By Jennifer Delgado — Tribune reporter
Helen Paloian started her life without a home.
Orphaned as a young child in Armenia, Paloian — then Helen Kherdian — wandered the streets, begging for food and shelter. She witnessed Ottoman Turk soldiers raid her village and deport the locals, just before mass killings that many historians call the Armenian genocide began in 1915, her relatives said.
During those killings, she briefly found refuge in an Armenian church but fled when she learned Turkish soldiers planned to burn it. She later moved into an orphanage that relocated several times across the Middle East until a cousin found her and brought her to Racine, Wis., in the mid-1920s.
On Sunday, a white-haired Paloian sat smiling, surrounded by family in the place that has become her home — St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church on the city’s Northwest Side, which honored the 107-year-old, believed to be one of the tragedy’s last survivors, for her strength, perseverance and faith in God.
“It’s amazing. It’s as if the more bad things that have happened to her in 107 years, the stronger her faith is,” the Rev. Aren Jebejian told church members during a morning service. “By living today, she is an example to all of us.”
Almost a century ago, the Ottoman Turks killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians as their empire dissolved during World War I. Many historians have called the period a genocide, but Turkey disagrees and has never formally apologized, said Richard Hovannisian, a professor emeritus at UCLA who held the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Armenian History.
Born in 1906, according to relatives, Paloian does not remember how her parents died. During the slaughter,
two of Paloian’s two older brothers were exiled and a third brother left for the U.S. Later on, she briefly reunited with the third brother but never heard from the other two again, relatives said.
Left on her own, Paloian lived on the streets until she was rescued by a woman from an orphanage, where she stayed until the end of World War I. After the war ended, the orphanage moved to other countries, like Syria and Lebanon. Paloian followed.
By chance, an American cousin of Paloian’s named Jacob Hardy found out she was living in Greece as he was recovering at an American hospital after he served during World War I. Visiting relatives had brought him an Armenian newspaper that listed orphans living in that country, including one he believed was his long-lost cousin.
That suspicion was enough for him to travel to Greece to bring her back to the U.S. with him. The pair traveled as far as Cuba before a Chicagoan originally from Armenia agreed to travel to Havana to wed Paloian, mainly to ease her entry into the U.S.
The two wedded in February 1926 in a civil ceremony in Havana. Once in the U.S., Paloian and her husband,
Zadig, decided to stay together and eventually had four children.
To this day, Paloian talks about her love of America and how God has taken care of her despite the hardships, said her granddaughter, Marianne Ajemian. Paloian lives on the top floor of a two-flat with a caregiver in the Montclare neighborhood, just above her son and daughter-in-law.
“She was obviously very blessed … with a strong mind and spirit,” said Ajemian, when asked what has made Paloian live this long. “She loved life and she loved helping people … and I don’t think she ever wanted to say goodbye.”
At the service, Paloian wore a gentle smile as she sat in the pews, sometimes craning her neck to get a better view of the rituals performed at the altar. She clutched a cane inside the church, which was filled with the smell of incense and illuminated by small chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
Afterward, relatives helped her walk down the stairs to a special luncheon, where children gave her a red rose corsage.
“She had the worst life and God saw fit for her to live the longest. That’s what impresses me,” said her nephew, Chuck Hardy, who sat next to Paloian during the meal. “God works in a mysterious ways.”
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