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“The Titanic Was Also A Vessel of Hope”: David Vartanian

"The Titanic Was Also a Vessel of Hope": David Vartanian

David Vartanian (who Armenian name was Davit) was 21 years old when his family implored him to leave them—and his new wife—behind in Armenia.

He had just married his sweetheart, Mary, in 1911.

David was a Christian, and the Armenian populace was suffering more each day, persecuted and abused by the hand of the Ottoman Empire. Additionally, there was a rumor that the Turks were beginning to draft able-bodied young men from the villages, sending them to the front lines without any weapons.

So local families collaborated to save their sons.

David Vartarian’s salvation was the kindness of his Turkish neighbors, who gave David their dead son’s papers, so that he would be permitted to leave the country.

And so David banded together with four other young men from the village. They set their course on foot for a seven-day trek to the Black Sea, where they then sailed for Marseilles, France.

Once there, the group purchased steerage tickets on the RMS Titanic. They would leave from Cherbourg.

David’s compatriot Neshan Krekorian described the steerage accommodations as snug, but comfortable.

Both David and Neshan were among those who insisted that steerage passengers were barricaded below decks. The reasoning, however, is rarely cited to be anything more than fact, although malice is often implied: Third-Class passengers were not permitted under any circumstance to enter other parts of the ship belonging to First- and Second-Class. Certain areas were always locked or closed off to prevent any wandering.

Neshan Krekorian attested to breaking a chain on a door. David said they had to break down the gates.

David Vartanian made it to the boat deck in the end and soon thereafter found himself with no other option than to jump from Titanic.

And so David watched Titanic sink.

It was his 22nd birthday.

Before leaving Armenia, David reportedly had taught himself to swim in a nearby creek; he would maintain that this incidental choice saved his life that night in the Atlantic.

David Vartanian always maintained that he swam for the nearest lifeboat, but when he reached it, the occupants within slapped and pounded at his hands to make him let go. They were terrified, he believed, that he would capsize the boat while attempting to climb in. 

David did not speak English at the time. He did not understand.

He back away, but had to swim back. When those in the lifeboat saw that David was only attempting to hold on, and not crawl in, they let him alone. He shortly fell into unconsciousness, and they hauled him into the boat.

This is sometimes speculated to have been Collapsible A, which was partially submerged.

David’s family have since been told that sometime after David had been pulled aboard unconscious, that the lifeboat went under. David swam to another, it is said, where he entered without any hesitation from the passengers in the boat.

In the end, there is no conclusive evidence to be had about which version of events is true. We only know for certain that he was somehow saved from the water.

David Vartarian and Neshan Krekorian were the only survivors of the five in their party. 

Upon reaching New York, the two men were hospitalized. According to David’s grandson, "The lower half of my grandfather’s body had a bluish tint from being in the frigid water for so long, and remained that way.”

While he and Neshan were convalescing, a reporter visited at the hospital with a translator in tow. At some point during the interview, this journalist informed David that he was one of two survivors with the same first name. When asked which he preferred, he replied, “Titanic David.”

He went by “Titanic David” for all the rest of his life.

But David’s saga had not concluded in his survival.

David eventually left Canada for Toledo, Ohio. By 1915, he had heard that the village he had left behind had been decimated in the ongoing invasion by the Ottoman Empire.

He was led to believe that his beloved wife, Mary, was dead--inevitably killed in the genocide of the Armenian people.

In 1915, Mary’s brothers had miraculously found their ways to America and had set up in Pennsylvania. David met up with them to begin a campaign to track down his dear Mary. 

Dead or alive, he had to find her.

David proceeded to write to relatives, churches and convents, orphanages, newspapers, and anyone or anything else  that occurred to him.

And six years after he left Armenia, David Vartanian found Mary alive. 

Mary had fled her village in the genocide, but had returned to live with her sister.

She herself, having heard of the disaster and nothing more, had believed that David had been killed in the sinking of the Titanic.

According to the Vartanian family, David sent Mary money for the journey for nearly five years. Their daughter Rose revealed that money in Armenia was gold coin, so Mary kept each coin on a necklace. 

One day, Mary would reunite with her husband in America. Because she was not a legal citizen, she would travel to Canada first, and then cross the border.

Immediately before Mary left Armenia for her passage to Canada, her family convinced her to leave the necklace behind because, as Rose Vartanian repeated decades on, “where you are going, the streets are paved with gold.”

Their great-granddaughter Melissa has mused on the significance of the Titanic not just from the vantage of trauma, but also of promise.

While I do agree that the sinking led to great loss and devastation, the Titanic was also a vessel of hope to so many that were fleeing persecution, or searching a better life.

Upon her arrival in Canada, Mary Vartanian was met by an Armenian friend of her husband’s. He escorted her to the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls.

According to her great-granddaughter, “They told [Mary] to walk across the bridge, to keep a good pace, and not look back, because she was obviously entering the country illegally at the time.”

And at the other end of Rainbow Bridge, waiting for his lost bride, was David Vartanian.

They had not seen each other for ten years.

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