Last Canadian survivor of Armenian genocide dies at 107

Knar Yemenidjian was 6 when family went into hiding in 1915, moving to Montreal in the early 1970s

January 20, 2017
Source: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Montreal resident Knar Yemenidjian lived to 107, but the Armenian genocide survivor was lucky to have made it past the age of six.

Yemenidjian died Thursday, just weeks shy of her 108th birthday.

The mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who moved to Montreal in 1971, was the last living link for Canada's Armenian community to the horrors inflicted on their ancestors in Turkey beginning in 1915.

"We're all grieving with the family," said Armen Yeganian, Armenia's ambassador to Canada. "But she was also a bigger symbol, I would imagine, for the Canadian Armenian community and for Armenian people in general."

That role as living symbol was a responsibility Yemenidjian took seriously, appearing at commemoration events as long as she was physically able.

Sent into hiding

When the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turk soldiers began in 1915, Yemenidjian and her family were hidden on a farm outside their hometown of Caesarea by one of her father's colleagues in the Turkish army.

For months, they lived in a barn with little food, sleeping on the floor with the farm animals. In a recent interview, Yemenidjian's son, Joseph, said his mother recalled their constant hunger.

When it was safe, Yemenidjian and her family returned to find their home burned down, along with those of their Armenian neighbours, many of whom had been murdered.

They rebuilt the family home and lived under Muslim identities in Caesarea, now Kayseri, for 10 years.

"They were given Muslim identities, Muslim names and made to convert to Islam and accept Muhammad as their prophet," Joseph said.

New turmoil, then refuge in Canada

Yemenidjian and her family eventually left Turkey for Egypt, where they joined other Armenian survivors.

There, amid the turmoil of another world war, Knar met Jean Yemenidjian, whom she married in Alexandria in 1943.

The couple had three children — two sons and a daughter. The girl, however, died young.

In 1956, the Armenian community in Egypt once again found itself the object of persecution, this time as a result of the Suez Canal Crisis.

The crisis unleashed a wave of Arab nationalism that brought resentment and even hostility toward Europeans and Armenians in its wake.

The tensions led her sons to leave Egypt for Canada, where they settled in Montreal.

On a visit with her boys in 1967 for Expo 67, Yemenidjian fell for Montreal and finally moved here for good.

'At peace with herself'

Her son Joseph reflected on the inner strength and peace that kept his mother going despite the terror she knew as a child.

"The reason she lived so long was she was so strong and at peace with herself," he said.

While Yemenidjian lived to the see the Canadian government formally recognize the Armenian genocide in 2004, her death preceded any sign of an apology from the Turkish government.

Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks during and after the First World War, an event viewed by many scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century.

Turkey disputes the description. It says the death toll has been inflated and considers those killed victims of a civil war.

It's believed that no more than 100 survivors of the genocide are still alive today.