ARLINGTON, Mass. — In the 1920s, the name and face of Aurora Mardiganian were well known in the United States and beyond. Her autobiography, Ravished Armenia; the Story of Aurora Mardiganian, was a bestseller and the movie based on it, “An Auction of Souls,” was a hit too. However, in the ensuing decades, she was forgotten, becoming another one of the anonymous casualties of the Armenian Genocide.
She is now being reclaimed by the Armenians in an effort led by Dr. Hayk Demoyan, director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan.
Demoyan presented an illustrated lecture about Mardiganian on March 8 at the Armenian Cultural Foundation, at a program co-sponsored by the foundation, the Armenian International Women’s Association and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.
Introducing Demoyan was the director of the Armenian Cultural Foundation, Dr. Ara Ghazarians. He said in his opening remarks, “We are a nation resurrected on the shoulders of orphaned grandparents.” He said Mardiganian was a “young woman of exceptional courage who awakened humanity on these shores.” Her autobiography, he added, was one of the first books on the Armenian Genocide.
Mardiganian has become a focal point for Demoyan, who said he feels that not only is she remarkable on her own, but that she can serve as a microcosm of the Armenian experience.
Now, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute is home to the largest collection of Mardiganian materials in the world.
Mardiganian’s story, as Demoyan explained, is the stuff of Greek tragedy. Aurora Mardiganian was born Arshaluys Mardigian in Chmshgatsak, in 1901. The town has deep Armenian roots, Demoyan said, going back to the Urartian times. In 1915, her family was slaughtered by Ottoman forces, as were most other Armenians in the town and elsewhere in Western Armenia. She and many other young women there were rounded up for a forced march toward Diyarbakir. According to her story, the Turkish soldiers decided to nail the 17 girls in the group to crosses but they miscounted and only constructed 16 crosses; she was the lucky one who was not crucified.
She endured much, being sold into a harem as a teen, for 85 cents. She was plucky, however, and managed to escape, eventually meeting up with Russian soldiers who took her to Armenians in Erzingan. There, she was pressed for the names of other Armenian girls in captivity. Eventually, she made her way to Erzurum and met up with General Antranik and Nikolai Nikolayevich, a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. She made her way to Kars, Gumri and Tbilisi (Tiflis, back then), where she stayed at Hovhanness Toumanyan’s house. From there, she went to the Russian capital, St. Petersburg, in October 1917, when the Russian Revolution was underway. As Demoyan said, she feared for her life. She said, “I survived these killings and now we are in this big capital where people are killing each other.”
She went from Russia to Norway and then to the US, with help in the latter part of the journey from the Near East Foundation.
While in the US, in 1918, her book, Ravished Armenia; the Story of Aurora Mardiganian, the Christian Girl, Who Survived the Great Massacres, was published, with eventual sales of half a million copies.
At the same time, William Selig, a Chicago native, moved to Los Angeles to make movies, becoming in the process the founder of modern Hollywood. He became interested in Mardiganian’s story, but, as Demoyan said, “the problem was who would star as Aurora.”
Selig decided that the real heroine should star in the movie, based on the book and titled “Auction of Souls.” The film was later called “Ravished Armenia.” Thus, Demoyan explained, “Aurora was the star and consultant for costumes and story.”
Just 19 by this point, she showed evidence of her mental anguish by screaming in fear when seeing actors in Turkish costumes, forgetting she was on a movie set. After all, she had gone through so much trauma not too long ago, and she was forced to reenact going through the crimes on film.
Mardiganian’s suffering seemed not to have an end. During the making of the movie she suffered from broken bones and a case of the Spanish Flu. Still, she soldiered on through the pain and fever, feeling duty bound to get the story of the Armenians out.
Demoyan showed a one-minute snippet of the movie featuring Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, playing himself, who in the scene was arguing with the Sultan. No intact copy of the one hour and 20 minute film has survived. Only an 18-minute portion remains, thanks to the foresight of Yervant Setian, who found the reel in the garbage by chance. He sent it to Armenia, where he eventually repatriated from the US.
The film, like the book, was a hit from coast to coast. It was shown in cities big and small, and the story of the film and it’s tragic and beautiful star, covered in all the major papers in the US, as well as smaller outlets in places as far flung as Honolulu and Alaska. The film was also a hit in Canada, Cuba, Australia and Europe. Here, in Boston, the film was shown at Symphony Hall and the opening was attended by Harvard University President Charles Eliot. In London, the film was shown at Albert Hall.
The film’s producers tried to make Mardiganian into a real Hollywood star, but she refused to do other films.
In the early 1930s, the book and the film just dropped off the public’s radar. Demoyan said that the sudden and complete silencing of the film could be in part the result of an agreement between Hollywood and the Nazis in Germany, which saw that movies were not anti-German or anti-Nazi. Mardiganian had written about being raped by a roving gang of German soldiers in Turkey before being sold into a harem.
Mardiganian eventually married and had a son, but happiness eluded her. She never found her brother who had immigrated to the US before the Genocide and her own son abandoned her. The waning years of her life were dominated by paranoia about Turkish soldiers finding her. The reclusive Mardiganian only allowed one woman to deliver food to her through her window. When she died in 1994, at age 93, no one claimed her body and she was buried in a mass grave, forgotten by all and without even a headstone.
The rapt audience in Arlington was also treated to a few minutes of an interview of Mardiganian in 1984 by Dr. Rouben Adalian, as part of the Zoryan Institute’s Oral History Project. Neither was apparently aware that the camera was on. Speaking with clarity and charm, Mardiganian replied to questions on why she changed her name from Mardigian to Mardiganian (better pronounced in the US and protecting relatives in Turkey).
Demoyan explained that many in the Armenian community turned their backs on her possibly because of the “shameful” part of the story, namely rape and trafficking, pain that they wanted forgotten and unmentioned. Another possible explanation was that the hero was in fact a heroine, a young girl.
Demoyan is currently compiling further new material on Mardiganian in the US. He plans to publish a book on her as well as put together a traveling exhibit in time for the Genocide centennial. He also said that as a member of the Yerevan Council of Elders, he is going to petition the city to have a street named for her and postage stamps to commemorate her life.
He noted proudly that this year the Turkish version of the book was published after he gave the English version to a visiting Turkish journalist.
“This is a part of Turkish history,” he said.
Copies of her book were sold at the ACF function, with all proceeds donated to the Syrian-Armenian Relief.
Demoyan, barely able to contain his admiration, said that Mardiganian would be judged a winner by history. “Her mission was to tell the story of the Armenian Genocide worldwide. This was a hero, a winner. This one young lady proved what we can do for our nation.”
By Alin K. Gregorian
The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, March 24, 2014