A Woman You Should Know — Aurora Mardiganian
Aurora Mardiganian dominated headlines in America for a few short years, celebrated as a star of the silver screening and a survivor. Her story is filled with “unspeakable horrors,” a witness to some of the most shameful acts of inhumanity that man ever perpetrated against his fellow man . . . woman . . . child.[i]
She was born Arshaluys Mardigian in January 21, 1901 in Tchemesh-Gedzak in the Ottoman Turkey. “Arshaluys” meant “light of the early morning.” As a beautiful, bright child she seemed destined for great things. Her family was Christian Armenians. Aurora and her five siblings enjoyed a privileged, yet sheltered childhood. Educated and cultivated she planned on studying music. Life was good and Arshaluys was a sunny happy girl. She was lively, with black eyes, thick eyebrows, and long dark hair. She was beautiful and it was this beauty that would be a double-edged sword. It “made her the object of Turkish passions” which meant she had “to endure and suffer to the absolute limit of human endurance.” Yet her beauty would also save her. It would give her many opportunities to remain alive for another day.[ii]
The Mardigian home in the small city had a large Armenian population. The family home was made of white marble, airy and expansive. There were colorful colored silk cushions and lush rugs. Rooms were filled with Armenian art, there was even a piano. Her father was a prosperous banker, her mother a loving woman. They were a proud people with an ancient history. Henry Morgenthau, American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, said of the Armenians, “Their origin is so ancient that it is lost in fable and mystery.” They were the first converts to Christ. And as Morgenthau explained “their long existence has been one unending martyrdom.”[iii]
Easter Sunday, April 4, 1915 and fourteen-year-old Aurora was preparing for church, vainly admiring the blue ribbons she was weaving through her long hair when suddenly three Turkish police arrived at her house. So appeared another man, Husein Pasha, a powerful and rich Turkish commandant. The family, including young Aurora were well aware he wanted Aurora to join his harem. Husein threatened her father that he would not defend the family against violence that was coming unless Aurora was handed over. Her father refused and the men stormed out.
The coming violence would soon overwhelm Ambassador Morgenthau who was inundated with reports of massacres and death marches. He strongly urged America to intervene, but America remained neutral. The Ambassador would do much to raise millions and public awareness of the atrocities that happened on his watch.
This was not the first massacring of the Armenians. In 1894 the Turks had murder 300,000 of their people. In 1915 there were approximately two million Armenians living in Turkey. Only half would survive over the next several years.
Only minutes after an angry Husein Pasha left news came that the Kurds were murdering Armenians and stealing girls in the city of Van which lay two hundred miles away. Van was a sacred place, widely believed to be the place were Noah’s ark lay. A new edict had been evoked to deport all Armenians from Turkish held lands.
Immediately Aurora’s father and older brother, along with the rest of the town’s men were led away. They would never return. Aurora, her mother and remaining siblings were herded together in the square before being marched out of town. Women and children too tired, too old, too young, or too ill, any that were unable to keep up were beaten, shot and killed, left where they fell like so many logs of abandoned wood.
Over the next eighteen months (or so) Aurora witnessed a dizzying array of inconceivable cruelties and vicious murders. Massacres on a scale so wide it defied belief. She would be abducted by Kurdish bandits, stripped, beaten, her hands tied behind her, her feet laced to a rope strung around a horse’s neck. Then led naked she was forced to march. Eventually she was paraded in front of the Pasha of Constantinople (now Istanbul). A man in his 80s with a reputation as a cruel leader. She, along with hundreds of others were beaten before they continued their trek through the desert.
The myriad of horrors that befell her included being sold into a harem. This young girl of fourteen knew nothing of sex. She was brutalized not only by Turks but by Chechens and Germans. She would escape several times only to be recaptured and whipped, stolen and sold again. She was told the only way to survive was to renounce her god and acknowledge Allah. She tried to bargain with her family’s safety in exchange for such a vow.
Her heart breaks and her soul is damaged as she witnesses babies bayonetted or thrown over cliffs, repeated rapes, more beatings, girls finally going mad. She is forced to drink whiskey. She thinks it is sour and awful. She watches as men use girls’ breasts as target practice. Hungry, thirsty, emaciated, barely clothed she and hundreds more continue trudging through the scorching desert heat. Once she finds refuge, along with fifty other Armenian girls in a monastery. It is a short-lived respite. Soon the Turks surround the monastery killing all the monks that have taken in the refugees.
There is yet another escape, this time to an American missionary, a woman who tries to shield her. The Turks demand the woman turn Aurora over. Eventually she is forced to. Aurora is taken to the house of a devout Moslem, cleaned up, given clothes and locked up, soon to be turned over as a wife or concubine. His toy to do as he wishes. She manages to slip away wearing Turkish veils. She would kill one gendarme with a knife. It did not phase her.
Months after her exodus began, she is reunited with her mother and siblings. She is taken in by a slave dealer. She is sold, bought for 85 cents. She would write in her autobiography that she witnessed the death of her mother and older sister. Her older sister stabbed, her mother beaten to death as she clung to Aurora, her life seeping out before her eyes. A brother is clubbed to death as is a young sister. Two aunts were killed in front of her. It is death after death. Shooting, clubbing, stabbings.[iv]
Aurora becomes a work slave, put out in the fields, beaten by Kurds. There is another long march, again naked on horses along with sixteen other girls to the town of Diyarbakir. The very worst happens here. Yet it is here where she is saved.
Shortly, the Turks capitulate to the Russians and Aurora makes her way to a house with an American flag flying. A Canadian physician, Dr. F. W. MacCallum takes her in and listens to her story. Armenian General Andranik, a hero to his people, comes to see her. When she is well enough he arranges for her to care for the hundreds of Armenian children that have survived.
It was decided that Aurora would make her way to America. General Andranik met with her one last time. Calling her “my child” he took the ring off his finger that had been his grandfather’s and placed it on hers. He told her when she arrived in America to “. . . tell its people that Armenia is prostrate, torn and bleeding, but that it will rise again — if America will only help us . . .”
Aurora was given safe passage to Petrograd. But Russia was in the midst of its own revolution. The Tsar has been removed and there was little food to be found. She next found her way to Sweden (or Norway as some report) and finally America. She is alone. She has heard a brother, maybe a sister has escaped and is in America.
How did she mentally carry on? A child, who lived through things adults could not fathom. Images and words echoed in her mind. “. . . sooner or later all you gonna die. There will not be one single Armenian to live. We are going to kill all you dogs . . .”[v] She was haunted.
With the help of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief she settles in America with an Armenian family. Few understood what Aurora had gone through, but she felt it was her mission, because of General Andranik, to tell them in great detail. She wanted to save her people.
No one knew quite how to rehabilitate Aurora and other survivors of war and repeated rape. Consensual sex wasn’t even spoke about in those days. There was not mental or physical offered to Aurora. But she forged forward. She found work or was planning to work in a dressmaking factory. Through an interpreter she spoke about continuing to study. She suffered nightmares.
Through the Armenian family she was staying with her story was translated for an eager, thirsty audience. She felt compelled to bring her peoples suffering to the masses and raise money for aid. She told reporters her story. She hoped the publicity and her name in the paper would help her find her brother, supposedly escaped to America. America was mesmerized by her story in the newspapers.
Struggling screenwriter Harvey Gates and his ambitious wife, Eleanora read Aurora’s story. They soon met her and pressed her to write a book. They promised her they would take care of her. They too wanted to save her people. They became her legal guardians. Who knows if she had any idea what that meant. She had nowhere else to go. She signed papers that she could not read. She believed their promises.
The Gates changed her name and Harvey wrote a screenplay based on her book. She signed a release to star in the film of her life. She thought she would pose for still photos. She had no idea what moving pictures were. The Gates secluded her in a convent for a crash course in English.
For the story of her life “Ravished Armenia” she would be given $15 a week and told that was a lot of money. Without her knowledge the Gates kept the rest. The film was to be a fund raiser for the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief. She felt obligated to tell her story. Again, and again.
Oscar Apfel, who had worked with Cecil B DeMille on “Squaw Man” was hired to direct. The movie was filmed at the Selig Zoo Studio, Santa Barbara and Santa Monica Beach which doubled as the desert.
Aurora knew nothing about Hollywood or making films. Thinking she was to pose for photographs she emerged from her dressing room with trepidation and nerves but not the terror she would soon feel.
Walking onto the set, makeup free (she was told she did not need it) she was greeted by a chaotic scene. Groups of men wearing the Fez (the red Turkish hat was typically worn by Muslims) milled about. She was surrounded by Turks. They had come for her. She would have felt trapped, betrayed, unsafe. She burst into tears and became hysterical thinking she was going to be tortured once again.
It was a difficult movie for a non-actress, clearly suffering from PTSD, little of which was known or acknowledged in those days. She was made to do her own stunts, which resulted in her breaking her ankle when she jumped between buildings. There was no time to halt production and she was carried from set up to set up. The ever-present Eleanor Gates told her to lean her weight on her hurt foot so it would heal faster. This was Eleanor’s one chance for fame and fortune, and she would not let Aurora mess it up.
Aurora did as she was told, as she always did. She had already suffered so much in her young life, what was a broken ankle? She didn’t want to become a movie star, but she wanted America to know what her people endured. She wanted the genocide to stop. She wanted relief for the refugees. Filming lasted from 4–6 weeks. Every day all day long she was made to relive horrible memories, punishments, the brutal murders. To experience over and over the extinction of her family, to bear witness to something she had already had to bear. Once was too much. But day after day wrecked her.
As filming wrapped and the newspapers serialized Aurora’s newly published biography Americans read with equal horror and wonder the acts against the Armenians. Suddenly Aurora was a “celebrity.” In 1818 President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to look into their hearts, dig in their pockets and to give millions to the aid of the survivors. It was estimated over 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered. Aurora was personally eyewitness to hundreds if not thousands of those deaths.
February 1919, “Ravished Armenia” was screened in New York for a private audience that paid $10 a ticket. Profits went to the Committee for Relief in the Near East, an organization founded due to Ambassador Morgenthau’s reports. Aurora spoke to the hoity toity audience that included Mrs. George Vanderbilt. Aurora begged for America’s help. Hailed by the press as “the most pathetic ambassadress in history” she would not stop telling her story.[vi]
The film newly renamed “Auction of Souls,” premiered May 11, 1919. Variety called it “superbly produced.” One scene stands out. It is a crucifixion scene. Sixteen crosses are raised in the desert outside the ancient city of Diabekir. Seventeen girls stop before the crosses. Bekram Bey, the girls’ captor has grown tired of his slaves. The girls were naked, tied to the backs of horses. A quick solution. Sixteen girls were tied to the standing crucifixes and left to die. Aurora is girl number seventeen. She escapes the martyrdom. Movie audiences breathed a sigh of relief, knowing someone had survived and she was in the audience today. It would only be years and years later that Aurora would tell the real story.
What would have broken most people — and perhaps it had broken her — was a horrific sight she was witness to. Out in the brutal heat of the Syrian desert seventeen girls were led to their final destination. The film would depict the sixteen crosses they were nailed to. The truth was more awful, unable for audiences to see. The girls were stripped and raped, girls ages from nine to teens, girls who should have been playing with dolls and studying or beginning to flirt with boys. Instead, these girls were made to sit on pointed pieces of wood, impaled through their vaginas, to die painfully, humiliated, their humanity peeled away. The world wasn’t ready for these horrors, real, nonetheless.
Perhaps the filmmakers believed audiences would better react to a threat to Christianity than one to Armenians. They played up the Christian angle. By the time the film showed in London the crucifixion scene was deleted as were all references to Christians. Apparently, Londoners feared the anti-Turkish sentiment would have dire consequences as London was currently in the midst of peace negotiations with Turkey. It was another betrayal for Aurora. A white washing.
Still the film broke box office records and would eventually raise $117 million.
As the movie played around the country Aurora, daily and nightly, recalled every scene that scarred her, torture. She smelled the blood, heard the screams. She spoke at movie premieres, at luncheons and dinners. She shook hands, met people, looked in their eyes and hoped for donations. Every time she took a bite of food, she would be asked a question. It irritated her and she stopped answering questions. How was she to eat? She was told to stop being moody. She wanted to be left alone. She grew stressed. She suffered a nervous breakdown and could no longer go on. The Gates sent her to a convent, hired other girls to portray Aurora for the public events, giving speeches and impersonating Aurora. She was furious. She threatened to kill herself.
As happens, many said the genocide never happened. But Aurora kept speaking up. “When they killed my parents, and the blood was running red, no one was there to see. No Americans. Only God in His Heaven.”[vii]
And then the world lost interest.
The young girl had been deprived of a childhood, her happiness stolen, her relatives killed. She was the girl who lost everything. Anyone that had known her past, had heard her laughter and seen her smile, that knew her before the tragedy, who knew her real name, they were all gone.
Aurora would distance herself from the Gates, eventually suing them for the money they stole. Unbeknownst to her the Gates were paid S7,000 that should have gone to Aurora for the speaking engagements that took a terrible toll on her.
Aurora faded into obscurity. In 1929 she married an Armenian man nine years her senior who owned a beauty salon. They lived in the Bronx and had a son Sedal.
But happiness was not for Aurora. She ended up alone with her haunting memories and her betrayals in a small apartment in Van Nuys, California, back in the city where she had briefly been a “star.”
Arshaluys Mardigian, died on February 5th, 1994 at age 92. There was no one to claim her body and she was buried in an unmarked grave.
“Auction of Souls” has been lost to time and history, only 20 minutes remain. But her great spirit and story and warning has not died. “. . . no one was there to see. No Americans. Only God in His Heaven.”
The image I like to hold onto, is eighteen-year-old Aurora. It is the morning of Mary 15, 1919. She is in Detroit to speak before the Armenian Elks’ Temple and before the screening of her life. Thousands attended. Before the film she is carried seated on the crossed hands of an Armenian soldier and an Armenian sailor as a line of uniformed men stand in respect and awe at one so tiny, yet so mighty that survived and had the courage to bring her story to the world so that such an atrocity would not — could not — happen again.
[i] Salt Lake City Hearld, Jan. 5, 1919
[iii] “Ravished Armenia”
[iv] In a later interview, decades after her book she would say she found her mothers body but never saw her killed.
[v] You Tube. USC Shoah Foundation April 2015
[vi] Salt Lake City Hearld, Jan. 5, 1919
[vii] “Ravished Armenia”