BY: MARCY MACDONALD
“It’s my third year here,” author Margaret Ahnert remarks of her appearance at the annual East Hampton Library’s Author’s Night on Saturday, August 11th — unusual for a first-time author.
But then little about the Bronx-born writer is as it appears to be. A first generation American, she looks like a soccer Mom who has never played The Game; a blonde who edited the ‘dumb’ out of her life’s Resume long ago. And what began as her Master’s thesis at Goucher College in Baltimore ended as a vivid, often jagged and impactful account of Armenia‘s Genocide that became the first draft of “The Knock at the Door.”
In the early years of the 20th Century, Islam was the dominant religious pursuasion inTurkey, and by 1915, Armenian Christians there either converted to Islam and Arabic, or found themselves on the wrong end of political intimidation, death or worse. The situation began to ease in 1923. It was through this period of brutal unrest that her mother, the very young and scholarly Ester Ajemian, would somehow flower. She endured the loss of friends and family. She studied. She survived. Above all, she kept her faith and her sense of humor. Ester would need both.
During a mandated march away from her childhood home in Amasia when she was just 15, Esther was separated from her foster family, and had to go it alone on the road to maturity. It wasn’t pretty. Forced into an abusive marriage, she struggled to survive each new horror. Like many with no hope, she saw the American Dream as her only reality.
Finally, Esther escaped her native Turkey and made her way to her ultimate destination: the United States.
Now 98 and an American citizen, her story has served as a paradigm for those in peril today.
“My goal and mission in life is educating non-Armenians about the Armenian Genocide,” the author affirms. “My mother, Ester, marched the death march to avoid espousing Islam and relinquishing her Christian faith and Armenian language. Those that chose to march for their Christian faith lost their homes and many lost their lives. My mother and her family marched. She was the family’s only survivor… How brave she was. I am proud to be the daughter of a survivor.” There were relatively few.
Although “Knock” was published in 2007, Ahnert has been on a very personal book tour since, during which she has appeared everywhere from Harvard and Yale to a woman’s prison. In fact, when Ahnert entered the prison room where she was to speak, she found “chaos, women yelling, being unruly. One woman called out: ‘Is your hair natural?’ Ianswered, ‘No.’ The room got quiet. It was the first time anyone told them the truth.”
She brought copies of books for the prisoners and autographed them. Several months later the warden at the prison called the author to report the positive impact her appearance had made. Several had become model prisoners. One slept with the book under her pillow. Perhaps it was Ahnert’s parting message: “If my mother could survive the Armenian Death March and make a wonderful life for herself in the US, you can do the samewhen you get out of jail.”
When the historian was invited to sign her books in Ft. Lauderdale, she received a very late, very special invitation to be one of 19 guests to meet the Dalai Lama in an arena that seated 10,000.
“Each of us was to be part of a photo op. I do a lot of talking about luck — and how it should be received,” Ahnert said. “We all have luck; we don’t always recognize the luck, so that’s the trick: recognition. I was the last person into the room to meet the Dalai Lama, so I should have been the first person out… and there I was: sitting 10 feet from him. I should have been the first person out of the room, but the photographer asked me, ‘the lady in the yellow jacket’, to move to the other side of the Dalai Lama, so instead, I was the last person to leave. As the others walked out, I greeted His Holiness… and said that I understood. Look at the photo (right): he is blessing me. We’re making eye-to-eye contact.”
“It felt unbelievable; I don’t even remember saying anything else, but I put my back against the wall, and sunk to my knees, sobbing. I was crying with the joy of it all. I was personally touched, and didn’t know that I had received a blessing until a few weeks later when I realized that many positive things had started then. The ‘circle of friends’ began entering my life. The Dalai Lama seemed to put things in my life in order for me. I am a Christian and I believe in God, and I got the most amazing blessing. He is the most amazing, honest, inteligent and funny man! He was modestly dressed, barefoot, but there was a grandeur about him. His presence, his holiness was all around him. As a writer I have a hard time putting this into words.”
“We were told not to touch him or speak to him, but he touched me, and I had a difficult time signing the book for him: I just hoped I’d spelled his name correctly. I was in a state of exultation. If it hadn’t been for the photo that the photographer took, I would not have seen how clearly he understood without words. He understood about my mother, and asked me how I came to write a book about genocide. He appeared to be such a soul presence.”
“He wants people to succeed in their search for love: destiny is the answer. I do believe in destiny,” she said, “Not in chance. I was put there in Ft. Lauderdale for a reason.”
Before publication, the author wanted to call her memoir ‘Roses for Ester,” because each time she visited her mother she brought her roses. Without knowing the history of the title, the Italian publishers called it ‘A Rose for Ester,’ but the American publishers wanted it to be ‘The Knock at the Door.’ The door opened with a USA Book News award for the Best Book of 2007, followed by the New York Book Festival award for Best Historical Memoir in 2008. The paperback was released this summer and in September, the hardcover book will be available in Russia — a fact not lost on NBC’s Chuck Scarborough who interviewed the author between awards (which can be seen on You Tube (click on the purple letters).*
“The Turkish publisher is still in jail as the Turkish government doesn’t allow anyone to discuss this diaspora, even though it happened 90 years ago in the Ottoman Empire… many of the Armenian books have been pulled from the shelves.”
“I’m still booked for the book tour for this one book until January 15, 2013: it’s been an amazing journey and I’m just in the middle of it.”
As a result of the book’s success, Ahnert began a scholarship program for Armenian Journalism majors in Armenia. “Every year I sponsor five students in Journalism: they get a stipend of room and board, and after the five years they have to be involved for at least two years in the field of journalism…this is what I do.” In June, six young Armenian women became the firist journalism graduates in the Ester Ajemian Scholarship Program.
“I’m off marching to Shreveport, Louisiana to speak to non-Armenians and the ‘Ah – meanians’ down south.” Her future engagements include her alma mater, Goucher College, as well as Pepperdine University, the Canadian Bar Association, the Shoah Institute, Stanford and Columbia Universities before her appearance at the Moscow Book Fair.
“People have embraced me, my mother and my book. It’s been a beautiful experience.” And it’s not over.
*NBC TV’s Chuck Scarborough interviewed Ahnert about her book : many viewers were as impressed with Mr. Scarborough’s knowledge of Armenian history as they were with the author’s. To view it, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIIC7pWj2DU, and click on the purple letters.