Standing, from left: Hrayr, Christine, Annig. Seated, from left: Dikran, Vartouhi.

Dikran Bzdigian collection – Athens

30/11/22 (Last modified 30/11/22) - Translator: Simon Beugekian
This page was prepared collaboratively with the “Armenika” periodical of Athens.

Dikran Bzdigian was born in 1925, in the city of Drama in northern Greece. His father, Hovhannes (also known as Onnig), and mother, Vartouhi, were born in the region of Bursa, in 1886 and 1896 respectively. Onnig/Hovhannes hailed from the village of Yenidje (Yeniceköy), and Vartouhi was a native of Djerrah (Cerrah). These were neighboring villages, both located southeast of the city of Bursa.

Onnig/Hovhannes was a carpenter by trade. Vartouhi was a laborer who worked in the city’s silk factory. Both were members of the Armenian Evangelical community.

During the years of the Genocide, Armenians living in both villages were deported. We presume that Onnig and Vartouhi were already married by that time. According to Dikran, the deportees from Djerrah contracted typhoid, and as a result, the couple’s two infant children died. The same disease killed Vartouhi’s father (Barsam), sister, and two brothers.

Around 1922, Onnig and Vartouhi found refuge in Greece, initially settling down in the city of Drama. Dikran was born there. When he was just six months old, the family moved to the Dourghouti/Fix neighborhood of Athens, where more than 80 percent of the population were Armenian refugees. Onnig and Vartouhi also had relatives who lived there.

Dikran’s brothers, Jirayr and Hrayr, and his sister, Anahid/Annig, were born in Dourghouti. There, Dikran attended an Evangelical school operated by the Armenian community. The family was poor. When not in school, Dikran was a roving shoe shiner. He had a suitcase full of his kit, which he would carry as and he walked the streets of Athens calling out, “Γυαλίζω κύριος,” [“I shine them, sir!”].

The family’s home in Dourghouti was a mere hut, like many other homes in the neighborhood. The home consisted of only one room, which served simultaneously as the kitchen/dining room and the bedroom. The family would bathe in a tub in the same room. At night, when they slept, they would arrange their bedding on the wooden floor. Due to the lack of space, Dikran and Jirayr shared a bed. In the mornings, the milkman would pass by the house with his ten goats. He would milk the goats on the spot and sell the fresh milk to his clients. The home was not supplied with running water. Two cans had to be filled with water at the nearby spring and carried back home. The full cans weighed 12 kilograms each, and the spring was about 200 meters away. The task of fetching the water was usually performed by Vartouhi, who would make the journey in the mornings, when her children were at school and her husband was at work. When Dikran reached the age of 13, he assumed responsibility for this task. The water was not free, and the family paid one lepton per day for it.

Dikran’s father, Onnig, continued practicing carpentry in Dourghouti. He worked in a car repair shop. At the time, the exterior of trucks and buses was made of wood. He worked 12 hours a day, and his daily salary was 100 drachmae, which was enough to buy 13 kilograms of bread or three kilograms of meat. This was not sufficient for a family of six. In the evenings, after dining with his family, Onnig would make his way to the nearby café, where he would play cards and backgammon with his friends. Onnig subscribed to the Nor Or newspaper, published in Athens (now called Azad Or). He had a habit of cutting, compiling, and binding the chapters of the serial novels that appeared in the paper. Many of his neighbors would borrow these makeshift books from him. Dikran, too, had read all the books that his father had bound.

In 1941, German forces occupied Greece. The war and the resulting suspension of maritime traffic were a catastrophic blow to the Greek economy. Moreover, the German occupation authorities began requisitioning factories, mines, as well as agriculture products (such as olive oil and flour), much of which was sent back to Germany. The occupation was also characterized by a chaotic system of governance. Greece was divided into different administrative districts (Italian, German, and Bulgarian military zones). The authorities in these districts often enacted contradictory measures, exacerbating the economic crisis even further. Ultimately, these crises led to widespread famine across Greece – the worst famine that any country experienced in war-torn Europe, if the conditions in the German concentration camps are excluded.

This famine had a disproportionate impact on the refugees who had fled to Greece from Turkey in the 1920s. Many of these refugees lived in makeshift camps and eked out a living as laborers. Such was the case with the refugee camps of Dourghouti and Kokkinia, where Armenians constituted a significant portion of the population. After the occupation of the country, the lack of raw materials and fuel had forced many factories to close, leaving thousands of refugees unemployed. Unlike native Greeks, these refugees did not have holiday homes or relatives in the countryside. Their lack of connections to rural areas would prove fateful, as in those days, such connections could mean salvation for urban households. Despite all difficulties, it was still possible to find basic food staples in rural Greece. In these years of occupation, out of the 2,200 families living in Dourghouti, 1,600 were in urgent need of basic medical care or nutrition. [1] These numbers illustrate the terrible effect of the famine on the country’s refugee camps. They also explain why the anti-Nazi resistance movement found such fertile ground in the camps, and why so many of the refugees joined underground resistance groups.

At the time, Dikran was only a teenager. He remembers how once, rumors spread in Dourghouti that green grass was growing on the nearby hill. Crowds immediately flocked to the hill, hoping to pluck the grass, with the intention of boiling and eating it. Dikran also recalls visiting another Armenian family with his mother. Vartouhi cared for one of the elderly members of this family. In the cellar of the home, Dikran found a torn bag of figs, which was most probably intended as feed for the rabbits kept in the home’s garden. The rabbits themselves had been cooked and eaten long ago. The famished Dikran devoured the figs that remained in the bag, but then noticed that they were heavily infected with worms. But he didn’t care. He filled his pockets with the remaining figs before returning home. Dikran also recalls that in those days of famine, the stray cats and dogs had disappeared from the streets of Athens. Villagers would even catch wild turtles in the countryside and sell them as food in the city. Dikran remembers eating turtle on six different occasions, but also notes that even these animals quickly disappeared from the markets.

Dikran’s father, Onnig, who was a sturdy and strong man, weakened and succumbed to the famine in 1942. Onnig had built a two-wheeled cart for Dikran, which the latter used to work as a porter in the streets of Athens. By then, bathing and soap were mere memories of the past, and as a result, the family home teemed with fleas.

After Onnig’s death, hunger loomed as an even greater threat to the family. In 1942, Dikran was 17 years old, and Jirayr was 14. Both worked as laborers for the German army’s road-building programs. They would dig up the soil so that it could be paved with asphalt. Their workplace was about 20 kilometers outside of Athens. They two boys’ daily compensation consisted of 100 grams of bread and a bowl of watery broth for each, nothing more.

These two photographs show Armenian children in the Dourghouti neighborhood of Athens. The photographs were most probably taken during the Second World War or immediately after it, when destitution and hunger were visible everywhere in the neighborhood (Source: Armenika Periodical, Athens).

During these years of famine, the three brothers would often make their way to the mountains outside Athens to collect kindling, which they would then sell in the city. All three were weakened, famished teens. They had to travel on foot and climb up the hills, a distance of up to 25 kilometers. On some occasions, they would fall exhausted on their way, unable to keep walking.

On August 9, 1944, German forces and collaborating Greek militias (security battalions) surrounded the Dourghouti neighborhood. During the years of the German occupation of Greece, populous refugee camps were considered important bastions of resistance. Dourghouti was one such area. The majority of the neighborhood’s population at the time (9,000 to 12,000) consisted of Armenian refugees. The leaders and members of the many anti-Nazi resistance groups that were active there were also Armenian. To eliminate these resistance groups, the Nazis would conduct operations called bloko. They involved surrounding an entire neighborhood or village, followed by the mass arrests of suspects. Many of the detainees would be executed, beaten, jailed, or deported to Germany.

At five in the morning, using loudspeakers, the soldiers informed the population of Dourghouti that all males between the ages of 16 and 60 had to immediately report to the square. Dikran remembers that one of his friends, Sarkis, was ill with tuberculosis, suffering from high fever, and bed-bound. The soldiers tried to force him out of bed, but Sarkis simply couldn’t stand. His parents’ explanations and pleas were futile, and the soldiers executed Sarkis on the spot. Dikran, who was 19 years old, and Jirayr, who was 16 years old, reported to the square.

The men were subjected to intense interrogation. With threats, beatings, and curses, the Germans tried to force each man to reveal the name or names of resistance members that he knew. The most brutal violence was meted out by the Greek militiamen collaborating with the Nazis. Dikran, too, was subjected to a terrible beating. A Greek officer subjected him to various forms of torture. Dikran was well-acquainted with many members of the resistance, but he did not betray them. He was beaten and shattered, but he survived. However, Khachig, the 28-year-old cobbler who lived next door to the Bzdigian family, was not so fortunate. He was falsely accused to being a resistance member based on information obtained during the interrogations. He was immediately executed in the square.

Khachig’s punishment did not end there. The German Army’s policy was to burn down the homes of all resistance members. In Dourghouti, the huts of the refugees were crowded together, almost on top of each other. If one hut was set ablaze, the neighboring huts would undoubtedly burn down, too. Consequently, the German forces ordered not only Khachig’s family, but also their neighbors, to immediately leave their homes. Among these were Vartouhi, Hrayr, and Annig. Vartouhi was only able to save a single sewing machine. The Bzdigian home, with all the property still in it, was burned to ashes.

The men between the ages of 18 and 30 who had gathered in the square were taken to military barracks 15 kilometers outside the city and imprisoned there. According to Dikran’s memoir, approximately 2,000 men from Dourghouti were detained and imprisoned. Other sources put this number at 3,000. A total of 400 prisoners were interned in each barracks. Among the prisoners were also embedded informants, tasked with identifying members of the resistance. These informants would always wear a bag over their heads to conceal their identities.

The prisoners were detained for weeks and months, even though in many cases, there was absolutely no evidence to indicate that they were members of the resistance. Moreover, many of the healthy men were deported to Germany as laborers. To avoid this fate, Dikran decided to injure his own right eye. He dipped his finger into sand and rubbed his eye, hoping to infect it. But his actions were in vain. On the day of the physical examination, he was declared healthy. Dikran remembers that at this point, he lost all hope of avoiding deportation to Germany. His main concern was the fate of his family. How could they survive without his help? A Greek doctor working in the barracks heard Dikran’s story. This doctor, sympathizing with Dikran’s predicament, signed a certificate stating that the latter suffered from trachoma. Dikran was thus saved, and after spending nine days in the barracks, was sent back home. However, his uncle, Sarkis Bzdigian, who had also been arrested during the Dourghouti bloko operation, was taken to a prison in Haidari. After spending seven days there, he was sent to Germany, where he was pressed into labor until the end of the war.

Dikran’s family home had been burned to the ground. Interestingly, in his memoirs, Dikran seems to have grieved the loss of the novels that his father had bound more than anything else.

The Armenian Evangelical community provided the now-destitute Bzdigian family with a room in the school of Dourghouti, a building built of wood. The school was closed due to the war. Concurrently, Dikran and Jirayr began rebuilding a half-ruined hut near their old family home. By then, the Red Cross had begun distributing food to the famine-stricken population of Greece. The Evangelical school of the neighborhood served as a base for this international organization. Food was prepared in the school and then distributed to the local children. Vartouhi began working for the Red Cross as a cook. This was a stroke of fortune for the entire family, who now had regular access to food.

In October 1944, German forces retreated from Greece. But Dikran’s tribulations did not end there. With the German retreat, the Greek Civil War (εμφύλιος, Emphýlios) began immediately, pitting communists against right-wing forces. Dourghouti was home to a large number of communists, and consequently, it was regularly targeted by their enemies. Under these circumstances, Dikran was randomly picked up and arrested. The officers who interrogated him forced him to confess to being a communist. Then, in January 1945, alongside numerous other alleged communists, he was shipped off aboard a British ship to Port Said, Egypt. From there, he and the others were moved to El-Dabaa, to a prison camp surrounded by barbed wire, where many German prisoners of war were also interned. This was a British camp for Nazis and communists, who were detained together. After spending three months in Egypt, Dikran, like many other Greek prisoners, was sent back to Greece.

The Dourghouti/Fix neighborhood of Athens. Two cobblers at work (Source: Gerber, Hans. Griechenlandreise, Europahilfe. N.p., 1955. Print. Copyright: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv).
A scene from the Dourghouti/Fix neighborhood of Athens, 1955 (Source: Gerber, Hans. Griechenlandreise, Europahilfe. N.p., 1955. Print. Copyright: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv).

He returned to his home and his family. He began working as a builder/laborer, but he also did many other jobs. He worked for a cereal merchant; as a porter; as a clerk for a friend selling sewing needles, thread, and tobacco (as well as other sundry items); etc.

In 1955, Dikran married Christine, whose family had recently moved to Dourghouti and lived next door to the Bzdigians. Christine’s father was Greek, and her mother was Armenian. After the wedding, when Christine applied to the authorities to change her surname and formally adopt the Bzdigian name, she was stripped of her Greek citizenship and instead given the status of a refugee, which was the status of most Armenians living in Greece at the time, including Dikran.

Dikran and Christine’s two daughters were born in Athens. In 1964, Dikran emigrated to Canada, where many of his cousins already lived. Christine and his two daughters (Vart/Rosy and Annie) joined him about a year later. In 1966, Vartouhi, Dikran’s mother, also arrived in Canada, and the family lived in a home in Montreal. After moving to Canada, Dikran and Christine also had a son, David. Dikran’s siblings, Annig, Jirayr, and Hrayr, also migrated to Canada with their families.

* The main primary source used for this article is Dikran Bzdigian’s memoir, Gyankis Housheru [Memories of My Life], Montreal, 2012, 37 pages.

[1] Mark Mazower, Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944, Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 1993, p. 37.