Annually, Armenians around the world gather on April 24 to commemorate the Armenian Genocide. Survivors of this national calamity stand at the front of each assembly as symbols of a people’s capacity to survive.
With each passing year in South Florida, with the commemoration reaching its centennial, survivors have grown fewer. Two weeks before Christmas, South Florida’s last known Armenian genocide survivor died.
Harry Pilafian was born in Tekirdag, in Thrace, during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. His mother and father had fled their home to Damascus in 1918. Their first son, James, was born in that ancient city.
During a period of calm, the family, like so many others, tried to return home. This is when Pilafian was born.
Before long, the genocidal campaign resumed, and the family was forced to leave home for the last time. With the support of an American sponsor, the family came to the United States.
Raised in Massachusetts, Pilafian enrolled in the U.S. Navy at 17 and served in World War II and the Korean War. His service in the European theater — the site of history’s next genocidal atrocity, the Holocaust — began off the coast of North Africa during Operation Torch, the first significant U.S. offensive of the Second World War.
Just four days after the beginning of Torch, Pilafian’s ship, the USS Hugh L. Scott, was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Pilafian , the ship’s communications officer, remained on board to signal SOS until ordered off the ship by his commander. Fifty-nine officers and crewmen were killed. Pilafian was among the last to escape the sinking ship.
After the war, Pilafian settled in Miami, which he had first visited during training. During 65 years of marriage to Audrey, their family grew to four children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. After two decades in the Navy, his service continued as a public school teacher.
In his influential book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote of the human capacity to survive, even in the face of existential anxiety.
As with the survivors of the Holocaust, whose numbers are shrinking steadily, the survivors of the Armenian genocide represented a historical link. They were our “greatest generation.”
Despite witnessing unspeakable evil, with every laugh or smile they confirmed Frankl’s affirmation that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Each survivor invariably chose his or her own way in the face of circumstances that we, the beneficiaries of their courage, can only describe as unimaginable. In some measure, we begin to realize fully only when they are gone how much they have affected our lives and communities.
Over the years, perhaps it was easy to take for granted the gathered survivors whose very presence was a rebuke to the destructive aspirations of their persecutors. They were, after all, parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors.
They were ordinary in every way, except they were extraordinary.
In his final days, Pilafian’s family recorded his recollections. Early in the video, he briefly mentioned his birth in Tekirdag and described his family’s passage to the United States.
Remembering the generosity of the American sponsor who made this journey of a lifetime possible, he paused, looked directly into the camera, and seemingly past the camera, at the faces of his gathered family.
As if reflecting on the preceding 90 years, he whispered, “Thank God.”
Harout Jack Samra is a Miami-based attorney focusing on international dispute resolution and arbitration.