of relatives.
But, you, my dear Ruthie,
were not destined to leave. I can find
no peace. What happened to your parents?

Who assuaged your fears
in the unknown of the night?
Did they toss your little body
into the Mediterranean Sea?
My beloved Armenian orphaned child,

Since reading your story
I have grown close to you
as if you were my own.
Although you were born years before me,
you remain fourteen forever—
as I grow older.


Sofia Kontogeorge Kostos


Mayrig and Hayrig (Armenian for Mother and Father)

Armenian southwestern plateau: Tsopk or Sophene later known as Kharpert or
Harput with close ties with Mesopotamia and Syria.

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