MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — After the Armenian genocide a century ago, many refugees settled in the Twin Cities. Now their stories of survival are finally being told at the Museum of Russian Art, in an exhibit that is sure to educate and inspire.
“The first survivor of the Armenian genocide arrived in Minnesota in 1919,” Fr. Tadeos Barseghyan, of St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul, said.
Just over 100 years ago, our state and country were engaged in World War I. And while brave Minnesotans rushed to the front lines, people in other parts of the world were fleeing oppression and persecution.
“1.5 million people died in the Armenian genocide as a result of violence against Armenian people who were ethnically different, who were a Christian minority living in a Turkish empire,” Barseghyan said.
Today, about 1,000 people of Armenian descent live in the Twin Cities. They are all descendants of genocide survivors who made it through death marches and slavery, while many of their loved ones did not.
“The wounds are so deep that even 100 years later they have not fully healed,” photographer Artyom Tonoyan said.
As a way to help heal those wounds, Tonoyan began to photograph descendants and tell their stories.
“I started taking photos of my kids and I ended up doing this,” Tonoyan said.
It’s a labor of love that’s now on display at the Russian Museum of Art. The exhibit is called the “Treasures of Memory and Hope.”
Tonoyan teaches a class about the genocide at the University of Minnesota, and his grandmother and grandfather were the only survivors from their respective families. They met in the Armenian city of Gyumri as kids.
“The city was known as the city of orphans. At one point that orphanage housed 40,000 orphans and my grandparents were two of those,” Tonoyan said.
One of the people featured in the exhibit is Caroline Ylitalo.
“My grandmother was actually enslaved until my grandfather bought her from her own for two gold coins,” Ylitalo said.
She came to the U.S. with just a brush and a comb.
“She used to refer to them as, ‘This is all I have left from my old life,'” Ylitalo said.
These days, Ylitalo keeps those family treasures close, as a reminder of the sacrifices her grandmother made so she could have a better life in Minnesota.
“My grandmother used to say they can take everything from you except what’s in your mind,” Ylitalo said. “So going from grandmother who was a slave to having a degree from one of the top universities in the world. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human soul.”
Something they hope people of all backgrounds and creeds can learn from.
“We hope that when people read all these stories they’ll be inspired, they’ll have courage and hope to continue going and living and creating a new life for themselves and their families,” Barseghyan said.
The Treasures of Memory and Hope exhibit will be on display at the Museum of Russian Art through Tuesday. Then it will travel to the University of Minnesota in September.