Press Release, June 27, 2008
Author Ahnert Honored for gripping memoir on the Armenian Genocide;
Book Festival corrects category error- Best Fiction becomes Best Historical Memoir
(New York, NY) Margaret Ajemian Ahnert, author of The Knock at the Door: A Journey Through the Darkness of the Armenian Genocide was honored this weekend at The New York Book Festival. This searing account of her mother’s escape from the horrors of this largely unacknowledged genocide was first honored for Best Fiction.
Ahnert informed the committee of their error, and her inability to accept an award in the fiction category. In recognition of their unintentional error, The New York Book Festival Award Committee immediately and apologetically granted her Best Historical Memoir. While Ahnert’s account may read like fiction: horrific to imagine, painfully honest in its telling, The Knock at the Door honors not only Ester’s heroic fight and survival, but stands as a testament to the multitude who did not live to pass down their own stories.
About the Book: In 1915, Armenian Christians in Turkey were forced to convert to Islam, barred from speaking their language, and often driven out of their homes as the Turkish army embarked on a widespread campaign of intimidation and murder. In this riveting book, Margaret Ajemian Ahnert relates her mother Ester’s terrifying experiences as a young woman during this period of hatred and brutality.
Ahnert’s compelling account of her mother’s suffering is framed by an intimate portrait of her relationship with her 98-year-old mother. Ester’s inspiring stories, told lovingly by her daughter, will give you a window into the harrowing struggle of Armenians during a terrible period in human history.
About the Author: Margaret Ahnert was born in New York City. Growing up, she loved to hear her mother’s stories about her own childhood during the Armenian genocide in Turkey. She has a BA from Goddard College, and an MA from Goucher College. She has pursued a variety of careers: producing television documentaries, co-owning a hotel in Pennsylvania, acting as a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and teaching art appreciation in high schools and elementary schools.
Publishers Weekly, March 5, 2007
This personal, homespun account by an American of Armenian descent interweaves two narratives in alternating chapters: Ahnert's mother Ester's firsthand description of coming-of-age during, and miraculously surviving, the Turkish-sponsored Armenian genocide of 1915, and the middle-aged author's own tender yet urgent reflections on her connection to the distant world of her 98-year-old mother. Ester's formidable personality, humor and abiding religious faith pervade Ahnert's debut, while the latter's fluid transcription of Ester's story provides a frank and searing testimony, as well as a vivid depiction of Armenian village life. While Ahnert's oral history doesn't offer a rigorous historical account or analysis of the systematic slaughter, but rather supplements works like Peter Balakian's The Burning Tigris and Taner Akcam's A Shameful Act , its force lies in the interplay between the narratives of mother and daughter. Together, their stories realize in intimate but accessible terms the vagaries of historical memory and Ester's determination to tell the truth despite the understandable urge among some victims to forget in the face of an official policy of denial from Turkey that continues today..(Apr.)
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Booklist, May 7, 2007
Amid the chaos and violence of World War I, attacks began against the supposedly disloyal minority Armenian population within the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the war, high-end estimates place the death toll of Armenians at more than one million due to executions and deportations. Ahnert, a producer of television documentaries, interviewed her 98-year-old mother, Ester, a survivor of the massacres, and intertwined her mother’s amazingly lucid and vivid recollections of the period with her own memories. The result is a moving yet deeply disturbing account. Ester paints a rather idyllic picture of village life in Turkey. Despite occasional tensions, relations between Armenians and Turkish communities are described as generally friendly before the war. But the screws then slowly tightened against Armenian rights. Still, when the horrific violence exploded, most Armenians were stunned, and many did not react quickly enough to save themselves. Ahnert has provided an invaluable service by putting human faces on the victims.
Kirkus Discoveries, May 2007
An American daughter captures the personal history of her mother, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Though long denied by the Republic of Turkey, the ritualized ethnic cleansing and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians from 1915 to 1917 is one of the great horrors of modern history. It also presents both survivors and subsequent generations with the thorny conundrum of memory and cultural identity—specifically, how to confront the crimes we have been told to forget. Ahnert delves into these issues in this moving portrait of her mother, Ester, who personally experienced these terrible events. With delicate intimacy, the author interleaves the remembrances of her 98-year-old mother with her own recollections of their personal relationship. “This is the story of us, told together,” she writes. At just 15 years old, Ester was separated from her family during a forced march from her home town of Amasia, a mountain village in what is now Northern Turkey. Abused by soldiers and forced to marry a vindictive Turk, Ester eventually escaped to find a new life overseas. “The only thing I brought with me to America was my memory,” she says, “the one thing I most wanted to leave behind.” The dichotomy between Ester’s graphic recollections of rape, murder and other atrocities and Ahnert’s obvious affection for her mother is occasionally startling, but the net effect is poignancy rather than sensationalism. The author struggles with her own uncertain feelings about her heritage, but her mother’s story is what will stick with the reader—Ester’s stirring sense of humor, her unflagging faith and remarkable fortitude in the face of nearly impossible odds. A riveting, draining and reflective account of how people prevail over awful fortunes.
Library Journal, May 1, 2007
Ahnert writes of her relationship with her mother, Ester, as she approaches 99 in an Armenian nursing home in New York, integrating the experience of an adult daughter connecting with her elderly mother into the story of her mother's early years in Armenia. In the pre-World War I Ottoman Empire, Armenians, like other ethnic and religious minorities, lived a stable life defined by family, community, and religious ties. Ester's childhood in a rural town was characterized by hard work and enriched by traditional and seasonal customs and celebrations. That life was destroyed in 1915 when the Ottoman government expelled Armenians from their homes and confiscated their property. Once-friendly Turkish neighbors watched as thousands of Armenians were killed by soldiers or died of exhaustion or starvation during the forced evacuations. Ester survived by "marriage" to a Turk that included harsh treatment and heavy labor. She eventually escaped and emigrated to the United States. This memoir puts the tragic Armenian experience in personal terms and reminds us Americans of one early genocide as we try to respond to repeated global disasters. Recommended for its deft balance between personal story and historic tragedy.
-Elizabeth R. Hayford, formerly with Associated Coll. of the Midwest, Evanston, IL
Armenian Weekly Review
The Knock at the Door
By Tamara C. Gureghian
First time author Margaret Ajemian Ahnert does a remarkable job retelling her mother’s story. Ahnert convincingly weaves in and out of the past and present, to present Ester’s “journey through the darkness.” This story presents not only the struggle of a young girl to survive, but the struggle of a daughter, Ahnert, to understand what the Genocide means to her.
I was immediately captivated by the mother-daughter relationship. The two are warm, loving and comical. Ahnert sprinkles humor throughout this book of darkness, reminding the reader that life is filled with pleasure and pain. Especially delightful is Ester’s remarks when her daughter visits her at an Armenian home for the elderly. She notes that Margaret is taking care of her like she used to care for Margaret when she was a baby. Ester asks, “Do you think you can flip me in the air by my ankles?” Picture that!
A Knock at the Door also offers words of wisdom. “It’s not what happens to you in life that’s important, it’s how you react to it. You must take the good with the bad and never look back.” The book offers philosophical inquiry. Ester weeps with a dog that has seen its family perish. She wonders if the dog is crying for her or remembering and crying for his own loss. She asks, “Do dogs remember?” We are invited to reflect on a surprising twist. As a grandmother living in post September 11 times, Margaret notes, “It’s a strange time we live in. Mother lived in fear of her life in Turkey until she reached the safety of American soil. Now we live in fear of terrorists from distant shores.”
This book made me consider an interesting thought. The book points out that the survivors were told to forget what happened to them. Forget and move on. In one scene, Margaret’s father comes home to find Margaret trying to comfort her mother who is reliving the horror of the Genocide. “‘What’s the matter with you?’ he said. ‘It’s all over, you’re safe here in America. Stop scaring the child. She must not know about ‘the trouble.’ She must grow up an American. Stop this crying right now. Mortseer!” he said again and again. “Mortseer.” When Ester leaves Armenia to come to America she poignantly says, “The only thing I brought with me to America was my memory—the thing I most wanted to leave behind.”
Isn’t it interesting that our Genocide is called “the forgotten genocide”? In their attempt to shield their children from the heartache or make a new life for themselves, did the survivors inadvertently encourage the world to forget just as they encouraged each other to? In the end, they could not forget. Each survivor is haunted by memories. Ahnert offers, “maybe the terrible memories persist for a reason: to tell the truth.”
Ester lived an interesting life filled with suffering. Her mother died giving birth to her. Her next mother abused her. She is left for dead and piled up on a wagon with corpses. She is raped by a foster father. She is forced to marry a Turk. All this suffering, and she never loses faith. She holds to the principles of her Christian religion that “this too shall pass.” Since Ahnert interweaves her mother’s past with her present, you are never weighed down by her sorrow. You know Ester will survive. You know she will reach America. You know she will become a sweet old woman who can laugh and joke with her daughter in her final days of life. Her story is uplifting and informative.
Ahnert could have written a story just about her mother’s life, but she doesn’t. She takes things further. She covers life as a first generation American. She seeks to understand how her mother’s history is intertwined with her own. Why does she feel fear when she discovers her cab driver is Turkish? Why doesn’t she want to be alone with a Turkish diplomat? Why doesn’t she want to travel to her mother’s homeland? All of these feelings and more are covered.
Occasionally, the text becomes choppy and repetitive, but on the whole, the story flows smoothly. A Knock at the Door is a rewarding and intriguing read. You will not be disappointed. A word of caution to parents and young readers: the story includes a few graphic descriptions of the Genocide. Despite these images, the book leaves you feeling encouraged by Ester and the legacy she leaves behind. This 240-page book will be released by Beaufort Books on April 24. The cost will be $24.95. Visit www.beaufortbooks.com for more information.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Annual event a literary feast for book lovers
The Night of Literary Feasts, a fund-raising event benefiting the Broward Library Foundation, begins at 6 p.m. Friday with a gala cocktail party at the Main Library in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where the participating authors will be gathered to sign books and meet readers. At 8 p.m. the crowd breaks up to gather again at small dinner parties in private homes throughout the city, each of which features one or two of the celebrated writers. Reservations required. Individual tickets are $150 per person, or $300 per person to guarantee seating with the writer of your choice. Call 954-357-5954.
On Saturday, those same writers will be available free at LitLive! (formerly known as the Day of Literary Lectures), at the Alvin Sherman Library and the Black Box Theater in the Nova Southeastern University Center. All lectures are free on a first-come basis. Events start at 9:30 a.m. and run through 2 p.m. (for a complete schedule, go to broward.org/library/litlive_schedule07.pdf).
A luncheon featuring New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden is also scheduled at LitLive!. Joined by former NFL quarterback Doug Williams, Rhoden will discuss his book, Third and a Mile, the story of the struggle to overcome a racial barrier by the league's early black quarterbacks. The luncheon begins at 11:30. Tickets are $50. Call 954-357-5954.
The Alvin Sherman Library, Research and Information Technology Center is at 3100 Ray Ferrero Jr. Blvd., Davie. Free NSU shuttles will run from the Main Library in downtown Fort Lauderdale to the Alvin Sherman Library at 9:15 a.m. and 10:15 a.m., and return to the Main Library at 12:45 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Here's a complete list of this year's authors: Margaret Ahnert, Ishmael Beah, Andrew Carroll, Susan Cheever, Jon Clinch, Jennifer Crusie, John Dickerson, Farrah Gray, Michael Grunwald, Cassandra King, Brian Latell, Linda Francis Lee, Daniel Levitin, Sujata Massey, Bob Mitchell, Jorj Morgan, Sam Moses, T. Jefferson Parker, William Rhoden, Tom Santopietro, Jeff Shaara, Yasmin Shiraz, Adriana Trigiani, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, Kathleen Waites, Doug Williams.
T. Jefferson Parker's Storm Runners boasts an intriguing plot and memorable characters. Review, Page 16.
Former child soldier Ishmael Beah becomes a celebrity author, with a jolt from Starbucks. Profile at Sun-Sentinel.com/literary.
CNHI News Service
Ester Minerajian Ahronian Ajemian was 20 when she fled her
hometown in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. World War I was finished,
and she scarcely could find traces of her family and what was once a thriving
Armenian community near the Black Sea.
Most had been forced from their homes and killed during five years of atrocities committed against Christian Armenians at the hands of soldiers, who were Islamic Turks. Ester would say later, “The only thing I brought with me to America was my memory – the thing I most wanted to leave behind.”
Nearly 80 years later, while residing in a home for Armenian seniors in New York, she reached into her past to describe these memories for her daughter, Margaret Ajemian Ahnert.
A woman once defenseless to soldiers who forced her from the family home had fashioned a powerful tool – a personal account of their awful deeds.
Ester’s story is preserved in her daughter’s book, “The Knock at the Door: A Journey through the Darkness of the Armenian Genocide,” published this spring by Beaufort Books. It shows how a human voice – amplified by a book, Web site or newspaper – can rise above clouds of dates and political debate to bear witness to history.
Everybody likes a good story, and stories can be a fluid commodity, swapped over a long-distance connection or passed with the green beans at dinner.
But stories – especially firsthand accounts – do more than entertain. They are the narrative of human experience. They reveal our past: what people did, why they did it, how those events affected others.
Put to writing, they have a particular way of setting and fixing the past, ensuring that it cannot be wiped clean.
Such is the work of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor whose novels tell about the atrocities committed by the Nazis and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. It is the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, another Nobel laureate who chronicled Soviet labor camps that sucked the life from their prisoners. And, similarly, it is Ester’s recollections of the brutality inflicted upon the Armenian people.
Most stories are less sweeping in scope, but nonetheless they help us to comprehend the past.
They may be immediate, such as the stories shared recently by reporters at The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, Mass., who detailed the angst and hope of the family of U.S. Army Specialist Alex R. Jimenez of Lawrence, Mass. Jimenez was kidnapped last month by al-Qaida militants in Iraq and has not been seen since. His family’s experience is sure to be one that endures to define the emotional toll inflicted by war upon families and communities.
Stories also illuminate what is past, such as those being collected this summer by reporters and editors at the Johnstown, Pa., Tribune-Democrat about the flood that struck the community in 1977 and claimed 85 lives. The newspaper has prepared a book that compiles the accounts of those who survived and rebuilt their community.
The underlying power of these intimate stories is their ability to capture history before it slips away.
Ester’s story is important for that reason, but also because of the controversy that surrounds what happened to her and other Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire at the time.
“A Knock at the Door” recalls the atrocities that began April 24, 1915, during World War I, when the government gathered and killed hundreds of Armenian leaders, presumably for their sympathy to Russia. Historians have recorded that Turkish soldiers killed hundreds of thousands of others – as many as 1.5 million – over the years that followed.
Those who study the systematic killing of ethnic groups recognize this as the 20th century’s first genocide. Modern Turks dispute that description, saying many Armenians died as part of the greater casualties during World War I.
There’s no doubt in Ester’s story about what happened. Her personal horror started when soldiers took her adoptive father, whom she never saw again. She was marched from her hometown of Amasia, attacked by soldiers and left for dead.
She was discovered and turned in at an orphanage, where brutality and torture continued. She was ultimately taken as a wife, and her identity stripped from her, before she found the courage and hope necessary to escape.
Like any important story, Ester’s rises above the din of political debate. And while it may not settle the controversy, her story will at least endure to remind us of a dark chapter in history and maybe bring us closer to the truth.
“The Knock at the Door is an inspired, beautifully written chronicle of one of the worst eras in human history. Ahnert tells the story of the Armenian genocide not through politics and numbers, but through people, thus capturing the terror of what really happened. We see the Turkish slaughter up close, through the eyes of her mother as a young girl who escapes a death march only to be passed from Turk to Turk. Enslaved, beaten, and raped, she nonetheless survives using her precocious wits. Turkish soldiers killing babies by twisting them in the air, starving Armenians forced to eat the flesh of their dead loved ones – such unique details are narrated with effective restraint. The weave of past and present is poignant: the author’s obsession with her mother’s past grows as she visits her in an Armenian old age home. Had such books been written long ago, another Holocaust, which followed 25 years later, might never have happened.”
—ROBERT MORGENTHAU, District Attorney for New York County, grandson of Henry Morgenthau, Sr., United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I
“Margaret Ahnert has written an incredibly moving recollection of her
mother’s ordeal as a young girl during the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. Of
all the books and articles I have read on this terrible era, her account rings
true, perhaps because it issues from one source—the eyewitness memories of
her ninety-eight-year-old mother. Read this book. You will cry, you will laugh. And you will know the truth.”
—BILL HENDERSON, Pushcart Press
“As a young girl of fifteen, Ester suffered terrible cruelty and was eyewitness to acts of genocide inflicted on her family, neighbors, and fellow Armenians by the Turks. Fortunately, Ester survived and came to the United States, bringing her faith, fortitude, and unbreakable bond with her family. In The Knock at the Door, Ester’s daughter has captured the haunting details of her mother’s compelling story. The author invites us into her family circle, offering a fascinating glimpse of the Armenian culture and its painful history. Through the work of the author, we come to know Ester’s wit, wisdom, and charm as they come to life on each page of this unforgettable story.”
—GOVERNOR HUGH L. CAREY
“In The Knock at the Door, Margaret Ahnert has skillfully recreated her mother’s traumatic battle to survive the Armenian genocide in Turkey during World War I. The story, pieced together with notes from conversations and tape recordings of her mother, is observed with great sensitivity through her mother’s eyes in a way that is genuine and overwhelming in its controlled and contained narrative.”
—LEE GUTKIND, Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, author of Almost Human: Making Robots Think
“Margaret Ahnert's book, The Knock at the Door, made me laugh, cry, and also opened my heart and soul to what cruelty the Armenian Genocide in Turkey brought to millions of harmless families. Read this book and get to know Ester, Margaret's mother and pray that a little of her wisdom and courage rubs off on you after you've read it. It's a MUST READ!”
—MARY OCCHINO, Author of Beyond These Four Wall, and Sign of the Dove, Host of a daily radio show "Angels on Call" on Sirius Stars 102