By Rachel Melikian
A Canadian woman, Wendy Elliott, became a graphic designer because she liked building things, and solving puzzles and mysteries in her childhood. She later became a design instructor in colleges in Ontario out of her love for education; she also had a love for history.
Elliott’s interest in history and puzzles took an intriguing turn when she came to possess a trunk full of papers, documents and letters from a mystery woman. It was no wonder that she delved into it for three and a half years to solve the mystery and put the puzzles together. She discovered that the trunk was over 100 years old and belonged to an American missionary woman to whom she was not related at all.
The trunk’s valuable materials spanned the years from 1909 (before the Armenian Genocide) to 1923. In 1909 the Adana massacre occurred in Cilician Armenia; 30,000 people were killed by the Turks which was the precursor of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923). Wendy knew nothing about this history, the value of the trunk, or the reason why the missionary woman had specifically asked following generations to preserve it.
Wendy discovered that the history of the trunk related to Talas City in western Armenia. Perhaps few people had heard about Talas, knew much about its history or researched it, but it has stayed alive, frozen in the missionary’s trunk. Researchers might have instead heard about the province of Caesaria where Talas lies, and the city of Marsovan in western Armenia, from the same period in history.
In an interview with Wendy Elliott, she explained to me that although the trunk belonged to an American missionary and the history was Armenian, what interested her more was that there were some Canadian missionaries involved. She was very much interested in Canadian history.
Wendy liked the attitude of the American missionary who originally owned the trunk. She discovered that this woman had rolled up her sleeves and fought for justice when the Armenian Genocide was happening.
“I want to know why I didn’t know about this history, why it was hidden and kept from me, why this history was not known,” Wendy said.
In 2019, Wendy Elliott wrote and published a book, Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, because she felt the history needed to be known. Elliott told the story of what happened during the Armenian Genocide in her book, focusing on the atrocities witnessed by the American missionaries, as well as their humanitarian efforts in Talas, Western Armenia.
Wendy was passionate about her research due to its relevance to the Armenian culture and the American and Canadian humanitarian efforts. “It was very difficult when I was doing the research to imagine what was happening at the time,” she said. “It was difficult not only for the victims and for the survivors but also for the people who were trying to help and were prevented from doing so.”
Wendy was impressed particularly by the missionary who possessed the trunk, who was generally very kind and gentle, and who believed that no matter who you are we are all children on this Earth, and have the same rights and privileges.
In Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, Elliott illustrates how the Turkish government was very violent and they had no qualms in using their weapons to kill people if they disobeyed their orders. Missionaries tried first to protect the Armenian children and then the women. The missionaries gave the women food and money. But the neighborhood residents (specifically Muslims) were not allowed by the government to help. Therefore, the missionaries turned to Greeks and other Christians to help Armenians who were being forcefully expelled from their hometown.
The missionaries hired Greek women to bake bread and to make shoes for Armenians. The missionaries were not allowed to accompany the Armenians. They informed the police about the situation but to no avail. Then they went to the mayor’s office and kept pestering him for three days. They pleaded and bargained and paid bribes. It took the missionaries a few more days of pestering for their strategy to work. A week later they were allowed access to the deported women and children to rescue them from dehydration and starvation. However, there were people so far gone that they could not be helped. This demonstrates that the persistence of the missionaries and how people in power can be swayed by appeals and persuasions.
There were also Canadian missionaries helping. Wendy related to the story both as a woman and a Canadian. Wendy is proud of the Canadian missionary efforts and identifies with them even while recognizing the greater contributions of the American missionaries. Solving the puzzle of the trunk touched many of her passions: history (Canadian history), solving puzzles and mysteries, women’s experiences, and more importantly the Armenian Genocide.
Wendy Elliott shares the details of her remarkable investigation in her book, which is available through her website, wendyelliott.ca.
Rachel Melikian is the former GCC Woman of the Year.
Click here to read about Aurora Mardiganian, another heroic female figure of the Armenian Genocide.