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Ruthann Turekian Drewitz

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Armenian Oral History Project
Interview with: Ruthann Turekian Drewitz
Interviewed by: Gregory Smaldone
Transcriber: Cordelia Jannetty
Date of interview: 29 March 2016
Interview Settings: Phone interview
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(Start of Interview)

0:02
GS: Okay, here we go. This is Gregory Smaldone with the Binghamton University Special Collection’s library, working on the Armenian Oral History Project. Can you please state your name for the record?

0:17
RD: I am Ruthann Turekian Drewitz.

0:26
GS: Okay, when and where were you born?

0:30
RD: I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1956.

0:35
GS: Can you tell us a little bit about your parents?

0:39
RD: My father was born in Urfa, Turkey; historic Armenia. He came here. Well, he was born in 1917 and he– the details on his trip over is little fuzzy but his family had escaped and came through actually Cuba, and to this country. He had– let us see, one, two, three, three brothers and three sisters. So it was a large family, and his mother was the one that brought them over. His father had stayed to wrap up business and unfortunately he stayed too long and he was killed. But his mother actually was able to get all of the children out of the country and to the United States.

1:37
GS: Okay, and what about your mother?

1:38
RD: My mother was born in Hoboken, New Jersey but her mother, her father had actually come to this country before the genocide started. Her mother came from a town right outside of Arapgir. My grandfather was born in Kharput, but he came here. My grandmother was born in a little town outside of Arapgir, she was called, it was [inaudible] she was [inaudible]. She came from a fairly well-to-do family. I had gotten a story from her she told me. She grew up her family owned orchards and they had a nice house and then when the, the trouble started she told me she was taken into a Turkish household, a neighbor I think to help hide her. And she was a servant in their house. For I think about five years. And then, there was a decree that had come down that anybody harboring Armenians would also be killed. So she had to leave and she told me stories about how she was on the rooftop since she was looking down into the village square, she saw the, I guess the head Gendarme or something. So she was like running over rooftops to escape. Somehow, she and her brother had made it down to Aleppo, Syria. The details on the trip you know from where she was you know to down Aleppo I did not get. I do not know, I mean I could only imagine but she made it to Aleppo. She and her sister were also there together and they met a woman who turned out to eventually be their mother-in-law because she had her two sons here in America and she wanted to match up the two sisters with her two sons. So, they somehow arranged for them to, they got a boat to Marseilles and then from Marseilles they came on a ship and came to Ellis Island. And the two sisters married the two brothers that were here. Those, my grandmother and my grandfather, my mother’s parents and my great aunt and uncle and that is briefly the story that I have been told you know by my grandmother when she was alive she passed it down to me.

4:37
GS: Okay, did both of your parents speak Armenian?

4:41
RD: My father certainly spoke Armenian, my mother before she went to kindergarten only spoke Armenian but then when she went to school, you know they spoke English that she had assimilated. She spoke Armenian but not very well. It was not like ̶ She mostly spoke English. And our Armenian I have to say because my grandmother was spent those years in a Turkish household and was forced to speak Turkish. The Armenian that we were brought up with was a mixture of Armenian, Turkish and English. Like, I have a funny story like my grandmother you know I asked her sometime certain words in Armenian like grandma how do you say this and that and one day I said grandma how do you say like cheap like cheap person, she says she thought about she goes: a stingy, [laughs] and I am like grandma–How I am going to learn Armenian but that is the way it was and then they came here and they had to learn English. And they wanted to fit in so, but my mother did know Armenian.

5:52
GS: Did you learn Armenian as a child or that like Turkish-Armenian-English mix you just mentioned?

5:58
RD: I did start out going to Armenian school but I did not finish. I only went for a couple of years. I understand most when people speak in my presence. I understand it but I do not have the ability to always come up with the vocabulary to answer them but I do have an understanding. And if I have to make myself understood I can.

6:23
GS: Okay, do you have any siblings?

6:25
RD: I have a brother who is a year older than me.

6:28
GS: Did he speak more or less or about the same Armenian as you do?

6:33
RD: Less.

6:34
GS: Less? Okay, and did you say he is a year older than you?

6:38
RD: Yes.

6:38
GS: Why do you think it is ended up spoke a little more Armenian than him?
6:43
RD: I am more active at the church, I have been a member of the Church Choir for four over forty years. I am currently Choir Director. I am also a singer who sung many pieces in the Armenian you know song repertoire. So I have a familiarity more with the language, and I have been surrounded by it more.

7:09
GS: Okay, can you tell us a little bit about your childhood. Let us start with the household, what were the roles that each of your parents played as you were growing up?

7:22
RD: Well my father was very, very involved with the church. He was on Parish Council for most of the decade of the sixties. So he, many nights he was not home, he was at the church at meetings but um we and my grandmother actually after my grandfather past away in 1965 she moved in with us. So we had her presence there in the household which is another reason why you know I was able to get her story and really find out you know all these things about her at her experiences, um we had big family get-togethers, you know the big Armenian family. What else would you like to know?

8:16
GS: Who would you say was your main kinship group growing up? Would you say that you mostly hang out with Armenians, with non-Armenians?

8:25
RD: Both, I mean it was equal. I was involved with the youth group at church at the ACYOA and but I also had a lot of my as we say Odas friends, in fact, your parents and I all went to college together and I would have parties and I would have the Armenians and the Odas. And you know, the Armenians would be one floor of my house and the Odas will be at the other floor of the house. But I was had equal kinship with both sets of friends.

9:00
GS: But they were separate groups of friends, they did not tend to intermix–for those parties correct?

9:05
RD: Correct.

9:06
GS: Okay, where would you say growing up was the main social space of your Armenian community?

9:14
RD: Oh, for sure the church.

9:17
GS: For sure the church? Can you tell us a little bit about your experience going to church growing up?

9:21
RD: Oh, well again, because my father was so involved from a very young age we would be like the first people at church in the morning. We would get there early because he was one of the Parish Council people who had to get everything set up. So my brother and I would– had the task of getting the mass all already and put in the bags for that Sunday. Then we go to Sunday school. We were there every Sunday and then I went through Sunday school and graduated Sunday school and then I assistant taught Sunday school, the year after I graduated and the I decided no, I, the choir is going to be for me instead of teaching in the Sunday school. The choir was where I felt I was best suited. So again, I was there for forty years and I have been involved right from, you know, early childhood, right up until present day.

10:21
GS: Okay, what were some Armenian traditions that your parents tried to maintain in the household?

10:30
RD: I remember, my grandmother she always had her incense she burnt her home. she had a specific ritual that she would do with that every week, you know, with the burning the incense and saying her prayers and it was a weekly event. We had the same with a little bit of various holidays. You know, we have gathered the family together, of course as any Armenian household, the food plays, you know, a very important role of you know, I mean well we all have our traditional foods and ̶

11:11
GS: Can you describe some of those please?

11:13
RD: The food?

11:14
GS: Yeah,

11:15
RD: Oh, well, let us see; yalancı dolma, börek, çörek, şiş kebab, pilav for sure. Pilav is like you have to know how to make pilaf if you are Armenian, and in fact my daughter now is at the University of Buffalo. I gave her a pot and I gave her rice and the noodles and I gave her the Pilaf recipe because she wants to make pilav up there. And she cooked pilaf for her dorm-mates a few times [laughs] so, but there is a lot of love that goes to the preparation involve the Armenian food.

11:51
GS: Okay, what was the Armenian community as a whole like for you growing up? Are there any stories that you think representative for how the community stuck together?

12:03
RD: Well, I mean we all have this shared history. I mean in our church there are people from many different backgrounds, we are all Armenian but we do not all have the same background and but we have this shared history that brings us together. Our church services as our Christian home it also serves as our cultural center where we have been, you know, we have learnt about our heritage. So, it does not you know there are people who are born in America, who people who have come from Lebanon, there are people who have come from Istanbul. We all come from different places and different circumstances but we all have that in common and we all get together at the church and share that commonality.

13:01
GS: So, outside of the church would you say that there was a separation between American born Armenians and recently emigrated Armenians?

13:12
RD: See, I have never really experienced that. There are certainly, you know, some have that thinking of you know, that is them this is us, you know, to me we are all one and I feel that how we should you know, we are short-changing ourselves if we think that way. We need to realize that, we need to all stick together and be one and be united.

13:52
GS: Okay, thank you. Moving on to a little bit of your– well first of all, when you left home, what was the highest level of education you achieved and what was your main occupation as an adult?

14:04
RD: Okay, I have a Master’s of Music from Manhattan’s School of Music and Voice.

14:10
GS: Okay, and what was your main occupation?

14:13
RD: I was an opera singer.

14:15
GS: You were an opera singer, okay. Do you have children and did you marry?

14:20
RD: Yes, I have been married; this year will be thirty years. I have two children. I have a son who is going to be twenty two on Sunday and my daughter is going to be twenty in June.

14:32
GS: Is your husband Armenian?

14:34
RD: No, he is not.

14:36
GS: Was it important to you to marry an Armenian when you were growing up?

14:39
RD: You know, my mother was not one of these parents who you know like said, oh, you have to marry–first of all I lost my father when I was fourteen. So, my mother kind of raised us, my brother was fifteen, I was fourteen when my father passed away. So, we were mostly raised by my mother from that time on. She was not a stickler you know for us marrying Armenian; you know it was more important that the person be a good person. So, you know I went to all the different social events and dances and what not but it never really worked out that way and it was not something that was really stressed in my household.

15:22
GS: What about for you personally? Was it something that you aspired to but it was not a deal-breaker or was it–?

15:29
RD: No, it was not a deal-breaker at all. Obviously I married somebody who was not Armenian. I mean obviously if I had met the right person that is an extra level of you know of something extra that can join you together but more important to me that it be somebody who is a good person, a compatible person, um, you know, the fact that they were Armenian, not Armenian to me was not, it was not a deal-breaker.

16:09
GS: Okay, going back to your children, when you were raising them, was it important to you that they spoke or learned Armenian?

16:16
RD: They do not speak Armenian but I did have them raised in the Armenian Church and they did both graduate from Sunday school in the Armenian Church. So they did learn about our church and about our heritage.

16:34
GS: Okay, and where did you raise your children?

16:37
RD: I live, we live out at East Northport in New York.

16:40
GS: Okay, and so they ̶ which church did they attend?

16:44
RD: Armenian Church of the Holy Martyrs.

16:47
GS: In Bayside, Queens?

16:48
RD: Yes.

16:48
GS: Okay, and they all attended for the full twelve years at the Sunday school?

16:53
RD: Yes.

16:53
GS: Okay, what other types of Armenian traditions did you try and pass on to your children and maintain in your household?

17:02
RD: Well, they of course enjoy the Armenian food, and when they come back from college, it is the first thing they want [laughs], and they ̶ well they have certainly been exposed to Armenian Music from time to time whether it is me singing it or listening to something. They do not speak Armenian and now years later, now my daughter is telling me oh, you should’ve taken me to Armenian school. So ̶

17:43
GS: What do your children identify as?

17:47
RD: I think they identify more with their Armenian half. There other half is German, but they seem to identify more with their Armenian half because that was how they were raised. They were raised in the Armenian community.

18:03
GS: What would you identify yourself as?

18:10
RD: I am an Armenian-American I guess. I am American first.

18:12
GS: You are an American first?

18:14
RD: It is an Armenian heritage.

18:15
GS: Would you say that that was typical in your community growing up that people would identify as an Americans first and Armenians in the second?

18:24
RD: The ones that are born here, yes.

18:27
GS: The ones that are born here ̶ but you think it is not so much the case for the recently emigrated Armenians?

18:34
RD: Yeah. I mean I would think because if they are not born here and they are not American, they are not going to ̶ I do not think they would probably think of themselves you know first as Armenian and from wherever where they have come from.

18:51
GS: Okay.

18:51
RD: But it is the Armenian that holds us together.

18:54
GS: What are your thoughts on the Armenian diaspora in America? Do you think that it a temporary entity or something that is here to stay? Do you think it is an unfortunate accident of history or something that you know, what are your thoughts on it?

19:08
RD: Well I mean it was unavoidable that, I mean, we got scattered you to all four corners. I have cousins in Aleppo, Syria and in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Perth, Australia because you know they were escaping the killings of…they ended up you know all different places around the world. It is important ̶ I find that I feel like we are losing some of our Armenian youth as each generation goes, we are losing them to, you know, assimilating into just American culture and not being as involved in the Armenian Church or the Armenian activities. I do not know what the answer to that is. It is ̶ I see it now as Choir director at Holy Martyr’s. We have a choir that is very advanced in age and we need to get some young people in there. When I say I am one of the youngest that is not a good thing [laughs]. We have a couple of young people that come every so often, but it is difficult because a lot of them when they graduate Sunday school they go away to college and when they go away, a lot of times they do not come back. So we are losing them that way ̶

20:52
GS: What role do you see Armenian organizations are playing in maintaining the cohesiveness of the American diaspora?

21:05
RD: You mean like organizations like AGBU and Armenian Students Associations, ACYOA and thing like that?

21:19
GS: Yes, exactly those organizations.

21:25
RD: Well, certainly you know there are events and activities and ongoing cultural events, lectures, educational events whether the youth partake in it, I do not know, I do not know, you know, how many do. There are certainly offerings out there–

21:52
GS: Okay, you said that growing up your father died when you were fairly young, so you and your brother raised mostly by your mother, how do you think this affected your relationship to the traditional gender roles in society?

22:19
RD: Just clarify it again what do you mean by that.

22:21
GS: What would you say your– how do you view traditional gender roles in society today and how do you–?

22:28
RD: Well, I mean my mother– I witnessed a woman who showed incredible strength. She hadn’t worked all those years and about six months prior to my father passing away, and it was a sudden death. He was not ill; it was a massive heart attack, so it was not expected. She had just gone back to work part-time. Like I said, I was fourteen, my brother was fifteen and then he passed away and this woman who you know, she did not drive a car. She had to learn how to drive a car. She had to learn how to run a household. She had to go out and get a full-time job. I mean it showed me what a strong woman can do when she has to do it. And I mean I had unbelievable respect for what she did and I have seen other you know women in similar circumstances. So, I mean– it– I certainly think that she did everything for us and gave us everything that you know, had we had a two-parent-household, you know I did not feel like I was lacking, I mean obviously I was missing my father but she picked up the rains and was able to you know–

23:59
GS: –Keep going. Okay, well thank you very much for your time, very much appreciate it.

24:04
RD: Well, happy to help you and good luck with your project.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview

3/29/2016

Interviewer

Gregory Smaldone

Interviewee

Ruthann Turekian Drewitz

Biographical Text

Ruthann is an active member of church; she has been a member of her Church Choir for over four decades and has earned her position as choir director. She has a Masters of Music from the Manhattan School of Music and Voice and was an opera singer by profession. Ruthann is a mother of two children; one son and one daughter.

Duration

24:07

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; Armenia; genocide; church; parish council; choir; traditions; food; language; Sunday school; ACYOA; AGBU; gender roles

Files

Citation

“Ruthann Turekian Drewitz,” Digital Collections, accessed February 7, 2023, https://omeka.binghamton.edu/omeka/items/show/619.