Growing up as an Armenian American in New York City Between the Two World Wars
It was on March 26, 1923 that I first opened my eyes in a hospital on 16th Street on the East Side of Manhattan. My parents, Aram and Elizabeth, had gotten married 20 years earlier. My sister Mary was born a year before, in February 1922.
Their first son, who was named Bedros, was born in 1905. Their second son Hachik was born in 1908. My father would never see his second son, though, because he left for America in 1907, arriving here in 1908. Both Bedros and Hachik lost their lives during the Armenian Genocide.
Our family resided on 16th Street on the West Side, off Ninth Avenue, in the Chelsea neighborhood, which was inhabited mostly by the Irish. My father had a grocery store there, which had been opened in about the year 1890 by one of my father’s older brothers, Paul Sagsoorian, after whom I was named. My father had another older brother named Oscar, who came to America in about 1900. Both of them ran this store.
They were from the village of Havav in the province of Palou, situated in the eastern part of Asia Minor. There were not many factories in New York City, so most of them went in the grocery business. Uncle Paul returned to the homeland in 1909 and Uncle Oscar in 1912, so my father was running the grocery store alone.
After my uncles returned to the old country, they kept in touch by post. I still have these 100-year-old letters, which are mostly about family matters and how the grocery store was doing. However, Uncle Paul, in one of his letters, mentioned that he had become a US citizen in 1899 and that could be beneficial to him.
Back in New York, the tragic events of the Armenian Genocide became known. There were about eight relatives here and about 40 others from Havav. My father was convinced that there would be no survivors from his family, until one day a friend came to the store and told him he had noticed the name of my mother as a survivor. She was now in Aleppo, Syria. My father immediately got in touch with her, sending her money and making preparations for her long journey to America. She stepped on American soil on St. Patrick’s Day 1920 and made that her birthday. It was the end of 14 years of separation.
1920 was also the beginning of the Armenian presence in New York City. There were about eight Sagsoorians, including my father and about 36 men from Havav. Some were married and some were not. The survivors, mostly women, began to arrive and families were formed.
In the beginning of the 20th century, there were rug merchants on Madison Avenue – Fifth Avenue from 34th Street to 23rd Street, and they dealt with wealthy customers. On First, Second, Third, and Lexington Avenues, a small Armenian community was established. An Armenian church was obtained in 1915. It was named Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral, after the patron saint of the Armenians. It is still located on the north side of 27th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, thus making it the oldest Armenian church in New York City. During those days, there were four elevated trains, two subway lines, one on the east side, and the other on the west side. Trolleys ran north and south on the main avenues, while buses and some trolleys ran east to west on the crosstown streets. On all rides, the fare was only five cents then. It was easy for the Armenians, no matter where they lived in Manhattan, to visit the so-called Armenian neighborhood to do their shopping, usually on Saturdays. There were Armenian groceries. The most popular one was run by the Anoushian brothers. There were Armenian restaurants; one of the favorite ones was called the Balkan. There were other shops run by Armenians. There were doctors, dentists and an Armenian undertaker. The political parties also had clubs there. The Dashnaks had a whole building on Third Avenue around 28th Street, and the Hunchaks had one a few blocks away. The Ramgavars probably had one but I have no recollection of it.
When I was two years old, my father lost his lease to the United Biscuits Company and we moved from 16th Street to a three-room apartment on 96th Street between Second and Third Avenues on the Upper East Side. Two other Armenian families were also living there. There was a grocery store and a shoe repair shop run by Armenians in the next block on 95th Street between Second and Third Avenues.
I remember that while we were living on 96th Street, my mother used to get together with relatives and old friends and go to one of the parks to pick grape leaves – the most important staple of an Armenian household. My mother would take me along, even though I was a small youngster. They would come back with shopping bags full of the leaves, which were then boiled, rolled up and put in tightly sealed jars for future use. Two different fillings were prepared: one was with rice, chopped meat, and onions, with tomato sauce, served with yogurt; the other was with boiled rice, spices, and olive oil.
Yogurt was important to the Armenian kitchen too. In the early 1930’s, milk was sold in large containers and it was not pasteurized. When my mother needed milk in the morning, she handed me the milk pail and I would go to an Armenian-owned grocery store on 95th Street. He would fill the milk pail from the top of the container, which wasn’t the right thing to do, because the fat was on top. Thus, he denied the fat content to the other customers, who were mostly Irish. My mother, however, got rich fat milk to make a good yogurt.
When my mother had guests, she would have me brew Turkish coffee. I got very good at it but she also told me not to take a sip because it would turn my skin brown, like the coffee.
My mother also used to buy animal fat with lamb meat, then cook them together thoroughly and put the mixture in crocks. Then, when she wanted to cook a stew with string beans, the base was ready. I used to raid the crocks and take some meat, which I remember being very delicious.
In those days, a lot of Armenians, my father being one of them, made their own liquor called arak. He had a copper still. I used to go and pick up a crate of raisins, which he fermented to make ready for the still. The advantage of living on the top floor was that the other tenants could not smell the odor produced by this operation. I used to sit with him as the mush was distilled into arak. He used to test the liquor with a lighted match. He could tell by the shade of the blue flame whether the arak was good or not. By the way, it was 100 proof, which is why it burned your mouth if you took a sip. He used to flavor it with anise and give it a green tint with parsley leaves.
Armenians subsequently began to move up to Washington Heights on the upper west side of Manhattan. In 1920, the Armenians got a second church in 1920, which was named Holy Cross Church of Armenia. Like other churches, this one too was very active in preserving the Armenian culture. It had a school to teach children how to read and write in Armenian. Poetry readings, as well as Armenian dance and drama classes, were held in the church hall.
In 1933, there was a world fair in Chicago. Some Armenians wanted to set up an exhibition about Armenia and to display the tricolor flag. However, other Armenians were against it. Archbishop Ghevont Tourian, Primate of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern Diocese), who was there, stated that the tricolor flag was no longer valid because Armenia was no longer independent and was now part of the USSR. This incited a serious controversy in the Armenian community. I was about 9-10 years old when my father took me to Madison Square Park. I think it was a Sunday. I still have a vivid memory of that day. The Dashnaks had a rally going. The Hunchaks and Ramgavars were also there. The police were there to separate the two opposing groups. I remember one cop telling the reds that the Hunchaks and Ramgavars were to stay on one side of the street and the whites, who were the Dashnaks, on the other side. This was interesting because the Communists were considered a threat in 1930s America even though we were in a depression. There was some violence but everybody called it a day and went home.