“I knew the chains/I knew the wound/I knew the hate/I knew the hurt/ the thirst and hunger/I knew the fear/from one day to the next.”
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So go the lyrics to Charles Aznavour’s song “J’ai Connu,” from his 50th studio album, released in 2011. The song, told from the perspective of a Jewish prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps, doesn’t describe the singer’s direct experiences during World War II. But Aznavour, who will celebrate his 92nd birthday later this month, did have some personal awareness of some of the horrors depicted in the song, as the son of refugees who survived the Armenian genocide and rebuilt their lives in Paris after losing most of their relatives.
Although Aznavour’s life has been extensively chronicled, up to now he has said very little about an especially humane and heroic chapter in his and his family’s life: Their decision to shelter and save Jews, Armenian deserters and underground activists in their home during the German occupation of France during the war, and their involvement in anti-Nazi activity.
Now Aznavour has decided to tell the whole story, in Hebrew, in a self-published book, “Matzilim (Tzadikim) Ve’Lohamim” (“Righteous Saviors and Fighters”), by genocide researcher Prof. Yair Auron. The latter spoke at length with Aznavour and his sister, Aida Aznavour-Garvarentz, who told him about their lives under the German occupation and what led their family, especially their father, to take part in rescue missions despite the many risks. The book, which will also be translated into French and Armenian, recounts a specific case, but offers a moral lesson on human behavior under conditions of widespread terror, and political and ideological violence. Above all, it is the moving story of survivors of one genocide who, at great personal risk, felt compelled to help victims of another.
In an interview conducted by email, Aznavour emphasizes the common threads that bind the Armenians and Jews.
“We come from the same pain and the same suffering, and without the annihilation of the Armenians in 1915-1918, the annihilation of the Jews in the Holocaust would not have been possible, because the Germans learned from their predecessors,” he writes.
He cites what Hitler told the commanders of the German army in August 1939, on the eve of the invasion of Poland, as he tried to dispel their anxiety over the use of extreme violence: “Who talks about the annihilation of the Armenians anymore?”
Auron says German officers who were involved in the command of the Turkish army in World War I and signed orders to expel the Armenians later served in high-ranking positions in the Nazi leadership and took part in the annihilation of the Jews.
Aznavour say he knew many Jews when he was a child in Paris.
“We grew up together in the Le Marais district, where many refugees and immigrants – including many Jews and Armenians – lived in the period between the two world wars. My father’s stall in the market was next to the stalls of some Jewish vendors.
“Armenian peddlers, including my father, looked after the stalls of the Jews after they were arrested in the mass deportation of Parisian Jews [“the roundup”] in July 1942. So taking in and hiding Jews in our home during the war was a very natural thing for us to do: they were our neighbors and friends,” he adds. “We had a life together. We were there for them and they were there for us. We had to try to help them, just as it was natural for us to try and help the Armenians who were drafted into the German army and deserted.”
In his three previous autobiographical works, Aznavour made very little mention of these acts of salvation. He told Auron he didn’t think they were so special and didn’t want to be perceived as immodest. But the professor convinced him of the importance of telling the story. Now the singer says, “I’m very proud of my family’s story and the beautiful, noble humanity of the act of rescue. Nothing makes me happier than to think that my dear parents saved people’s lives.”
Burning the uniforms
Aznavour was born in Paris on May 22, 1924, not long after his parents first arrived there. His father, Mischa Aznavourian, was born in Georgia in 1895 and lost his entire family in the Armenian genocide. His mother, Knar Baghdasaryan, was born in Izmir in 1904, and only she and her grandmother out of her entire family survived the genocide.
The couple fled Turkey on an Italian ship that brought them to Thessaloniki, Greece, where their eldest daughter, Aida, was born in 1923.
The family had many Armenian friends in Paris, among them a couple named Mélinée and Missak Manouchian. The latter was the military commander of the underground group known as L’Affiche Rouge (The Red Poster), which was the first to carry out armed resistance actions against the Nazis. Aznavour’s family aided the group on many occasions and also hid the Manouchians for several months while they were being hunted by the French police and Gestapo.
The first time the family hid someone during World War II was when a friend of Aznavour’s father brought his brother to them – a Romanian Jew who lived in Germany, was accused of subversion and sentenced to death. He had managed to escape to France disguised as a German soldier, and he knew that the Gestapo was after him. He found refuge in the family’s three-room apartment at 22 rue de Navarin, in Paris’ ninth arrondissement.
At the start of the war, Aida recounts in the book, “We understood that the Jews were going to be the victims of brutality. We looked upon the Jews with sadness and sorrow. We knew what genocide was.” She says her parents showed no hesitation in taking in the Jewish refugee, “even though it was clear that if the Nazis found this man in our house, they’d kill us right away. We told him that our home was his home, and we treated him warmly, like a good friend who had to extend his stay. For a few days, he even slept in the same bed as Charles.”
Sheltering 11 refugees at a time
The two Aznavour children, who were 16 and 17 at the start of the German occupation in 1940, pitched in to help, not knowing then that they would go on offering shelter to strangers. But then a woman came to the family, asking them to hide her Jewish husband, whose name was Simon. He had escaped from the Drancy internment camp, where the Jews of Paris were sent before being sent to the concentration camps outside of France.
For a while, the family also sheltered another Jew, and later on their apartment also served as a hideout for Armenians who’d deserted after being forcibly drafted into the Germany army.
Aznavour and his sister say there were days when 11 refugees were all hiding in the family’s apartment simultaneously. They hid in different corners of the house, and at night had to sleep on the floor.
The family prepared false papers for them, and one of the tasks assigned to the two children was to burn the deserters’ German uniforms and dispose of them far from the house.
How aware were you of the political significance of hiding wanted people in your family home? How aware of the danger were you?
Aznavour: “My parents knew the danger was there every day, but my sister and I only grasped it later. We were ‘crazy’ young people. We were living out our youth and we followed in our parents’ footsteps. Only after the war did we realize how great the risk really was.”
Auron dedicates a large part of his book to the activities of L’Affiche Rouge – whose story is barely known in Israel, despite significant Jewish participation in it.
The group, which was associated with the French Communist Party and whose members were mostly immigrants without French citizenship, was active in 1942-1943 as part of the French Resistance, and carried out armed attacks against the French police and Gestapo, inflicting casualties among the Germans.
It was named after the red propaganda poster the authorities distributed against it, which included photographs of 10 members who were apprehended.
The group had about 200 members; 67 were arrested, including 34 Jews and three Armenians. Of the 23 who were sentenced to death, 12 were Jews and two Armenian, including Missak Manouchian.
When Manouchian was arrested, his wife found refuge with her friends the Aznavours, after other friends refused to take her in. Aznavour says his parents’ close friendship with the Manouchians was part of the special kinship shared by Armenian survivors. He has vivid memories of the couple from his childhood – “Missak taught me to play chess,” he recalls.
He says that although his parents didn’t officially belong to the Resistance, they aided much of the underground’s activity. His mother helped a group transport weapons that were hidden in a baby carriage.
When Manouchian was arrested, he sent a postcard to Aznavour’s mother, telling her that her son would bring honor to the Armenian people and glory to France. His words helped reassure his mother and planted hope for her son’s future success.
Auron says there were many other Armenian families, like the Aznavour family, who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Twenty-four of them have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, but there were even more.
Because of this connection between Armenians and Jews, both Auron and Aznavour are upset by Israel’s stance on the Armenian genocide. “I’m very sorry that Israel does not recognize the Armenian genocide,” says Aznavour, “because it was the model the Nazis used for the Jewish genocide.”