Review of The Knock At The Door
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 9/16/07
For anyone who has ever wanted an introduction to the Armenian Genocide, reading Margaret Ajemian Ahnert’s memoir, The Knock at the Door, would be a good place to start. The book deals with Ahnert’s mother, Ester, and how at the ages of fifteen through nineteen, the Armenian girl has to endure starvation, beatings, and rape—yet manages to survive. This story, based on the stories that Ester relayed to Ahnert, talks about how the Armenians were forced out of their houses, ordered to march for weeks through the desert with little food or water, undergo regular beatings and killings by the Turkish soldiers, and how anyone worshipping the Christian religion or speaking Armenian would result in torture and death.
In an interesting online interview with the author, Ahnert has much to say regarding the Genocide and the public’s denial of it. In Turkey, it is against the law to speak of it, and on May 1, 2007, Ahnert was giving a reading at a New York Barnes & Noble when she had several Turkish men in the audience stand up and begin to pass out flyers, claiming she was a liar. That story hit the news, and it was upon reading about that incident, that prompted me to purchase the book.
Throughout the story, after having survived the brutal walk through the desert and being left for dead, Ester is rescued by a woman and then eventually shuffled through several homes. In one house she acts as a maid, and upon overhearing some Turkish men bragging about the brutal ways in which they killed the Armenians, becomes so overwhelmed with fear that she falls down the stairs and eventually informs the woman of the house that she must leave. The woman, who at first said she was willing to treat Ester as a daughter, only allows her husband to rape Ester that same night. Then, as Ester is sent to an orphanage, where she is forced to strip down and undergo ‘lice treatment’ as well as molestation by one of the women, there she meets a Turkish man who takes her by force, marries her, yet regards her as nothing more than a slave. Ahnert talks about how during these years, Turks were allowed to marry Armenians or kill them, but they could not, under any circumstances, hide them. So because this Turkish man is willing to marry Ester, she is relatively safe for a while (albeit still undergoing regular beatings and abuse from her husband).
Several years pass, and then Ester believes she sees her brother on a wagon passing by. Running out to greet him, he helps her to escape by informing her of a place to stay. Ester escapes her husband and goes to this house that dwells one of the few Armenian families whose lives were spared because they are blacksmiths. The family takes her in, despite their constant worry of getting caught. Ester is forced to sleep in the moldy basement with vermin crawling all over her. Fearing the family would be ready to throw her out, she does not complain. Eventually, she is able to get to America after being given a third class passenger ticket and a false passport. But the insides of the steerage are no better. Larded with roaches and disease, people are crowded together and must suffer through the filth until they can arrive at Ellis Island. The book skips back and forth between Ahnert visiting her mother in a nursing home in 1998, and her mother’s experiences in 1915 through 1920. Ahnert also has a scene where she encounters a Turkish cab driver and fears to tell him that she is Armenian.
This book is one woman’s story—well two actually, and it provides a personal account of what happened during those years. Through Ester’s tale, readers will be given an introduction to the Armenian Genocide, and what those brutal times were like. Similar to that of the Jews, Ahnert speaks about the famous quote by Hitler in the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C., where he mentions that no one remembers what happened to the Armenians (implying that no one will remember what happened to the Jews either). The Knock at the Door is a memoir more in line with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, where both stories serve to personalize the history, as opposed to viewing it only as dates and numbers. Angela’s Ashes is the more artful of the two books, while The Knock at the Door is more straightforward in its spare narrative style. Worthy of your readership, it is a story that will certainly pique your interest in wanting to know more. And if Ester herself were alive to know that, indeed she would be pleased.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Van Der Galien Gazette.]
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