Toward the end of World War II, when my mother-in-law was 11, her family decided to move from Lebanon to Armenia.
Her father closed up his shop in Beirut. Furniture was sold off. Essential belongings were packed into several big shipping containers and brought down to the waterfront. A ship would take the family east — via the Dardanelles, the Bosphorus, and the Black Sea — to the Soviet Union, of which Armenia was part.
But the ship never arrived. It was attacked and destroyed before reaching Beirut. Hundreds of Jewish refugees died at sea.
When my mother-in-law and her family got the news, they were stunned.
They had nowhere to stay, nowhere to move the shipping containers.
The parents discussed the problem. None of the options seemed great.
“For now, we stay here,” the father said.
He opened the shipping containers, removed contents, and made a rough living quarters for his young family in the big wooden boxes.
My mother-in-law can’t remember how long they lived in the shipping containers by the waterfront. A couple of weeks anyway.
Eventually local nuns found a place for the family outside the city. They started life all over again, staying in Lebanon.
Over the years, I’ve tried to figure out which ship they were waiting for. Possibly it was the MV Mefküre, a Turkish motor schooner carrying about 300 Jewish refugees. That boat was attacked by a Soviet sub in August 1944.
Really, though, it could have been any of dozens of ships. The list of maritime disasters in the 1940s is stunningly long. Nine thousand people died when the Gustloff sank in 1945. Seven thousand died when the Goya went down, also in 1945. Another 7,000 died when the Soviet hospital ship Armenia was destroyed by German aircraft in 1941.
The number of high-fatality ship disasters during WWII is breathtaking and heartbreaking.
When working on my own family history, I often think about the vast, three-dimensional web funneling down — across decades, centuries, millennia — into the single dot of time which is each of us, and about the similar, thready vortex spreading out in the other direction, into the future, away from each of us.
If the ship had not sunk, if hundreds of Jewish refugees had not been killed in the Black Sea, then my mother-in-law Cecile would not have stayed in Beirut. She would not have met and married Dr. Kevork Keshishian.
I would not have met my future wife Aleen Keshishian on our first day of college, 42 years later.
Our children Lulu and Jesse would not exist. Not as Lulu and Jesse anyway, not as the children of Aleen and Kit.
If the ship had not sunk, if hundreds of Jewish refugees had not been killed, my mother-in-law believes she would eventually have landed in a Soviet work camp.
By nature an assertive, outspoken person, she tends to stand on principle and challenge authority.
“People like me were sent to Siberia,” she said.
After WWII, word started to filter back to the Armenian diaspora that the ancestral homeland wasn’t such a great place to be. Even though a massive Armenian repatriation effort was being organized and financed by the Soviet Union, the reality on the ground, for those who arrived, was stark. Living conditions were especially jarring for those accustomed to cosmopolitan places like Beirut.
“We would get letters saying, ‘It’s great here, there’s plenty of food, plenty of work. We see Dr. So-and-so all the time,'” said my mother-in-law. “But Dr. So-and-so was already dead a long time. In this way we would know, they are sending a message. They are telling us, don’t come.”
Over time, the Simonian family grew thankful that their ship had not arrived, that the children were educated in Beirut, that they could later immigrate to the United States.
Monuments to the Mefküre dead still stand in both Romania, where the trip originated, and Israel, where the refugees had hoped to settle. The ship was attacked in the black of night around 2 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1944. It was headed for the Bosphorus straits. The ship caught fire during the attack. All but a handful of passengers died.
It gives me a shiver to think of the awful final moments for these passengers, the confusion, the fire on deck, the cold blackness of the water, the screams for loved ones and children.
It gives me a shiver to think my own history, my own good fortune is connected to the event.