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Dr. George Rejebian

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Armenian Oral History Project
Interview with: Dr. George Rejebian
Interviewed by: Gregory Smaldone
Transcriber: Cordelia Jannetty
Date of interview: 2 May 2016
Interview Setting: Binghamton, NY
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(Start of Interview)
 
0:01
GS: This is Gregory Smaldone with the Binghamton University Special Collection’s Library on the Armenian Oral History Project. Can you please state your name for the record?
 
0:10
GR: Yeah, I am Dr. George Rejebian.
 
0:13
GS: Where were you born sir?
 
0:15
GR: Binghamton, New York.
 
0:16
GS: In what year?
 
0:17
GR: 1929.
 
0:19
GS: 1929. Okay, can you tell me the names of your parents?
 
0:23
GR: Yeah, my mother’s name was– you want the maiden name?
 
0:27
GS: Please.
 
0:28
GR: Yeah, Dikranouhi Zapabourian. Maybe I better spell that–
 
0:34
GS: Please.
 
0:35
GR: Z-a-p-a-b-o-u-r-i-a-n.
 
0:39
GS: Perfect.
 
0:40
GR: My father was Peter Arakil Rejebian.
 
0:43
GS: Okay, and were they born in America?
 
0:46
GR: No, my mother is from Sivas, Turkey, and my father is from Hadjin, Turkey.
 
0:52
GS: Okay, and when did they emigrate to America?
 
0:55
GR: My father emigrated here in 19 ̶, actually during the massacre time. It is 1916–1917–1918 during that period. He went to Cuba to marry my mother who was one of the orphans of the genocide that went from Sivas through Deir ez Zor and ended up in an orphanage in Beirut and then from there they went to–eventually went to Marcy and then to Cuba. And my father went to Cuba and married her, and brought her back and that was in 1927.
 
1:43
GS: Now, was that an arranged marriage or did they know each other?
 
1:45
GR: Arranged. I think 90 percent of them were at that time.
 
1:48
GS: That is what I am starting to realize the more I look into it. Okay, and I am assuming your parents both spoke Armenian?
 
1:55
GR: Yes, in fact I spoke Armenian, only Armenian until I went to kindergarten, until I was five.
 
2:03
GS: Okay, do you have any siblings?
 
2:06
GR: One sister.
 
2:08
GS: Older or younger?
 
2:09
GR: Younger.
 
2:10
GS: And was it the same for her she spoke Armenian growing up?
 
2:12
GR: No, no she was sort of mixed; Armenian-English but I was the oldest in the family and they spoke Armenian only in the household, you know.
 
2:24
GS: Did your– either of your parents attend high school or college?
 
2:29
GR: You know, again not in this country certainly. But in Turkey, I do not know there is no record. I would say my father probably went as far as high school. My mother probably graduated high school but that was in Turkey.
 
2:48
GS: Okay, what was your father’s profession?
 
2:52
GR: My father was a shoemaker.
 
2:58
GS: At the Johnson City Factory?
 
3:01
GR: That is the reason many of the Armenians came here to this area because the EJ, you know Endicott Johnson Shoe Factory and actually he would go to– He would actually go to the docks, as the immigrants came in and the slogan was you know, “Come to the triple cities and I will give you a fair deal.” And many of the immigrants, not only the Armenian immigrants but many of the, this was a very ethnic community way back and many of the– so there was a large Polish population, Russian, Slovak, you know all of these people that came to during that part that was how they were attracted to this area by the ̶
 
3:49
GS: Tell me more about that. Was your father sent by the Endicott Johnson Company to attract new immigrants?
 
3:57
GR: No, no he came, he actually came through Ellis Island and actually his name is on, there is a wall of the immigrants and he actually came through Ellis Island and I do not think that he came primarily here for Endicott Johnson because there were people from his home town, from Hajin, who he knew where in Binghamton and of course they normally when were they know people.
 
4:28
GS: But you said that your father would tell immigrants coming in–
 
4:30
GR: No, not my father.
 
4:32
GS: Not your father– the company
 
4:34
GR: This was George F Johnson, the founder, he would go to the– to where the immigrants, to Ellis Island when they came in from Ellis Island and to get them to come to this area, he would say come to the triple cities you know I will give you a fair deal. And if you go, if you have been through like Johnson City, there is a big Arch there. And it says home of the square deal. That was where it came from.
 
5:04
GS: Huh, so it is not FDR square deal it is George Johnson square deal–
 
5:09
GR: Yeah, yeah, that is right.
 
5:10
GS: That is interesting.
 
5:11
GR: That was where that originated.
 
5:12
GS: Okay. Thank you. So, your father worked at the shoe factory. Did your mother work?
 
5:20
GR: No, my mother did not work. It was very rare for the women to work. They normally–
 
5:26
GS: It was expected that they would stay at home?
 
5:27
GR: They stayed at home. They cooked very extensively. You know, they spent a lot of time in the kitchen and laundry. Of course in those days, you know, there was not washing machines and so everything was labor-intense.
 
5:44
GS: It took a lot more time.
 
5:45
GR: Yeah.
 
5:46
GS: So, did you attend the public elementary school or–
 
5:51
GR: I attended the public elementary school, yeah.
 
5:54
GS: Did you attend an Armenian language school, perhaps on the weekend?
 
5:59
GR: Armenian language school was provided by the church, but you know in this area was not that extensive.
 
6:10
GS: Would you say you got more of your education just from speaking Armenian at home?
 
6:14
GR: Well, that was the only language that we spoke until we were, you know, five or six.
 
6:20
GS: Growing up, would you say that there was a fairly large Armenian community that you were part of?
 
6:26
GR: There was actually in the– you will see that when you read that talk that I gave you. The area where the church is was so called the Armenian ghetto. It was 90 percent Armenians in that area. And that is why they wanted the church in that area. And so, yes, that area and then the first word which is you know Binghamton at all, Clinton Street, you know that area, that whole area was very heavily Armenian populated.
 
7:03
GS: So, you grew up in an area that was concentrated with Armenians?
 
7:07
GR: Yes.
 
7:08
GS: So would you say–
 
7:10
GR: They resembled, Thai neighbors, you know–
 
7:14
GS: Did you have– how frequently did you attend the church? How frequently were there church services?
 
7:18
GR: Well, when I was a young, originally they only could get a priest every three months. So, of course, whenever there was church we were, you know, our parents took us. I actually got my, a lot of my religious education in a Baptist Church because there was one close by and you know because we  did not have regular services, it was not like now where they have two Badaraks a month, you know. And they have the priest’s wife as teaches Armenian and all that but we did not have those benefits. So, you know we attended church whenever there was church and eventually they got a priest every month and then they get you know.
 
8:11
GS: When did you– how old where you know when the church services started getting more regular?
 
8:17
GR: Oh, I was probably a teenager.
 
8:20
GS: So, it was fairly quickly into your childhood that the community started establishing the church?
 
8:25
GR: Oh yeah. Well, the church was very active. It was still active even without a clergy man. I mean they had a Parish Council. That was sort of the glue that kept the Armenian community together, you know.
 
8:39
GS: What kinds of functions would the church community perform outside the church services?
 
8:44
GR: Well, they had dinners, they had you Hantes, where they–the kids would dance and sing and so forth and so on, you know.
 
8:58
GS: Okay, did you–
 
8:59
GR: Picnics.
 
9:00
GS: Picnics, did you socialize heavily with non-Armenian children that you went to school with? Or would you say–
 
9:09
GR: Not very much, I think my pretty much was concentrated with the Armenians in fact, I belonged to–the boy’s scout troop which I belonged to was 100 percent Armenian.
 
9:20
GS: Wow!
 
9:20
GR: [laughs].
 
9:21
GS: Okay.
 
9:22
GR: Our scout leader was not, but–
 
9:26
GS: Other than speaking Armenian and of course, attending the church, what were some ways in which your parents tried to make your household an Armenian household?
 
9:37
GR: Well, of course, they always talked about the– you know, you heard a lot about stories about the old country, the way they lived. They did not talk about the genocide that much but at times they would, I think later on, my mother spoke pretty extensively of the genocide you know, how her father was, actually was a teacher and he was one of the, you know they killed the intelligentsia first and so he was killed in front of her eyes, and they took her mother away and then her sisters and brother and her went on the death march, you know. And you heard these stories, so there was the culture of, there was no television but there was a weekly storytelling. You know, the family would all get together, we always ate dinner together at the table and of course there was a lot of discourse there but at least once a week the family would get together and you would hear stories, all the stories of– that your parents would tell about their parents and the relatives and so forth. And so ̶
 
11:05
GS: Did any of those stories stick with you?
 
11:08
GR: Pardon?
 
11:08
GS: Have any of those stories stuck with you?
 
11:10
GR: Well, you know my father’s parents were in the horse– they used to raise horses and so they had to be multi-lingual in many languages because they sold to Arabs, to Turks and so forth and so on, and then my uncle, my father’s, my father had eight brothers and one sister, and only three of them made it to this country. The rest were killed but the oldest brother was actually sentenced to hang and the reason for that was Hajin was one of the small towns in the mountains, Hajin; Zeytun those towns actually gave a lot of resistance to the Turks. They gave them a pretty hard time. And when the Turks actually invaded the city, there were a lot of Turks living in the city. You know, that worked for the Armenians and they did not know if those Turks were going to turn against them or not, so they drew lots and they decided who was going to kill those Turks, before the Turks from the outside came in. Apparently my uncle was one of those that drew the lot and, of course, because of that he was sentenced to hang. And the night before he was sentenced to hang he was rescued by his friends and taken to Adana which is a port city and put on a ship and then you know got to the United States that way. So this kind of story you know, very interesting stories [laughs].
 
13:16
GS: Okay, so you grew up in the community, you watched–
 
13:23
GR: But the childhood was very Arminian-motivated although I had you know as I went through school, I had many non-Armenian friends.
 
13:35
GS: So did you attend college after high school?
 
13:37
GR: Yes.
 
13:38
GS: Where did you go?
 
13:40
GR: Well this originally where you were here, well not in this location but it was originally Triple City’s College. They started a Triple City’s College and it was mainly to serve the residents of this area. They did not take too many from out of the area. And then it had some financial difficulties and Syracuse University took it over and became Triple City’s College of Syracuse University. And so you could attend here or you could take courses at, go up to Syracuse and take courses which some of us did you know like in the summers a biochemistry course or something you would take it to be a little bit a head next year.
 
14:27
GS: And you started Biology I am assuming?
 
14:28
GR: I was Biology major and Chemistry minor yeah. Okay, so then in– I am trying to think the year, in 1950, either (19)49 or (19)50 the state took it over. It became the state, part of the state university of New York system and so when we graduated, (19)51, that was the first BU [Binghamton University] degree that they gave. So we had the, they gave us the option they said that you could– senior year you could– in 1950 they said in senior year you could either go to Syracuse and do your senior year there and get a Syracuse degree which would mean of course a lot higher tuition, because the tuition here I think in those days and that money was like two hundred dollars a year ̶
 
15:23
GS: Oh my ̶
 
15:24
GR: Syracuse was maybe six hundred. So, most of us, you know, we did not have the money to go to Syracuse so we took our chances we stayed here in we got the BU degree.
 
15:36
GS: Okay.
 
15:38
GR: And from there, of course, I went to a dental school at Georgetown and again all of us who went to medical or dental school were accepted on probation if we could keep a B+ average our freshman year we could stay.
 
15:57
GS: Why are you accepted on probation?
 
16:00
GR: Because they– State University of New York, Binghamton University degree was an unknown. The admissions committee said look they have no track record, we do not know anything about you accept what the school is telling us, so we do not know if you going to stack up to the kids that are coming from Colgate, Harvard or wherever, you know. So, they took us on probation and I would say that, I would say 100 percent of us stayed. I mean, I do not think that any of us had difficulty because in those days the classes here were like eight or ten students. It was more of a seminar than a classroom. You got to know the professor, it was one on one, you were tutored, you know, you were helped and so that was why I went to Georgetown and then after Georgetown I went on to the Navy I served five, six years as a dental officer three of those aboard ship in the Mediterranean and then my wife and I were married in 1957.
 
17:16
GS: Now tell me about your wife. Did she grow up in Binghamton as well?
 
17:19
GR: No, no my wife grew up in the Bronx.
 
17:21
GS: Okay, for the record your wife is Mary Rejebian, correct?
 
17:25
GR: Yeah.
 
17:26
GS: What was her maiden name?
 
17:29
GR: Ekizian–E-K-I-Z-I-A-N– she grew up in the Bronx, graduate, went to Hunter College.
 
17:35
GS: How did you meet her?
 
17:37
GR: Well that is a very involved story. I was in Washington, my junior, my junior, and senior year at Georgetown. Our dean was a retired admiral in the navy. And we had a navy program that you could, it was a little more than a reserve program, you know, and the idea was if you were in this program the summers you usually worked it but that is in Quantico or one of those places you know because then you went on active duty those three months but ̶  so my wife’s brother was also stationed in Washington in the navy but it did not have anything to do with dental school but I met him at the church and so, we got to know each other very well and the church organist had a Christmas party and that was actually where I met him in the Christmas party. We got to be friends so he said one weekend he said let us go up and I will show you New York, you know, and so we went to New York and he wanted to go home and wash up and clean up and that was when I met her and met the little sister and so that was how I met her, it was a very roundabout way ̶
 
19:18
GS: Yeah, it is interesting story thank you for sharing. Now, Mary is Armenian correct?
 
19:24
GR: Marianne is Armenian, yeah, both sides.
 
19:28
GS: Was there pressure from your parents for you to marry an Armenian?
 
19:31
GR: Never.
 
19:32
GS: Never?
 
19:33
GR: In fact Marianne was probably the second Armenian girl that I ever dated. All through high– I mean in high school– and all through college, you have to understand that in the community like this the Armenian girls were more your sister. I mean you did not look at them in any other way. So, it was kind of hard to date an Armenian girl you know–
 
20:02
GS: Because all the Armenian girls you knew–
 
20:04
GR: Yeah the Armenian girls were, you kind of you knew them through the church, you saw them every week at the picnics and so forth and so on, so there really was not any, any romantic attraction at all. It was strictly you know–
 
20:18
GS: Would you say that was just the way you felt or was that typical?
 
20:24
GR: I do not think my, well, it was not my father, my mother, because her parents where pretty highly educated was more liberal than my father. My father I would say was more conservative, you know strict Armenian. He would tell me, you know, not only marry an Armenian but marry an Armenian whose parents came from his home town from Hajin, [laughs] I mean really–
 
20:54
GS: So for him it was not even just about keeping the Armenian community stable it was about keeping–transplanting his own community back?
 
21:02
GR: Yeah, but there was never like an edict that said you have to marry an Armenian or–
 
21:11
GS: Or else.
 
21:12
GR: Yeah. There was nothing like that. It just worked, it worked out that way. But you knew that if you did, that they would be happier. It would please them.
 
21:22
GS: Yeah. Okay, so– when– after college and after serving in the Navy, you came back to Binghamton ̶
 
21:27
GR: No, no. Yes. After–while I was in the navy, actually I was with the sixth fleet for the two years aboard ship and then went to, well actually, when I went into the Navy we were not married. I went in 1955. When I graduated from Georgetown and then we went to the Mediterranean, and we came back and on that trip is when we were married. I knew–I had met her when I was only a junior in dental school so we knew each other for three or four years. But we got married then in 1957 and then she followed the ship when we went over there and met me in all the ports. So we really the navy gave us like a six month honeymoon you know, but then we went to New London to the submarine base. And I was attached to the USS Gate which was a second atomic sub, and we had our– at that time– that was when I decided I wanted to get– to take a residency in orthodontics where ended up so, so while we were there, I applied to Columbia and was fortunate in getting accepted so that was when we left the Navy after we left the submarine base and then we went back the Bronx. [laughs]
 
23:02
GS: Okay, so that you can attend Columbia–
 
23:05
GR: We lived around the corner from her mother and I attended Columbia it was a two-year program–two-year residency.
 
23:09
GS: Okay, after that, you moved back to Binghamton?
 
23:13
GR: Yeah, we, we looked at Connecticut and all kinds of places and eventually we moved back to Binghamton, yes.
 
23:20
GS: Okay.
 
23:21
GR: And we moved back in Binghamton in 1961.
 
23:24
GS: So, 1961 you were back. How had the Armenian community changed since when you left for dental school?
 
23:31
GR: Well, in 1961, I do not think it had changed that much. I think that it was still very coherent; the church was certainly more active. We had full-time priest for many many years. You know regular clergy and so forth. So I think it was probably as cohesive as when I was a kid, you know.
 
23:58
GS: But the church had become stronger as an institution?
 
24:02
GR: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
 
24:03
GS: So, did you and your wife have children?
 
24:07
GR: Yes, we have two children; a boy, Gary and Vivian the daughter.
 
24:15
GS: Okay and how old–what years were they born?
 
24:18
GR: Gary was born in 1959, and then Vivian was born in 1961.
 
24:28
GS: Okay, did you speak Armenian to them when they were growing up?
 
24:33
GR: Well, sort a half and half [laughs]. They– now Gary learned Armenian because he spoke to my father a lot and to Marianne’s mother.
 
24:45
GS: What about Vivian?
 
24:47
GR: Vivian understands Armenian but you know ̶
 
24:51
GS: Does not speak it ̶
 
24:52
GR: I would not say that she is fluent in it.
 
24:54
GS: Did you have them attend Armenian language school?
 
24:57
GR: No, no. We did not have it in this community. We really did not have and Armenian language school. Now, Gary when he went to Hamilton had a professor at Hamilton who– an Armenian professor–who gave him I think gave him at that time, there were not DVDs but there were tapes or whatever, but any way Gary learned a lot of Armenian while he was at Hamilton. This professor sort of tutored him. So, Gary is– can read and write Armenian and he is very– I mean and his children are very prolific, speak Armenian beautifully, they are both–
 
25:43
GS: He told me that they went– they attended the Armenian language school.
 
25:45
GR: They are both acolytes in the church and so forth.
 
25:47
GS: Now, was it important to you when you first you had your children that they grow up speaking Armenian or that they learn to speak Armenian?
 
25:58
GR: No, I do not think so because we did not speak Armenian all the time at that point, you know?
 
26:04
GS: But you definitely wanted them to have an Armenian identity?
 
26:07
GR: I wanted to have an identity and to have an appreciation for their culture and their heritage.
 
26:16
GS: So, obviously they attended the church services weekly.
 
26:20
GR: The church and both of them incidentally married Armenians, Gary and Vivian, but not through any–
 
26:29
GS: –Pressure from you.
 
26:30
GR: Pressure– Oh, no, not from us certainly. Because we were born in this country and we were very much American.
 
26:37
GS: Did they attend Sunday school?
 
26:40
GR: Yes, oh, yes, in fact my wife was the youth group director of the church for like twenty years and do you know father Daniel Findikyan?
 
26:54
GS: I do not.
 
26:56
GR: He is a high surb you know and he is at the– he is at the– not at the Diocese but at the other, they have a center there. Well any way. He was one of the students. He was in my wife’s youth group. So he came from this Parish and I was Parish Council Chairman I think for ten years. You know very in– we were both very involved in the church we still are– my wife and I you know.
 
27:31
GS: Okay, so I guess we can move on a little bit too some more conceptual questions. First of all how would you identify yourself?
 
27:43
GR: As an American-Armenian, an American of Armenian heritage.
 
27:48
GS: Okay, what are your views on the Armenian diaspora both, firstly in the historical sense? Do you think is solely a product of the Armenian genocide and do you think that was supposed to be temporary state or do you think that emigration was part of the Armenian experience and that ̶
 
28:05
GR: Oh, no I think the genocide was very, very– I mean they had to leave, they had to go somewhere. And you know the Armenians have– there has been– there was immigration to China, to the orient– all over the world. It was not just the United States.
 
28:32
GS: Do you think that there is a single Armenian diaspora of all Armenians living outside of main land Armenian?
 
28:38
GR: Oh, no, very diversified. And only because I travelled a lot, I always made it a point to go to seek out the Armenian Church in the community in all the countries that I went to. And we went to all the countries in the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy to Spain to France, in every one of them even in Italy and Milan there is an Armenian church there. And so–but they are very different, and then my mother had relatives in Cuba that we visited and they were very much into that, not in– yeah, and they were– I am sorry– she had relatives in Mexico, actually we honeymooned in Cuba, but they were very much into the Mexican culture you know.
 
29:37
GS: So, assimilation was part of the experience?
 
29:40
GR: Oh, yes.
 
29:41
GS: What– were there any consistencies, though, in the different communities?
 
29:45
GR: Yes, there was always a love for the church, the food, the culture. You could always rely on that, I mean no matter where you met Armenians and because I spoke Armenian I had a big edge, you know I went to the Armenian Church in Marcy and in Paris in London, all the different churches and as soon as you spoke Armenian, you had a common bond. And although they were each– they were loyal to the country they were living in–there was a very, very strong bond to the church and the culture, I mean you did not feel like you were another country, yes.
 
30:33
GS: Going back to the Binghamton-Armenian community, where do you see it going? Do you think it is stronger than it was when you were growing up?
 
30:43
GR: Oh, definitely not, definitely not. It has become diluted you know; the grandchildren certainly do not have any of the– I mean I feel my grandchildren probably are very Armenian for their generation but not anywhere near what we were. You know? And of course the other thing is the mix-marriages.
 
31:12
GS: So, even though you did not want to put any pressure on your children to marry Armenians, the fact that people marrying non-Armenians tends to dilute the community?
 
31:22
GR: Oh, sure, sure I mean it is the assimilation process.
 
31:27
GS: What do you think is the most important thing the community needs to do to maintain its Armenian identity?
 
31:33
GR: I think the church is really the–the glue, really. In any community you always see, all the cities even in the United States like Baton Rouge has, you know, all cities like that you would never expect have very strong Armenian Churches. You know and where there is a church the people who have stayed to the church–close to the church have kept their identity. But the ones who haven’t have pretty much drifted off.
 
32:14
GS: Okay, well that is about all the questions I had, George thank you very much for your time.
 
32:17
GR: Sure. I hope, I think you are–
 
(End of Interview)

Date of Interview

5/2/2016

Interviewer

Gregory Smaldone

Interviewee

Dr. George Rejebian

Biographical Text

Dr. Rejebian was born in Binghamton to Armenian parents. He first attended Triple City's College of Syracuse University (now Binghamton University) majoring in Biology. He then graduated from dental school at Georgetown University. After graduation, he served for six years as a dental officer in the Navy. George currently resides in Binghamton with his wife, Marion. Together, they have two children, Gary and Vivian.

Duration

32:19

Language

English

Digital Publisher

Binghamton University

Interview Format

Audio

Rights Statement

This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as Armenian Oral History Project, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries for more information.

Keywords

Turkey; Endicott Johnson Shoe Factory; Ellis Island; gender roles; Armenian language school; church; genocide; Navy; identity; diaspora; assimilation

Files

Citation

“Dr. George Rejebian,” Digital Collections, accessed July 6, 2022, https://omeka.binghamton.edu/omeka/items/show/608.